Department of English

Spring 2005 Edition

A Whimsical Look at Stanley Kubrick’s Film Dr. Strangelove

Max Eagar
Expository 2010 Winner

“I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Those are the words spoken by General Ripper to Group Leader Mandrake in the seventh scene of Dr. Strangelove. Until that line of the film, I had no idea it was a comedy. That thread of nonsense is woven through the rest of the film in such a masterfully absurd way that someone would have to be a true conspiracy theorist to miss the humor in it. Fortunately, we live in a world that is filled with real life conspiracy theorists as well as mad scientists, paranoid political leaders, war hungry military leaders, etc… What would we have to laugh at if we didn’t have them? Thank goodness there are filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, who can pull back the façade and see the world for what it really is. Dr. Strangelove is an excellent film with a poignant message about the Cold War because it approaches the subject of catastrophic calamity in a ridiculous way and it provides a great example comedic hyperbole through wonderful execution of the script.

Stanley Kubrick’s whimsical look into the realities of nuclear war exemplifies, better than any other film, the absurdity of the arms race. This absurdity is demonstrated in the film by the ineptness with which the political and military leaders handle the problem that they themselves created. It also makes light of the Cold War by characterizing them through innuendos alluding to the inappropriate personal lives they lead as military and political leaders. The perfect example of this from the film comes in a scene where the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are gathered together in the war room of the Pentagon discussing the imminent bombardment of the Soviet Union. General Turgidson is explaining to the President why the order was issued to bomb the Soviet Union without the President’s knowledge and why the planes could not abort their mission. In the middle of their conversation, General Turgidson receives a call from his secretary/girlfriend who wants to discuss their relationship. First of all there’s the irony that the one person expected to know what’s going on, the President, has no idea what has happened. Then the audience finds out that he has no power to stop it. That’s funny in itself, but what makes it even more funny is General Turgidson’s demeanor through the whole scene. His pouting chuckles, the twinkle in his eye, and his condescending voice towards the President all make it seem like General Turgidson has no grasp of the gravity of the situation. The scene is done in such a clever way, too, that it’s almost convincing that it could actually happen. There’s also General Turgidson’s humdrum, matter-of-fact way of presenting the information as though he’s not even remotely alarmed. This presentation is coupled with his insistence that we shouldn’t judge General Ripper “until all the facts are in.” Then just when the audience thinks General Turgidson’s cool indifference to the situation can’t possibly be characterized anymore, he gets a call from his love interest. They’re in the War Room after all, but during the whole telephone conversation he refers to himself as “Bucky,” and when he’s done with the call he just sits there with a vacant expression on his face as though he’s hoping no one noticed what was going on. The sum of the whole scene and its culminating exaggeration is just hilarious. It truly demonstrates how absurd the arms race was.

Another way Dr. Strangelove satirizes the Cold War is through the use of black humor to downplay the severity of catastrophic civilian casualty. There’s probably not a better film out there when it comes to using black humor to sarcastically demonstrate the gravity and morbidity of nuclear holocaust. The best example of this black humor in the film is General Turgidson’s “unofficial study” into the possibility of nuclear war. Here the General refers to civilian casualties in the millions as “modest and acceptable.” What’s funny about that is that the General shares his figures not only without any reservation, but with a shaking excitement that is alarming. Just the fact that it’s an “unofficial study” is funny, as though the war is the General’s own personal project. The black humor is presented with lines such as “ten to twenty million (causalities) tops” and “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed.” The study seems to lack any kind of realistic reaction to the severity of such staggering stats. There’s a feeling almost as though the audience member is in a football huddle as Turgidson looks side to side to make sure everyone got the play called and winks at the President. Also, the way the General keeps referring to the Russians as “Ruskies” really makes the audience feel as though he’s just playing a game with the competition’s mascot on the sideline. I half expected him to break into a chorus of “rah-rah, sis-boom-bah, goooo AMERICA!” The way this scene satirizes the Cold War as some kind of trivial game is outstanding use of black humor.

As has already been demonstrated briefly, what really makes this film funny is the comedic hyperbole in the speeches and reactions of the military leaders. Here the execution of the script is phenomenal. The dramatic flare with which the lines are read is hysterically funny. This is all magnified by incredible cinematography. A great example of comedic hyperbole from the film is the scene where General Ripper is leaning back in his chair chewing on a stogie talking to Group Leader Mandrake and explaining to him why he ordered an attack on the Soviet Union. The harsh lighting in this scene and the angle that General Ripper is shown at make his speech to Mandrake seem almost inspiring. Then at the very end when the audience is getting ready for the General to ram the point home, he says “bodily fluids” and all the dramatic tension is released like the film’s a whoopee cushion. It’s just pure nonsense, but it’s sustained through the whole film using such powerful hyperbole that the psychotic nature of General Ripper is really believable.

Another effective example of comedic hyperbole in the film is General Turgidson’s reaction to the President’s invitation of the Russian ambassador to the War Room. Here we see the film’s best example of the kind of paranoia that really did exist during the Cold War. It is so overemphasized and George C. Scott does such a wonderful job hamming up the role with such expression that it would make anyone ashamed to be a conspiracy theorist, and maybe even a little uncomfortable if they were just a gung ho military man. In the scene General Turgidson is shown with his documents clutched tightly in his hands, he’s pointing at the “big board,” his eyes are wide open in disbelief, and his jaw keeps dropping in between the incoherent stammering that is coming out of his mouth. To me this is the funniest scene in the whole movie. By now General Turgidson’s character is well-developed, and to see him throwing a frantic fit about the Russian ambassador is on the verge of slapstick. In fact, it soon turns out that way as the ambassador enters the room and the next thing the audience knows General Turgidson is rolling around on the ground with the ambassador claiming that he has got a camera taking pictures of the big board. Then, in the middle of the slapstick, the President in his serious tone says “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here: this is the War Room.” This is a great example of verbal irony and is the perfect kind of one-liner to accompany slapstick. It also has a great message about the nonsensical thinking that was going on during the Cold War. Through the rest of the scene General Turgidson is seen jumping and rolling around in frantic excitement. Here I think Kubrick is trying to warn us against the aggressive nature that military leaders absorb through their training by portraying them in such a boisterous way. This is done very effectively by the end of the film as Kubrick has painted a picture of two generals, one characterized as a psychotic, and the other one characterized as a warmonger. It’s done so skillfully that you can see glimpses of General Ripper and General Turgidson in real life.

In the end what really makes this film funny and the execution of the various techniques of satire successful is the fact that there really was a feeling of paranoia about the communists in America during the Cold War. People really were building bomb shelters in the hope that they could outlast nuclear fallout. There really were mad scientists like Dr. Strangelove building weapons for the government. And, as the film shows, this paranoia really was fueled by political leaders like McCarthy. The film is funny because it hits so close to home, but it’s also meaningful for this same reason. Dr. Strangelove provides a way to step back and look at ourselves and realize how silly we were.