Most people know today’s film, number thirty-nine on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, as simply Dr. Strangelove (1964). Its full title is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Besides being easier to say, the shortened title does not do justice to the bizarre and frightening nature of the events contained therein. Then again, neither does the longer version. Either way you render it, it is as the first part would suggest, strange. Thus, for brevity’s sake, I will simply be referring to it by its shorter appellation. Let the strangeness begin!
There is a disclaimer at the outset of Dr. Strangelove that posits that what you are about to see, according to the United States Air Force, could never happen. Let us pray that is actually true. There is need for such prayers, particularly with current events, as shall be apparent. Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) takes it upon himself to order his command, the 843rd Strategic Bomber Wing, to proceed from their standby positions outside of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and implement “Plan R.” For Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), this means they are to drop their nuclear payloads on their assigned Soviet targets. The problem back home, however, is that General Ripper has given this order without authority. The first one to notice the discrepancy is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British officer in the Royal Air Force (RAF) attached to the 843rd. When he points out the obvious fact that General Ripper is acting on his own, and that the United States is not under attack as the general has told everyone on his base, Group Captain Mandrake is told that there is a vast communist conspiracy to which they are responding. Namely, General Ripper believes Soviet agents are putting fluoride into American water in order to prevent Americans from replenishing their bodily fluids. Word of this gets to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), who only reluctantly tears himself away from his mistress and secretary to deal with the outbreak of nuclear war. He begins to take the matter more seriously when he learns that General Ripper has implemented Plan R. In the War Room, General Turgidson explains to President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), the parameters of this particular procedure in response to the commander-in-chief’s suggestions for dealing with the approaching catastrophe. Among other things, the policy calls for a relatively low-ranking general, like General Ripper, to have the authority to call for a nuclear strike in the event of an attack on the United States. After this, the base from which he gives the order is to go on complete lockdown. This General Ripper has done, ordering his soldiers to fire upon anyone to come to the base, even if they are American troops, because they will supposedly be Soviet infiltrators. Finally, he is the only one in possession of the code that can recall the planes proceeding to drop bombs on the Soviet Union. After all the offered theories as to how to prevent this tragedy are refuted by General Turgidson, he offers another solution: carrying out a full-scale nuclear attack now and wipe out the Soviets before they have a chance to react. President Muffley categorically denies this request, and instead invites in the Russian ambassador, Alexei de Sedeski (Peter Bull). President Muffley hopes to get his Soviet counterpart on the phone in order to deal with the American bombers. It is at this point that he learns of a Russian doomsday device that will trigger automatically in the event of a nuclear attack, killing all life on Earth. At the same time, he orders other military units to attack the 843rd’s base to try to get General Ripper on the phone. While the assault is underway, to General Turgidson’s horror, President Muffley gives the Soviet premier the information needed to shoot down the bombers. One of these missiles detonates near Major Kong’s B-52, causing significant damage, but still able to carry on with its mission. Meanwhile, back on the base, with bullets peppering General Ripper’s office, Group Captain Mandrake pleads with his American commanding officer to give the recall code. Before he can do so, though, General Ripper commits suicide. Distraught, Group Captain Mandrake looks over the scattered papers on General Ripper’s desk and believes that he might have the necessary code letters to call off the attack. Unfortunately, more precious time is wasted when the American officer that finds Group Captain Mandrake does not believe the British officer’s story. Furthermore, he has to use a payphone to call the president. Nonetheless, he eventually gets through and nearly all the planes are recalled. Remember how I said Major Kong’s vessel had taken a hit? Well, of course, their radio has been rendered inoperable. Therefore, they did not get the return order. Major Kong also has to repair the bomb bay doors himself, doing so just in time to ride the bomb down to its target, waving his cowboy hate excitedly in the air the whole way. This the iconic shot of the film. Meanwhile, those back in Washington know this means the end of the world, until Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) comes forward. An evident former Nazi, he suggests that they retreat into deep mineshafts for the next 100 years, and practice selective breeding in order to repopulate the world one day. Everyone seems to be okay with this course of action. Thus, we close with several shots of nuclear explosions, the song “We’ll Meet Again” playing in the background.
That song is a fitting entre into the synopsis portion of my review of Dr. Strangelove. There is a great deal of irony in the film. One of the more obvious is the giant billboard in a couple of the scenes of the base while under attack that says “Peace if Our Profession.” It is meant to imply that the goal of the military is to maintain harmonious relations among people, even though they are preemptively launching a nuclear attack on the USSR, not to mention killing each other. This is meant to be comedic. I have trouble laughing, though, when you are dealing with so-called doomsday devices and the manmade deaths of billions. It is man that is responsible for such tragedies, not God, as underscored by General Turgidson’s cavalier calculations as to an “acceptable” loss of ten to twenty million Americans if they went full scale in their bombardment of Russia. To be sure, the end of the world will come one day. Will it happen exactly as St. John tells us in the Book of Revelation? That is difficult to say. The Church is not “Sola Scriptura,” which, among other things, means that we interpret the Bible non-literally. It is pretty clear that the Sacred writers often wrote about Spiritual events symbolically, especially when it comes to the beginning and end of the world. Either way, odd as it might seem, there is a certain wisdom in the longer title of the film. It is natural to worry about such global events. While a nuclear holocaust is in our own hands as a race, and thus preventable, nothing can stop God’s ultimate plan for these times, whatever specific form they take. Because that day will be for His greater glory, there truly is nothing to worry about, as painful as it might be.
Dr. Strangelove is another Stanley Kubrick film that I am not entirely sure why it is so widely acclaimed. He has others on the AFI list through which I have been working. I do not appreciate the dark humor with which possible nuclear holocaust is treated. Also, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), there are many scenes that are pretty dull. The checking and double checking of procedures to drop the atomic bombs is shown in excruciating detail, and it was a struggle in these moments to keep my eyes open. In sum, I would watch something else.