…and you will know us by the title which follows the colon. Yes, Dr. Strangelove is indeed a mouthful when its title is cited in full. Some years ago I proffered that this film summed my personality up better than any other single motion picture. Whether or not that remains true, I still hold it to be one of the two perfect or near-perfect films which Kubrick made (the other being Lolita).
I won’t labor over the plot details too much. Indeed, some may not yet have seen this masterpiece. I suppose it would behoove me as a critic “of the people” to not always give away the ending. But when I last viewed this piece of cinema, some things struck me which had previously slipped unnoticed under my nose in the fray. Perhaps I am most ashamed to admit that I never realized one of the principal characters was named Jack D. Ripper. He is, indeed, the problem child of this movie.
Played by Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar, anyone?), Ripper sets in motion a string of events which define the drama over the course of 94 minutes. Neither had I recognized the humor in his operating base: Burpelson AFB. Perhaps there’s not as much meaning in the place, but the character is indeed aptly monikered.
The film really gets going as we see Peter Sellers (the true star(s) of this film) for the first time in one of his three roles. As Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, he is the proper Brit whose tact makes him unable to quite fix the snafu in progress (a rogue launch against the U.S.S.R.), but whose diplomacy nearly staves off a most dreadful outcome.
There is an interesting element of this film which is approached tongue-in-cheek, but which nevertheless perhaps deserves further investigation at length. That element is fluorine…in the form of fluoride…as in fluoridated water. It just so happens that our resident kook (who has singlehandedly endangered all of civilization by ordering his bomber wing to attack) is very much against water fluoridation. The year, we must remember, is 1964. Ripper explains to Mandrake that fluoridation began in the U.S. in 1946. He takes this (along with his rabid anti-communism) to indicate that water fluoridation is a grand Soviet plot.
Indeed, water fluoridation in the U.S. is said to have begun in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1945. By 1951, the U.S. Public Health Service had made water fluoridation public policy. In 1960, it is estimated that 50 million Americans were the recipients of fluoridated water. In 2006, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving fluoride in their water was at just over 60%. Any thought outside this narrow swath of inquiry is said spuriously to be the conjecture of conspiracy theorists. Funny how the villain of Dr. Strangelove is one such fellow–a real doozy at that…inept at expressing himself…always talking about “bodily fluids.” Indeed, something strange is going on with this subplot. I will leave it to the reader to investigate the merits of pro-fluoridation and anti-fluoridation. I myself avoid fluoride at all costs.
Back to cinema (and Peter Sellers), we next encounter another funny name: President (of the U.S.) Merkin Muffley. Merkin, of course, is the name given to “public wigs.” And the muff in Muffley, well… Again, I urge the reader to let their imagination guide their inquiry.
It would be germane to introduce my own bit of conspiratorial evidence at this juncture. There is, of course, the oration of Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) where he urges the President to (thank you Rahm Emmanuel) not let this tragedy go to waste. Yes, it is that age-old stain on humanity which Webster Tarpley so eloquently sums up as “cynical.” Gen. Turgidson (another apt name) asserts with bombastic cynicism a plan so heinous (while holding his megadeath statistics) that it could only be concocted by Hollywood, right? Wrong.
Case in point: Operation Northwoods. With apparent thanks to author James Bamford (and those who have railed against the Kennedy assassination as being something far different than it was characterized), documents from 1962 show the very real psychosis of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (of which, no doubt, Gen. Turgidson would seem to be part…if not the head). No, Kubrick was not simply out to discredit conspiracy theorists. Perhaps the fluoridation subplot is a smokescreen, but Gen. Turgidson shows verily that he shares a certain simpatico with our rogue Gen. Ripper (who launched the insubordinate attack). Oh…what would Kubrick make of our post-9/11 world had he lived to see it? Indeed, the timing of Dr. Strangelove couldn’t have been better (or worse, depending on how one looks at it), considering that just two months before its release J.F.K. was murdered in Dallas.
Ah, but President Muffley’s voice of reason prevails (just as J.F.K.’s voice of reason categorically refused the Operation Northwoods plan which was agreed upon and signed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff…including their head, Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer). I won’t deviate too far from the plan, but suffice it to intrigue the reader that Northwoods was a false-flag terror attack which would have used remote control planes, fake passengers (with “carefully prepared aliases”) and other such stratagems (including the death of American citizens) which certainly could have no bearing upon events in say, I don’t know, the past 15 years or so, could they? Or course not. How silly of me.
And while some ideas such as cobalt bombs seem preposterous today, in 1964 they must have seemed quite nerve-wracking indeed. The Soviet doomsday device which figures in the movie is, of course, humorously inserted, but the technology was (at the very least) tested by the British in Australia in 1957. Nevil Shute’s novel On The Beach (also 1957) leans heavily on this technology being quite real and not in the least silly. Even the Eon series of Bond movies takes up the idea somewhat (in 1964, no less…same year as our film) in that Auric Goldfinger intends to use a device which incorporates cobalt to render the gold of Fort Knox uselessly radioactive for 58 years. All experiments aside, the theory seems to indicate that radioactive cobalt would be a hazard for far longer than 58 years (as Dr. Strangelove himself points out in the odd segment just before the end of our film). Indeed, 100 years is more like it (for all practical purposes). Perhaps even 142 or so…
But I dare say the only name one needs remember in this piece of cinema is Col. “Bat” Guano. The writers (including Terry Southern) were really having a larf by that point. Our team aboard the one aircraft which didn’t get the recall “memo” head to what seems to be a made up locale in Soviet Russia: Kodlosk. By the end of this romp we are not only questioning the mental capacity of L.B.J. (newly sworn-in President when this came out), but also that of dear old George W. Bush. One can’t help interpreting the role of Slim Pickens as symbolic of the cavalier disrespect for human life wrapped up in all of America’s nuclear ambitions. And he just so happens to be a rural gent–a cowboy, if you will. No matter that the real life Pickens was not only born in California, but died there (in Modesto, to be exact).
“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?,” sing Pink Floyd in the song “Vera” from 1979’s The Wall. Going on to reference the very song which ends Dr. Strangelove (“We’ll Meet Again”), it’s an appropriate way to broach how Kubrick’s masterpiece will go down in history. I personally find only the ending to be a bit clumsy and, thus, the film as a whole (at least) near-perfect.
Sellers’ third role in the film is that of Dr. Strangelove himself. An obvious remnant of Operation Paperclip, Strangelove is the former (?) Nazi who is wheelchair-bound (with a gimp arm to boot). This really is Sellers at his surreal best, no doubt doing a good bit of visual improvising (as his bum arm seems to have a mind of its own–at one point choking the neck to which it is attached).
There is one (and only one) female character: and she is a tightly-wound symbol of power. Played by Tracy Reed in a bikini, she mainly figures into just one scene (that in which Gen. Turgidson is indisposed in the “powder room”).
Speaking of (and to) power, one would be remiss not to mention the RAND Corporation. It has been ventured that Herman Kahn, John von Neumann and/or Henry Kissinger might have been templates for the character of Strangelove. To that I would add Albert Wohlstetter. All four were part of the aforementioned “think tank.” Another possibility is Wernher von Braun. Indeed, it is worth some study to learn how this former Nazi SS member became head of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Likewise, it is interesting how the International Institute for Strategic Studies played a role in the genesis of Dr. Strangelove. It was, in fact, the director (Alastair Buchan) of this organization (ostensibly formed in 1958) who suggested to Kubrick the book upon which the film would be based. That book was Red Alert by Peter George. Silly me, all of these think tanks have me in a quandary. I was quite sure Mr. Buchan was of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (a.k.a. Chatham House, formed 1920), but I see that I was mistaken. I do, however, congratulate myself upon noticing that Kubrick’s chum Buchan was son of Hitchcock’s Buchan (author of The Thirty-Nine Steps). Interesting also that the aforementioned Herman Kahn was a consultant on Dr. Strangelove.
As was noted in my article concerning Dr. No (1962) [see “Bond” section], Ken Adam went from that Eon Production’s set designer to being Kubrick’s man concerned with the same on Dr. Strangelove. Indeed, that iconic table in “the war room” is covered in green baize. One need not look further than Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale for the previous symbolic nature of this fabric (consider M’s door, for instance).
Back to Herman Kahn… He coined the term “megadeath.” But it took Kubrick and Peter Sellers and God knows who else to concoct the only line ending with which I can feel assured (the feeling is mutual, I’m sure) a sense of finality: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”