STANLEY KUBRICK’s Dr. Strangelove is strangely not about its eponymous character. Dr. Strangelove only shows up in three major scenes in this film that is ultimately about the excesses and frailty of the male ego during the icy Cold War tension of the 50s.
The film starts with a narration about Russia’s “doomsday device,” a machine that will automatically trigger the annihilation of mankind if the Americans ever attack the Soviets with a nuclear bomb. Unaware that such a device exists, US Air Force General Jack Ripper orders an unauthorized nuclear strike against the Soviets as he believes Russia is fluoridizing America’s water supply.
The film tackles a serious topic, but it is able to deliver an edgy treatment that is both funny and intelligent.
The satire is presented at the expense of the characters’ normally stern and dignified positions. Military officials are shown as flawed crazies who believe in popular urban myths (General Ripper), and state leaders are also portrayed as ill-informed (US President Muffley) and as useless alcoholics (Russian Premier Kissov).
The fate of humanity lying on the shoulders of silly characters paints a powerful irony: although humans have the brains to invent highly sophisticated technology, the making of huge political decisions are still marred by human vulnerability.
All throughout the film, we see references and visual allusions to masculinity. The film is not necessarily titillatingly sexy, but it is very sexual. The opening scene, for instance, is an aerial shot of clouds and mountaintops followed by one aircraft refueling another in a process that is similar to coital insertion.
General Ripper also explains to Captain Mandrake that he first learned about the alleged water fluoridization during a “physical act of love [when] a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed.” He attributes his failure to ejaculate to the supposedly flouridized water, which to him is the Soviets’ way of impurifying his essence.
Dr. Strangelove, the science consultant to the US President, also proposes a plan for select people to live underground should the doomsday device detonate. This will preserve humanity’s existence but it will also require the selection of people with the best genetic traits. The doctor mentions the need for a 10-to-1 female-to-male ratio, with females being chosen according to their sexual desirability. The only female character in the movie is a bikini-wearing secretary-slash-girlfriend of a general; she is seen only in one scene.
The heavy focus on machismo is not something to take against the film. The nuclear war and the ideas surrounding it — deterrence theory, mutual assured destruction — are essentially presented as products (excesses) of the masculine ego.
So Dr. Strangelove stays true to its tagline. It is indeed a hot-line suspense comedy that is not only rich in laugh-worthy antics but also in socially significant meaning.
The featured image is from The Bulletin.