by Rachel Brame –
In this new day and age, I feel compelled to drag this Kubrick classic into the light and examine it a little harder against our present day geopolitical dynamic. The 45th President of the U.S. LOVES George C. Scott and often projects a romantic patriotism of Patton which is as close to genuine as he’ll ever come. General ‘Buck’ Turgidson is today’s perfect meme for the kind of advisors and military presence who are poised to occupy the War Room in 2017. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. I do say, no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops! Depending on the breaks.” Hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it?
In the film’s initial critical reception, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) received mixed reviews which seesaw from opposite ends of the spectrum. This part serious, part nightmare comedy had the effect of leaving many viewers conflicted as to whether they should be frightened or nervously laugh at what they were seeing on screen.5 Described early on as “commercially viable and formally disruptive”; audience reactions could be described as knee-jerk at times.11 A New York Times Book reviewer Conrad Knickerbocker found it “bitter, perverse, sadistic, and sick,…black in its pessimism, its refusal to compromise and its mortal sting”.6 It was called disrespectfully un-American by some, and accused of being Soviet propaganda by others. “People hotly disagreed on the merits of a satire in which senior political and military officials were boobs or lunatics”.5
On the flip side, Time expressed high regard for the film with glowing remarks deeming Strangelove as “an outrageously brilliant satire – the most original American comedy in years”.3 While loving its boldness and acknowledging its disturbing attributes, Stanley Kauffmann, film critic for the New Republic is cited as classifying the movie as a “macabre yet witty reality”.5 In similar agreement, Newsweek’s critic recognized the darkness of the film by noting: “the most realistic things are the funniest.”6 Critic’s who were on the fence between admiration and unease, tended to focus their published views on the black comedy of the film. As noted in Berkley’s Film Qarterly; “What’s funny…Strangelove is a tissue of weird, lovely, ludicrous incongruities…What isn’t funny…but only at the audience’s expense – is the real-life incongruity upon which it is based: the absolute and perhaps fatal inadequacy of all human attitudes.”2 Media outlets such as Commentary magazine and the New York Times provided opinion editorial space and forums for their readers to discuss the film at length. Regardless of taste and perception of humor, based on the dialogue which ensued and has persisted through the decades, it is apparent most audiences ultimately understood the larger message of the movie.8
In hindsight, Dr. Strangelove entered the public consciousness at just the right time for its maximum impact. It is remembered as “one of the most fascinating and important films of the 1960’s.”9 Kubrick’s film stands as a protest and sharp response against a larger cultural pattern or ‘Liberal Consensus’ emerging at a time of public apprehension during the Cold War era. It also served to prompt audiences to think about the morality of a dominating philosophy at the time of possible nuclear attack and fear.9 The dramatic realism he used, mixed with laughter, was intended to help audiences recognize the hazards of nuclear weapons and the risks our world leaders take.8 Political tensions between the U.S. and Russia were peaking from the late 1950’s through the first half of the 60’s; and preceding the film through its development, incidents such as the Berlin Wall being erected and Cuba embracing the power of its communist ally’s greatly influenced and affected U.S. foreign policy decisions as well as social attitudes. The movie was released shortly after the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco and Columbia Pictures protracted its release due to President Kennedy’s assassination in December of 1963.4 So, now we have come full circle back to a “great” time when people in the U.S. have a heightened sense of anxiety about Russia, and they’ve taken our pawn in their chess game.
When it debuted in New York in early 1964,5 the military included a disclaimer: “It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film.”4 Despite the government’s public relations campaign surrounding the film, Dr. Strangelove gave audiences reasons to question if the U.S.’s role in political tension, aggression, and violence was really the best decision for the country. It gave the public a view into the world of nuclear strategy inside the President’s war room, and unveiled the possibility of our world leaders are not as prepared or as bright as we in the public are led to believe. The characters in the film strongly reinforce this through their ridiculous behavior. Tied to its message of protest, Strangelove also provokes a ‘check on reality’ from its audience to question the faith we place in technological advancement.8 What’s exposed is a social gullibility and presumption that technology won’t fall into the wrong hands. Seeing war room lampoons on a wide screen undoubtedly changed the public’s perception about weapons of this magnitude and to reconsider the difficulty of their own protection from the fallout.
As it satirically addresses society’s inability to comprehend the consequences of this kind of nuclear confrontation, it also mimics the media’s paranoid, sensational, and strangely complacent tone regarding possible nuclear danger and destruction. The national press in the 50’s and early 60’s “seemed intent on making the public believe that thermonuclear war might be acceptable, even tolerable”.9 It is in this sense, Dr. Strangelove has been considered a pointed response to the media’s treatment of a nuclear threat.
Dr. Strangelove also plays on the plethora of published commentary about the Russian arms race from several prominent political analysts of the day. It mirrored elements from Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alet5 and borrowed substantial language from Henry Kissinger’s opinionated rhetoric. In Kissinger’s 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy9 as well as subsequent articles printed in Foreign Affairs magazine provided substance to Kubrick’s research for the movie.12 Another major influence in the film was the 1960 public policy book by Herman Kahn titled On Thermonuclear War, which also documented the anxiety and fear of total annihilation in this period of escalating tension. Aside from their thematic similarities, the close association between the two lies in the fact the screenplay of Strangelove directly lifts dialogue from the novel.5 Other elements of the film can be directly traced to concurrent conspiratorial news stories of the era revolving around Soviet intelligence operations and water fluoridation to name a few.12
Dr. Strangelove had a way of affecting English audiences in a slightly different way by evoking strong memories of WWII.10 While Kubrick is American, the British influence in the movie cannot be ignored. There are subtle and obvious references throughout, but it shows most prominently through the movie’s style of dark parody. Kubrick utilized the chameleon acting skills of Peter Sellers to heighten the irony placed on the audience. By playing British Col. Mandrake as well as U.S. President Muffley, Sellers revitalized the image of Allied forces in the film, and contrasted this with his maniacal portrayal of the German Dr. Strangelove who couldn’t control his arm’s Nazi/fascist salute.
With half of London suffering demolishment from air attacks in the 40’s, the England’s attitude about prospects of the future assaults has been irreversibly impacted. In Strangelove’s closing scene, Vera Lynn’s rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” as bombs explode has proved to be an enduring dark joke which American audiences did not fully grasp initially. Many “were genuinely shaken by Kubrick’s unforgiving ending, and disturbed by the mockery of its accompanying song.”5 While audiences left of the Atlantic might interpret it a lovesick tune marking the tragic end of civilization, the BBC broadcasted it nationally in the 1940’s; having the effect of boosting morale, providing comfort, and creating a sense of ‘Allied togetherness’ for Britain’s countrymen in its perilous moments during the war. American audiences less familiar with this cultural reference are not impacted with the same level of patriotic emotion as their English neighbors.10
Decades after its release it’s become a film referenced endlessly in pop-culture becoming a “metaphor for the deadly consequences of science and government gone awry”.7 In terms of its historical preservation through the ages, and as a testament to its cultural significance, it earned the honor of being added in 1989 to the U.S. National Film Registry. 13 As a tribute to its comedic endurance, the American Film Institute ranked it third in 2000 on the institute’s list of 100 Years…100 Laughs.1 More seriously, Dr. Strangelove continues to be utilized in debate and in academic circles as a “point of reference for the cold war and the nuclear dangers”8 which circumstantially continue to persist now more than ever.
*Author’s note: a good chunk of this review was originally published on my blog of college writing December 11, 2012. http://reelnoodling.blogspot.com/2012/12/dr-strangelove-response-significance.html
- “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs”, Accessed on: 2/2/12
- Burgess, Jackson, “Film Reviews, Dr. Strangelove” Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No.3, Spring 1964. Pp.41-42. Acessed:2/2/102
- “Detonating Comedy,” Time, Vol. 198, No. 6, February 3, 1964, pg. 69.
- “Filmsite Movie Preview; Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)”, Accessed on: 2/2/12
- Ghamari-Tabrizi, Sharon; “Dr. Strangelove”, excerpt from The Worlds of Herman Kahn; The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War, Harvard University Press, 2005.
- Knickerbocker, Conrad, “Humor with a Mortal Sting”, NewYork Times Book Review, Sept. 27, 1964, sec.7, pg 3.
- Lefcowitz, Eric, “Dr. StrangeloveTurns 30. Can It Still Be Trusted?,” New York Times, January 30, 1994, sect. 2, p. 13.
- Lowery, J. Vincent, “A Reel Nightmare Exposed: A Study of the Cultural Significance of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964)”, MA Thesis, UNCW, 2009.
- Maland, Charles, “Dr. Strangelove(1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus”,American Quarterly. Vol 31 No. 5, Special Issue: Film and American Studies, 1979 , pp.699-717. Acessed on:2/2/12
- Morrison, Steven, “ ‘Are the Russians Involved Sir?’: The British Dimension of Dr. Strangelove”, Cultural Politics, Vol.4, No.3, 2008, pp. 378-385.
- Pipolo, Tony, “The modernist and the misanthrope: The cinema of Stanley Kubrick”. Cineaste.27.2 (Spring 2002) p4. Acessed on: 2/2/12
- Stillman, Grant B., “Two of the MADdest scientists: where Dr. Strangelove Meets Dr. No; or unexpected roots for Kubrick’s cold war classic”, Film History, Vol. 20, No. 4, 2008.
13. “U.S. National Film Registry—Titles” Accessed on: 2/2/ 2012