Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a satirical masterpiece. In this piece, we will discuss the germination of the great film and then detail how the director combines a serious camera (Part I), genuine but exaggerated characters (Part II), and a farcical tone (Part III) into one of the greatest condemnations of the military state of all time. Kubrick’s aim is simple: to subvert the grim seriousness of the Cold War by showcasing the absurdities that arise from taking concepts like “mutually assured destruction” and “nuclear deterrence” to their logical conclusions.
Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was a sense that nuclear warfare between the superpowers was inevitable. Dr. Strangelove grew out of Kubrick’s rejection of this assumption. Ever the optimist, the director obsessed over the topic, intent on creating a film that could reveal the horrors of nuclear war.
Kubrick delved into the literature, eventually discovering Peter George’s novel Red Alert (1958). George’s story is straight, melodramatic, and terrifying, so Kubrick and his producer James B. Harris bought the rights and got to work on an adaptation. As they worked late into the nights, they got punchy and started joking around: “They must spend a lot of time in the War Room, what do you think they eat? Do they order out? Maybe they have a cafeteria?” Kubrick later decided to focus the tone towards this kind of irreverent comedy. Said Kubrick:
“My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it 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)
From this point forward, Dr. Strangelove was to be a farce, and the brilliant execution of this tonal choice is the source of the film’s enduring relevancy.
Part I: Serious Cinematography
Despite the hilarity of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick directs his cinematographer Gilbert Taylor to play things perfectly straight with the camera. There are three main locations in the film, and each has its own cinematographic look to it. As we will see, Kubrick uses the camerawork to convey the major themes of the film, distinguish between the locations, and provide a sincere foundation upon which the actors can erect their satirical monument. This paradox, that absurdity is birthed from the logical, is the cornerstone of Kubrick’s thesis.
After the sexual title cards (which we’ll get to in Part III), Dr. Strangelove opens at Burpelson Air Base with Gen. Ripper informing his troops of a Soviet attack. Of course, this is all a fabrication by Ripper to force the hand of the president into launching a first strike. Opposing Ripper is Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, who discovers what Ripper is up to.
Ripper’s office is characterized by a static camera. Shots are rigid, with long takes and little movement. For example, the shot where Mandrake shows Ripper the radio is 3m03s long and the camera doesn’t move from its initial position, framing the men in a two-shot over Ripper’s right shoulder. There’s a confidence in this shot, indicating Ripper’s singular pursuit of his goal. Most shots in his office have this kind of stationary style, and it is here that the camera moves least in the entire film. In fact, we only get considerable camera movement when Ripper doubts his ability to stand up to interrogation and decides to kill himself. In this moment of wavering determination, the camera pans and seeks. This motif – that camera movement suggests choice and freedom – will continue throughout the film.
Outside the base, the camera technique is much more active and participatory. Kubrick uses hand-held cameras to craft a realistic assault on the base, and plays it completely straight. None of this is funny at all, it is warfare cinema on par with some of the shots Kubrick employed in Paths of Glory. Especially unnerving are the long-distance shots of the Burpelson soldiers firing upon their countrymen, who fall to the ground with a sickening lack of emotion, revealing the irony of Ripper’s insistence that the commies are the heartless ones.
The second main location in Dr. Strangelove is the infamous War Room. Establishing shots convey a sense of the enormity of the decisions being made by the people in this room. The shots of the table and the big board shrink all of the characters, making them seem powerless against the apocalyptic tide. Subtle details suggest the lunacy on display here. The table is covered in green felt, representing a gigantic poker table over which these men will gamble away the fate of the Earth. “The Big Board” is always overhead, dominating the headspace of these characters and forcing a creeping sense of dread upon the spectator as the lines of light grow closer to their targets.
In addition to these establishing shots, Kubrick employs standard shot-countershot and tracking shots in many of the sequences in The War Room, even when it would work just fine to park the camera in one spot. Generally, Kubrick employs shot-countershot when the characters are seated at the table and debating about the proper actions to take, dramatizing their repartee. When the characters are up wandering around, the camera is far more active, panning and following their movements and discussions, most notably in a great shot where Gen. Turgidson falls to the floor and no one even reacts to it.
The War Room is where the decisions are supposed to be made, and where the power should come from. Kubrick makes sure to infuse it with energy and freedom, allowing his camera some movement and a more active collection of editing techniques than we saw in the illegitimate locale of power, Ripper’s office.
Except the real power – and the real devastation – comes from the B-52. This location serves as an amalgamation of all other main settings, incorporating the camera techniques of each. This is the true seat of power, and should be the germination of the film’s salvation. In a particularly cynical twist, Kubrick subverts the heroism on display here into doom.
Like the assault scenes, the camera conveys a sense of actually being there. In this case, it isn’t from a frenetic hand-held style, but from a gentle and ever-present wobble. With this as a bedrock, Kubrick augments these scenes with some of the same techniques we’ve seen before. There are a lot of static shots (besides the wobble), suggesting the same determinism and confidence that we saw from Ripper at the base, and for the same reason. These men are focused on their goal, which they consider of paramount importance. There’s also a powerful ingenuity and freedom in the plane, and the camera departs from the stolid style during moments of intense action. These include the explosion of the missile, approaching the target of the bomb, and frequent camera zooms that draw attention to important pieces of information.
The B-52 also is the only scored environment, as “Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” plays throughout, ratcheting up the tension as the planes gets closer and closer to its target. The B-52 is the focal point of the film, where the rest of the everything comes from.
Kubrick uses these specific cinematic styles to convey key thematic elements in the film: the haphazard nature of combat, the rigorous determination of Ripper, and the battle-of-wits on display in The War Room. Yet, Kubrick’s camera is never particularly funny, even when it is capturing funny things. He shoots Dr. Strangelove straight, allowing his cast to provide the exaggerative panache required for his farce.
Part II: Characters & Performances
Characters are the life-blood of most stories, but Kubrick takes it to an extreme in Dr. Strangelove. He fully embraces the genius of one of his era’s most-talented comedic minds, and supports him with other great talents. Peter Sellers makes Dr. Strangelove, but he has help. Though these characters are interpreted as farcical, none of them are obvious jokesters. Much like Kubrick’s camera plays things straight, all of the characters are genuine. Their characteristics may be exaggerated, but none of them are trying to be funny.
The first supporting piece introduced in Dr. Strangelove is Sterling Hayden as Jack D. Ripper. There’s no sense of irony in Hayden’s portrayal of this character. At the behest of Kubrick, Hayden plays this character completely straight, but with an exaggerated affect and strange rhythm. Ripper is obviously insane from our point of view (and Mandrake’s), but in his mind he is a patriot battling to control his way of life and the destiny of his country . He’s is not so different from the denizens of The War Room or the B-52 bomber – and that’s terrifying.
Soon after meeting Ripper, we’re introduced to George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson. He’s an excitable child, but he spins most things positively. He’s a dogged jingoist who respects his president, picks fights with the Russian ambassador, and has an undying faith that the military will save his way of life. Scott’s performance is over-the-top, but once again the character is not trying to be funny. Turgidson acts the way he does because he’s just so damn excited about “his boys” showing the world what they can do, and he pouts so profusely because he feels his viewpoint is being disrespected. Turgidson is an exaggeration of the gung-ho military commander type, but only to a point. There’s a spooky verisimilitude with him, a fear that he’s just not that far off from a faithful representation of someone who actually advises the president (a fear as relevant today as in 1964).
The most genuine of all the characters are the crew of the B-52. Slim Pickens plays the captain Maj. Kong, but all of the men in the plane are loyal to their duties and willing to sacrifice their lives if it means a successful mission. But, they operate without any of the information that we have as an audience, so there’s a palpable dramatic irony woven into everything they do. This perversion of their dedication is one of Kubrick’s most cynical turns in the film. Though the crew of the B-52 would be heralded as heroes if the order to enact Plan R was genuine, here they become harbingers of the apocalypse. It’s a dark suggestion from Kubrick that the power structures that we think will save us may prove to cement our doom.
And then there’s Peter Sellers.
Sellers is the tour-de-force in Dr. Strangelove, and he performs every role to perfection. In Mandrake, he is practically hysterical as the man who discovers Ripper’s plot and tries to foil it. As President Muffley, he is the ultimate straight man because in the end it will be his decisions that make the difference (or so he thinks). And finally, as the titular character Dr. Strangelove, he is the most overt caricature in the entire film, taking every horrific premise to its logically absurd conclusion – and being utterly invigorated by the possibilities.
Lionel Mandrake serves as the perfect foil for Hayden’s Ripper. He’s as heroic and determined as the General, but far more grounded. It is mostly through his reactions that we begin to understand the bizarre depths of Ripper’s conspiracy theories, and he does more than any other character to prevent doomsday. Ultimately, he’s unable to prevent the doomsday machine from firing, but he did all he could – up to and including destroying the private property of the Coca Cola Corporation.
President Merkin Muffley is the straightest of the straight men, and in the tradition of great straight men, his character generates comedy from his grounded, serious response to the bizarre things that are happening around him. He struggles to approach all of this from a logical perspective, but is a principled man who will not condemn the Earth to destruction by way of his inaction. His logical approach is doomed to fail because the logic of this situation inherently leads to absurd conclusions, but that is Kubrick’s grand point.
And this point is represented most clearly in the character of Dr. Strangelove, an agent of chaos. He is empowered by the rampant insanity, a kind of Mad Hatter Scientist that relishes the opportunity to apply his hair-brained schemes in the real world. He is horrific glee personified. The character alludes to real-life Nazi scientists from Operation Paperclip like Wernher Von Braun, and fictional versions of the disabled mad scientist trope like Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The worse things get, the more excited he is to solve them in some outlandish way, and the less he can hide his excitement. Though it signals his doom as much as anyone else’s, the Nuclear Holocaust is a Balm of Gilead for him, even restoring his ability to walk.
These characters, and the way Kubrick directs the performances towards the seemingly paradoxical “genuine exaggeration” supports the central theme of Dr. Strangelove. And it doesn’t work without the twin majesty of Kubrick and Sellers, both at the absolute top of their creative games.
Part III: Tone and Themes
Kubrick has set up the paradox of the Cold War with his lenses and his actors, and it is all in service of his tone. Dr. Strangelove is a satirical masterpiece, balancing exaggeration and normalcy. The director delivers on the promise of paradox through three parallel techniques: using sexual frustration as a metaphor for the Cold War, employing juxtaposition between the mundane and the absurd, and relentlessly pursuing a hyper-logical train of thought in the narrative, culminating in the most absurd conclusions of all. Together, these elements suggest the paradox and the absurdity inherent in “Mutually Assured Destruction” and “nuclear deterrence”.
Kubrick establishes the irreverent tone immediately by referencing sex. The film begins with stock footage of bombers being refueled in mid-air, an obvious visual reference to insertion (plus, the soundtrack is as saccharine as they come). The first moment we meet Gen. Turgidson, he is preparing to have sex with his scantily-clad secretary, but is called off to deal with the crisis. When she objects by saying, “I’m not sleepy”, his response is that, “he’ll be back before she can say, “Blast-Off!”. Ripper’s obsession with “precious bodily fluids” was first discovered, “during the physical act of love”. Even the names of the characters suggest sexuality. “Turgid” describes an erect penis, “Merkin” is a pubic wig, “Muffley” suggests female genitalia, “Strangelove” is obvious (his German name, “Merkwürdigliebe” is simply German for “Strange Love”). Even “Mandrake” references a plant root that was believed to aid in conception. I don’t want to posit what Kubrick meant to suggest with “Ripper”. For Kubrick, the idea of sexual frustration and the inability to reach orgasm is inherent to The Cold War: the men in charge never get to explode their bombs! Finally, the denouement of the film leaves the War Room full of men arranging a 10-to-1 ratio of women to men, which would require the women to be “of a highly stimulating nature”. These sexual references clue the audience in on the idea that there is comedy underneath the grave subject matter, and Kubrick means to go after it more directly.
The director builds upon this hilarious construction through recurrent juxtaposition of serious subject matter with a baffling casualness from the characters, and even buffoonery and pratfall. These include some of the details we’ve already discussed, like Ripper’s “purity of essence / peace on Earth” concept and all of his “essence” talk in general. But, the phone calls may be the most complete example of juxtaposition and absurdity. There is a cavalier air about these conversations, despite the obvious severity. Furthermore, every phone call in the film is shown from only one side, which requires both a relay and repetition, slowing everything down and encouraging us to soak up the disconnect between the content of the conversation and its tone.
Similarly, the dialogue is packed with discord. Maj. Kong promises his crew promotions if they are successful in the bombing raid. Mandrake brings the active radio to Ripper’s attention by warning that a failure to call back the planes will, “cause a bit of a stink”. Gen. Turgidson characterized Ripper’s actions as, “a single slip-up” and estimates that between 10 and 20 million Americans would die, “depending on the breaks”, as if it is one big game (remember the poker table?). He describes this incomprehensible level of human death as “getting our hair mussed”.
Juxtaposition even exists in the imagery. Signs around Burpelson Air Base state, “Peace is our Profession” as Gen. Ripper seeks to begin the most destructive event in the history of mankind and then later as the US soldiers storm their own base. Turgidson carries a binder that reads “World Targets in Megadeaths”. The nuclear warheads on the B-52 are labeled “handle with care” and “this side down”. The miniature combination Holy Bible and Russian phrase book is hilarious. Kubrick wrenches absurdity out of his set design and props!
All of these elements culminate in the chilling narrative thrust of the film: the Doomsday Machine. This is a machine that the Russians have designed that will automatically annihilate the entire world, if triggered by an attack from the US. It is in the exposition surrounding this device that Dr. Strangelove is introduced and we’re treated to the terrifying logic of the Doomsday Machine (as well as Strangelove’s glee in explaining the intellectual theory behind it). Kubrick never pushes anything into the realm of ridiculousness, he allows Dr. Strangelove’s simple and logical explanations of the device and its workings to lead us to the sickening conclusion. Then, the cherry on the top. The Russians designed such a device because the US was working on one too – according to the New York Times. Of course, Gen. Turgidson misses the point, and wishes that we had a Doomsday Machine of our own, as though destroying the world twice makes a difference.
Thus, Kubrick arrives at his major theme: the ridiculousness of concepts like mutually assured destruction, nuclear deterrence, and the Cold War in general. With a simple line of logic, the director depicts the utter lunacy that results from such premises. Then, Kubrick lets the buffoonery play out, to the doom of us all. It would be even funnier if it wasn’t so damn scary. Here, power structures, command groups, intellectuals, politicians, corporations, and even our genuine heroes cannot save us from fundamentally destructive ideas taken to their logical conclusion.
Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is paradox playing out on screen. Kubrick’s camera is serious, but captures the absurd juxtaposition of a country pursuing a philosophy of nuclear deterrence. The characters and performances are all self-contained in the environment Kubrick has created, yet absolutely jump off the screens as farcical. Even the most outwardly absurd characters, Gen. Ripper and Dr. Strangelove, are genuine in their own context. They are only absurd through our eyes, through the lens of our context.
The final paradox is that Kubrick’s ultimately satirical tone and theme develops from these “straight” ingredients. In the world of Dr. Strangelove, everyone and everything fits perfectly into the internal logic of a nuclear Cold War. But, this “logic” leads to absurdity, to the death of the human race, and from being concerned with the “Warhead Gap” to focusing on the “Mine Shaft Gap”. Kubrick’s construction of the entire film echoes this paradox: benign, straight premises being taken to their absurdly logical conclusion.
This is the purpose of satire: to take a concept at its word, explore its ramifications, and reveal it for the nightmare that it truly is. With Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick delivers perhaps the greatest satire ever put to screen, a film with such sharp bite that its critiques are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago.
This piece is joining the favorite director blogathon over at Midnite Drive In and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Check out their sites for more pieces looking at great works from great directors. Also, if you’re dying for more Kubrick, this piece is the 5th in a year-long celebration of the filmography of Kubrick. Discover the schedule and other pieces here.