Dr. Strangelove as a Political Satire

Above is a clip from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb “The Big Board” [6]

In his brilliant black comedy, Stanley Kubrick portrays the weird logic of deterrence theory, the paranoia of the Cold War, and the nuclear jitters of the early 1960’s. The premise of the movie is that General Jack D. Ripper, who is in charge of a Strategic Air Command unit at Burpelson Air Force Base, launches an unauthorized nuclear attack on Russia. Under the guidelines of Wing Attack Plan R, designed as a defender in the event that Washington was obliterated, only General Ripper had the code necessary to recall the planes. One of the greatest quotes of the film comes from Gen. Turgidson, who upon explaining the benefit of bombing the USSR, says to President Muffley, “Mr. President, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10-20 million killed, tops! Depending on the breaks” The general warns that if the United States does not go all out, the Soviets will counterattack with their nuclear weapons. The choice, he exclaims, is “between two admittedly regrettable but nevertheless distinguishable postwar environments – one where you get 20 million people killed and the other where you get 150 million people killed!”[1] A horrified President Merkin Muffley contacts an intoxicated Soviet premier Kissov to caution him of the danger. He is then informed that the Soviets have built a “doomsday machine.” “In the event of a US attack, this huge bomb will automatically explode, creating a vast shroud of radioactive fallout that will encompass the Earth, kill all living things and make the planet inhabitable for 93 years.”[2] Strangely enough, a portion of this scenario really happened. During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the White House received a long, almost incoherent message from Nikita Khrushchev, leading President John F. Kennedy’s top decision makers to wonder whether the Soviet leader was inebriated.[3] Eventually, all bombers are shot down except for one flown by Major T.J. “King” Kong, a talented pilot who manages to avoid Russian fighters and missiles as he heads for his target within the Soviet Union. One of the film’s final images, that of “Kong riding the phallic bomb like a bucking bronco,” is one of the greatest scenes of the movie. When the bomb erupts into a mushroom cloud, the scene is set to Vera Lynn’s 1939 song, “We’ll Meet Again.”

A crucial theme consistent throughout Dr. Strangelove is the relationship between sex and war. Behind the opening credits, playing to the tune of Vera Lynne’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” the screen is taken over by the image of a B52 being refueled by another plane, seemingly in the act of intercourse; this begins the theme of the whole movie. Some viewers claim that the main characters’ names are derived from words with hidden sexual meanings. For example: “Dr. Strangelove, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (named after the infamous killer of Victorian England) contemplates his sexual impotence while chewing on a phallic cigar, Gen. Buck Turgidson (a buck is a sexually active male deer, turgid comes from the Latin “turgere” to swell, as in the male sex organ), Pres. Muffley (“muff” is American slang for the female sex organs), Premier Kissoff (“kiss my arse”), Ambassador de Sadesky (named after the notorious Marquis de Sade who wrote sexually explicit novels), Mandrake (a plant of the potato family with narcotic properties), Captain “King” Kong (named after a gorilla which kidnapped a women in the old film of the same name).”[4] As the end of the world nears, Dr. Strangelove describes how “the war room elite might survive in deep mine shafts, where it could replenish the human race by copulating non stop with voluptuous women chosen for their sexual appeal.”[5]

[1] Kaplan, Fred. “Truth Stranger Than ‘Strangelove’.” The New York Times. 10 October, 2004.http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/movies/10kapl.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2& oref=slogin
[2] Boyer, Paul. Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half- Century Encounter with Nuclear Weapons. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

[3]Boyer, 96.

[4] Hart, David M. “WAR FILMS: STANLEY KUBRICK, DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) 1HR 42.” The University of Adelaide. http://homepage.mac.com/dmhart/WarFilms/DrS.html. (accessed 7 November 2008)

[5] Boyer,101.

[6] YouTube, “Dr.Strangelove: Big Board.” YouTube Website, Embedded Media File, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZV_lIwmz5E, (accessed 9 November, 2008).

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