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60 Years of Dr. Strangelove: How It Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

60 years ago, Kubrick unleashed one of the most unhinged and hauntingly hysterical political satires ever made. Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb takes the absurdity of the Cold War as its prime target for satire. The egotistical death-drive between two nations that terrifyingly threatened to end the world with “mutually assured destruction” would seem too ominous to provoke much laughter – especially in 1964, in the heat of the Cold War. 60-years on, from the safety of our 21st century couches, Dr. Strangelove still packs a serious punch. The film unceasingly comments on American governance, global militarism, and the very serious threat that our lives depend on the sanity of very few men. While school children no longer practice hiding under their desks in the event of nuclear detonation, the absurdity at the heart of the film remains intensely relevant today. 

No piece of media since–with the exception of Veep¹, perhaps– has depicted the inherent buffoonery in American politics so completely. From the spineless president, Merkin Muffley² to Colonel Bat Guano (the formal term for bat feces), the film takes every opportunity to humiliate the heralded leaders of the American power structure. The War Room, where the top strategic minds are supposed to collaborate in solemn duty turns into a childish playground. If the film has a single antagonist, he takes the form of deranged military general Jack D. Ripper (aptly named, and played by Sterling Hayden), whose obsession with bodily fluids drives his paranoia. Ripper unleashes Wing Attack Plan R, which once sent cannot be recalled. Plan R is meant to be used only as a retaliation in case of Soviet attack on American soil; it is the first shot in what would become a world-ending nuclear tennis match. He sits in his office, the only one who knows the recall code, munching on phallic cigars in such a way that even Frued would have to admit, sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar. 

Wing Attack Plan R secures the end of the world with such surety, that the film could be a thrilling horror. In fact, Kubrick stated that in the early drafts, Dr. Strangelove was not supposed to be a “nightmare comedy,” but that in constructing the scenes, he found himself having to leave out “things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question,” (Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1, p. 126).

The airborne crew that receives Wing Attack Plan R consists of a cast of characters who follow procedure to a T. Led by Slim Pickins, who plays Major ‘King’ Kong, the crew also boasts the debut film role of James Earl Jones. After receiving the command, the crew opens the top secret survival kits which include an insane variety of objects: a pocket sized Russian phrasebook, condoms, 9 packs of chewing gum, nylon stockings, and lipstick. As Major Kong notes, “A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.” The original line was dubbed to “Vegas” from “Dallas”. The change came as this film followed shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, so as not to appear insensitive to the recent national tragedy. In fact, the film’s original release date was set at the end of 1963, but was delayed until January 1964 because of Kennedy’s assassination. The studio did not believe that the time was right to laugh at American politicians so soon after the death of such a beloved figurehead. The airborne crew pursues their final target, with the unceasing melody to the Civil War military tune, ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ scoring their journey.

Famously, George C. Scott hated the final cut of the film and detested the takes Kubrick chose to use. Scott, who plays General Buck Turgidson³, delivers an overstated, gum-chewing turn as the Russian-hating general. He wrestles the Russian ambassador to the ground in one scene, because he caught the ambassador taking pictures of the “big board” in the War Room. He points his finger at the big map, as though he were a child getting in trouble on the playground.

George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson

One cannot write about Dr. Strangelove without mentioning Peter Sellers. Sellers, who plays three roles, grounds the film as its commercial draw and as the cornerstones of each set-piece. Sellers plays the British command officer Lionel Mandrake, who calmly tries to reason with General Ripper to recall the Wing Attack. His indirect politeness contrasted with Ripper’s bloated American ego seems to ridicule such British mannerisms in the face of genuine terror. 

Sellers also plays the hapless American President, Merkin Muffley. The scene where President Muffley tries to reason with the drunk Russian Prime Minister over the phone is perhaps the funniest sequence in the film. He pleads with the Prime Minister, who he platonically refers to as Dimitri over the phone, but we only hear the one-sided conversation. It is a brilliantly written and delivered monologue; although we can’t literally hear Dimitri, the scene is constructed in a way that makes his dialogue imminent. As he informs Dimitri about the incoming attack, he defends himself, “How do you think I feel about it Dimitri? Do you think I’m calling just to say hello?” Then after a pause, “Of course I like calling you! Of course I like to say hello!” This paints the President as a people-pleasing nincompoop, but also ridicules the Russian authority who drunkenly takes offense at most inopportune parts of this phone call. What we take away from this is just how flimsy our fate is, in the hands of these men who consistently fail to communicate. 

Sellers’ third character is the titular Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist working for the US government – a multifaceted jab at American hypocrisy, that gainfully employed Nazis after the fall of the Third Reich. Once global destruction is assured, Strangelove proposes an underground society, with only few men and many women to dwell in safety from nuclear winter, and to repopulate the world – a great deal for the over-sexed men chosen, not so much for the women. Strangelove has little bodily autonomy, and fights his uncooperative limbs from his wheelchair. As his proposition for a new world society takes hold among the men in the War Room, it becomes clear that Strangelove will be the new global mastermind. At the end of the movie, in a fit of excitement, Strangelove stands up, and as the last line of the film exclaims “Mein Furer! I can walk!” The interjection can easily be read as a metaphor for Nazi fascism, never fully eradicated after WWII, waiting just below the surface for the dominant powers to destroy themselves. The fragile control that America has over fascism is revealed, just as the bomb explodes.

Today, Dr. Strangelove is not so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is witty and intellectually comedic. The punchlines are so thorough and unceasing that having seen the film numerous times, I still find myself catching new bits upon each rewatch. Dr. Strangelove remains Kubrick’s most well-reviewed film according to review conglomerates Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic. This is no doubt due to the film’s enduring relevance, and the on-going absurdity of American democracy. This government of the people condenses power into the hands of few. The bomb seems incidental to the film’s actual critique. If retitled today, it might be Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Climate.


¹It seems fitting that Armando Iannucci, creator of Veep, recently announced that his theatrical adaptation of Dr. Strangelove will debut on the West End in 2024.

²The funniest joke about false pubic hair until Jenna Maroney donated her heavily treated hair to “Merkins of Hope” after being turned away from “Locks of Love” on 30  Rock

³A name that recalls Norm Macdonald’s Burt Reynolds choosing the name Turd Furgeson on SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy simply because “It’s funny.”


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