Learning to Love the Bomb: Sex, Laughter, and the End of the World in Dr. Strangelove

drstrangeloveposterOn the day after its release in 1964, Bosley Crowther, the irascible film critic for The New York Times, described Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across.” Clearly, whether his scandalized assessment of the film is fair or not, Crowther had failed to absorb the significance of Strangelove‘s rather unwieldy subtitle: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This is not terribly surprising, for, as Sigmund Freud observed, “[J]okes that have a purpose run the risk of meeting with people who do not want to listen to them.” Freud, as it happens, is precisely the right name to invoke in connection with Dr. Strangelove. His theories play a significant role in the film, both in its barely-disguised subtext and in the very fabric of its formation.

According to James B. Harris, Kubrick’s producing partner on a number of his early films, in 1962 “Stanley became terribly interested in the thermonuclear dilemma, and when we finished Lolita, this was all that was on his mind: the possibilities of a nuclear holocaust.” So obsessive was Kubrick’s interest that he read some 50 books on the subject during this time, and eventually acquired the film rights to Peter George’s Red Alert, aka Two Hours to Doom with the intention of crafting a grim, realistic thriller about the possibility of nuclear war. However, as Kubrick and Harris worked on a screenplay for the film, tentatively titled The Delicate Balance of Terror, a strange thing occurred.

In sessions that lasted late into the night, the two found that a certain farcical levity tended to creep into their conversations about the story, growing increasingly sillier as the hour grew later. Then, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis (during which the United States arguably came closer to open nuclear conflict than ever, either before or since), Kubrick was increasingly struck by the public’s fatalistic acceptance of the probability of nuclear annihilation. In the end, he decided that his material worked better as comedy than as tragedy, and the real seeds of what would eventually become Dr. Strangelove finally began to take root.

mushroom1In fact, comedy or not, Strangelove displays a very well-grounded understanding of the geopolitical nuclear stage, showcasing a surprisingly meticulous depiction of the nuclear tactics, policies, and capabilities that were available to the public at the time of production. The film effectively combines this rigorously-researched material with a very playful (one might even say juvenile) understanding of Freudian psychosexual development to satirically suggest that global military and political power rests in the hands of a group of overgrown adolescent males who are both motivated and inhibited by their sexual insecurities. For these men, the hydrogen bomb becomes a symbol of sexual potency and orgasmic release.

comedyMeanwhile, in resorting to comedy to drive home the point about nuclear war, Kubrick works out his nuclear neuroses, thereby illustrating the Freudian conception of humor as a socially-acceptable means of expressing sentiments which society otherwise suppresses. By gleefully mocking his characters’ love of the bomb as a source of sexual release in Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick shows his Cold War audience how they, too, can learn to love the bomb: as a source of humorous release rather than repressed anxiety.

There are six major characters in Dr. Strangelove, divided evenly between two types: emasculated males and hypermasculine males. The hypermasculine characters are oversexed, and their appetites reveal them to be psychologically unstable. All three are American military men, and they share a deep distrust of communists and communism which leads them to contemplate unthinkable actions. Meanwhile, the emasculated characters are sexually impotent and unable to prevent the fallout which results from their counterparts’ misplaced sexual energy, finally opting to join them instead. All three emasculated characters (two of whom are foreign) are played by Peter Sellers.


planes1The film sets its tone during the opening credits by using stock footage of a midair refueling operation, edited to imply that the two planes are copulating as romantic music plays over the scene. The insinuation is funny, but it also immediately establishes a connection between martial and sexual imagery. Theplanes2 American bomber being refueled is presumably one of the nuclear-armed B-52s assigned to constantly hold a position just outside Russian radar coverage, ready to attack at a moment’s notice. However, this watchful image is ridiculed and somewhat undercut by the implied sexuality of the scene.

The first two major characters to be introduced are officers at Burpleson Air Force base: base commander General Jack D. Ripper and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British soldier stationed there as part of an officer-exchange program. The two men have a phone conversation, and Ripper orders Mandrake to have the bomber wing execute “Plan R.” We will soon learn that this is a nuclear contingency plan which allows the United States to respond in the event of a sneak attack by Soviet forces that has destroyed the American chain of command. We also learn that Ripper is insane, and has used the plan as a loophole to launch a preemptive nuclear strike, hoping to force the American government to commit to a full-scale attack.

bodilyfluidsCharacter names are very significant in Dr. Strangelove, and Ripper’s name is a clear reference to “Jack the Ripper,” the serial murderer who brutally killed several London prostitutes in the late 1800s. Ripper’s name is indicative of his misogyny, which he has projected into a paranoid conspiracy theory. Ripper believes that the fluoridation of water is part of communist plot to pollute his bodily fluids and steal his essence. After Mandrake asks Ripper when he first developed his theory, Ripper replies:

I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love […] A profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness, followed. Luckily, I was able to interpret these feelings correctly: loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.

Ripper’s suspicion that women are sexual vampires has become connected to his fear of a communist invasion. The physical nature of the sex act, and his wariness of it, drives Ripper’s irrational impulse to guard the purity of his bodily fluids against ideological incursion.

phallus1Ripper’s intensely masculine and open sexuality is manifested in the phallic cigar he chomps on throughout all of his scenes. When he is first introduced, the camera looks up at his face from below, dramatically emphasizing the long, thin cigar dangling from his lips. This phallic imagery is further reinforced by the large number of guns in his office, most notably the enormous machine gun that he pulls out of a golf bag to retaliate with when the phallus2base comes under attack. The weapon is so massive that Ripper has to operate it at crotch level, holding it as though it were literally a giant penis. Ripper finally commits suicide in the bathroom after his troops surrender. It is implied that he shoots himself partially to escape torture, and partially because his soldiers, his “children,” have let him down.

Mandrake forms a striking contrast to his superior. His name, which includes the words “lion” and “man,” seems at first glance to be a very masculine one. However, “Lionel” actually means “lion cub.” A “mandrake” is, of course, a plant whose roots are said to resemble a small person, which might refer to Mandrake’s helplessness in Ripper’s presence. However, a “drake” is also a type of small cannon, so that the name could conceivably be read as “man with a small penis.” Mandrake is emasculated in Ripper’s presence, despite the fact that he is a very sane and level-headed individual and his superior is a madman. Although Mandrake has good intentions and wishes to avert the imminent nuclear holocaust, he becomes simply an extension of Ripper’s will.

hugsAt first, he acts unwittingly, relaying Ripper’s commands to the bomber wing before he knows what is going on. Later, when he discovers his mistake, he does not immediately realize the full extent of the situation, allowing himself to be trapped in Ripper’s office. There, face to face with the insane general, he crumples into himself, collapsing onto a nearby sofa and laughing nervously as Ripper puts an arm around him and lowers his voice intimately. Obviously, Mandrake hopes to stay close to Ripper so that he can somehow discover the recall code which will call off the attack. However, in the meantime he collaborates with Ripper, even to the point of helping him fire the machine gun on the attacking American troops.

feedmeThe most forceful objection he makes is a lame complaint that he is physically unable to move from where he is due to an old war injury. Later, when he is trying once more to learn the code, he appeals to the camaraderie they’ve established, and his description of the fight has a shade of homoeroticism:

[G]ive me the code now, and if those devils come back and try any rough stuff, we’ll fight them together, boy! Like we did just now on the floor, eh? You with the old gun, and me with the belt and the ammo, feeding you, Jack! ‘Feed me,’ you said, and I was feeding you, Jack!

Mandrake has been sexually dominated by Ripper, and is completely helpless. He even fails to prevent Ripper’s suicide (or realize that it is imminent). Only when the other man is dead does Mandrake seem to regain enough composure to discover the code.

batguanoAt this point, Mandrake is interrupted by a minor character, the fantastically-named Colonel Bat Guano. Guano’s name is a reference to his anal retentiveness, and he stubbornly clings to the proper procedures despite the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, Mandrake furiously and frantically tries to explain the situation, and then turns to bullying. Guano maintains his composure throughout. His interactions with Mandrake are complicated by his suspicion that Mandrake is “some kind of deviated prevert [sic]” who was “organizing some kind of mutiny of preverts.” When Mandrake convinces Guano to let him step into the phone booth to attempt to callpreversions the president, Guano warns, “If you try any preversions in there, I’ll blow your head off.” Guano’s foolish belief that Mandrake is a sexual deviant could be seen as a joke about American perception of foreign (particularly European) sexuality; however it also reinforces the hint of homosexual tension between Ripper and Mandrake in the preceding scenes.

playboyThe third major character to appear is the hypermasculine Texan bomber pilot, Major T. J. “King” Kong. Kong’s name reveals him to be an exceptionally primitive man. He may possess great strength (in this case, strength of will, or courage), but he is incapable of independent thought, and not very intelligent. He is first seen in close-up, sitting in the pilot’s seat of the giant bomber he is flying, staring intently forward. As the camera pulls back we see that he is absorbed, not in some complex chart or delicate instrument, but with a Playboy magazine.

centerfoldAs though in answer to any possible defense, the shot cuts to a view over his shoulder, and we see that he is not simply reading one of the articles, but is devouring the magazine’s centerfold with his gaze (more about her in a moment). Kong’s first reaction upon receiving Plan R is one of disbelief. However, once the order is confirmed, he takes off his helmet and dons a cowboy hat. The change draws attention to his identity as a “cowboy,” a reckless, thrill-seeking person who is oblivious to the nuances of his position.

When Kong and his crew examine the details of the plan, they discover that their primary target is “the ICBM complex at Laputa.” Laputa, of course, is the name of the rational, scientifically-advanced country described in the third voyage of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, perhaps a reference in this case to the nuclear insanity created by rational, scientific minds. However, “la puta” is also Spanish for “the whore” (a fact that Swift himself may have been aware of). There is an obvious level of irony in a nuclear attack on “the whore” ordered by Jack D. Ripper, and a number of cruder parallels could be drawn between the nuclear payload in the bomber headed for its target and sexual intercourse.

vegasweekendMeanwhile, Kong’s baser interests continue to inform his outlook, as he reads off the contents in the crew’s survival kits and finds that they include such odd items as “three lipsticks” and “three pair of nylon stockings.” “Shoot,” he exclaims as he reaches the end of the list, “a feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.” Most notably, however, Kong is the man who, screaming with pleasure, rides the bomb like an enormous phallus to the nuclear orgasm which sets off the Doomsday Machine, giving birth to the final orgy of mushroom-cloud explosions.


missscottThe fourth major character to appear is General “Buck” Turgidson, Major Kong’s loud and hypermasculine double at Strategic Air Command (SAC). The nickname “Buck” implies both youth and sexual virility, while the “turgid” of the surname brings to mind both an enlarged sexual organ, and the general’s bombastic nature. Turgidson’s first scene begins with a woman stretched out face-down on a bed in a bikini.

paperworkThe woman is Miss Scott, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, and the film’s lone female character. Lest there be any confusion about the complete sexual objectification of women by men in Dr. Strangelove, Miss Scott also appears as the centerfold in Major Kong’s Playboy. This is further emphasized when Miss Scott answers the phone a few moments later, and greets the officer on the other end with an affectionate nickname after glancing over her shoulder to ensure that Turgidson is not within earshot. A few moments later, she claims that she and Turgidson are “just catching up on some of the general’s paperwork.”

buckMuch of the humor in this scene stems from the fact that the officer on the line has called to inform Turgidson of the imminent nuclear disaster, and has literally caught him with his pants down; not only in flagrante delicto with his secretary, but in the bathroom relieving himself. More comedy ensues as Turgidson is forced to communicate with the other officer by shouting to Miss Scott from the toilet. The introduction is fitting, as Turgidson is the sort of person who is often heard before he is seen. When he finally emerges to take the phone, he is wearing a swimsuit (or possibly a pair of boxer shorts) and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt. There is an impression of laid-back slovenliness about him, particularly when he idly slaps his bare stomach while he discusses the possibility that someone might have just ordered an unauthorized nuclear strike.

sayyourprayersAfter he hangs up, he begins to casually get dressed so he can go assess the situation, comforting Miss Scott with a promise to return soon. It is unclear here whether Turgidson is infantilizing Miss Scott by hiding the truth and telling her what she wants to hear, or is simply blasé about the situation. The next time we see Turgidson, he is in full uniform sitting with the other high-ranking members of the military and government in the War Room at the Pentagon. Here he takes a phone call from Miss Scott in the midst of the crucial gathering. After irately reminding her that she is never to call him there he goes on the defensive, protesting that he wants to marry her someday and assuring her that “of course it isn’t only physical! I deeply respect you as a human being.” Before he hangs up, he reminds her to say her prayers.

baldThis scene also finally introduces the fifth major character, United States President Merkin Muffley. A “merkin” is a pubic wig, while “muff” is vulgar slang for the female pubic area. Muffley himself is bald, which makes his name doubly ironic and further signals his impotence. The relationship between Muffley and Turgidson is essentially a reversal of the relationship between Ripper and Mandrake, with the emasculated Muffley in a position of authority over Turgidson. However, Muffley’s position as Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world does not ultimately enable him to avert disaster, despite his best efforts.

phonecall1Actually, he spends much of his time attempting to deal with Turgidson, either prying information from him, vetoing his ideas, or keeping him away from the Russian ambassador (Alexei de Sadesky, presumably named in reference to the Marquis de Sade, invoking an impression of licentiousness and excess). Muffley is unsuccessful in his dealings with others as well, most notably Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissoff, with whom he speaks on the phone. Their conversation is awkward and silly, and quickly takes on the tone of twophonecall2 quarreling lovers (Kissoff is drunk and at a party). Kissoff is another infantile character (although he never appears). In addition to the carousing we hear about over the phone, it is later revealed that the Soviets have disastrously kept the existence of their Doomsday Machine a secret because Kissoff loves surprises.

chewinggumTurgidson, for his part, frequently reacts to Muffley’s reprimands by sulking like a young schoolboy. Throughout the scenes in the War Room, he is chewing gum, occasionally adding another stick to the large wad stuffed into his cheek. This oral fixation, which mirrors Ripper’s devotion to cigars, denotes Turgidson’s immature nervousness in Muffley’s presence, and his furious chewing reveals his petulant frustration at being chastised.

bigboardWhen Muffley allows de Sadesky access to the War Room, Turgidson becomes extremely anxious, protesting, “He’ll see everything! He’ll see the Big Board!” As de Sadesky enters the room, Turgidson gathers his Top Secret notebooks and hugs them protectively to his chest as though he feels exposed. Moments later, the two are tussling over a small spy camera hidden in a matchbox (“Gentlemen,” Muffley protests, “you can’t fight in here! This iswarroom the War Room!”). The two antagonists bicker over whether de Sadesky was using the camera to spy or Turgidson was attempting to plant it on him. The tone of their altercation suggests two small boys fighting in front of their father, and it is clear that Turgidson craves parental approval from Muffley.

wheelchairThe final major character, the title character, is also the most complex, and isn’t officially introduced (although he can be spotted in the background) until nearly an hour into the film. Dr. Strangelove is a former Nazi scientist who has become the president’s top nuclear advisor (we are told he changed his name from “Merkwuerdigichliebe,” or “Strangely I love” when he became an American citizen). Strangelove is in a wheelchair, and appears to lack the use of his lower body, signaling his impotence.

strangleHis ailment is the result of a fractured psyche, part Nazi German and part American, which has split right down the middle of his body. He is literally a man at war with himself. One leg operates independently of the other and he has no control over his right hand (which is encased in a black glove and frequently works to hamper his movement). Even his hair rebels, the right side puffed out into a bizarre and unsettling wave, and he frequently meinfuhrerforgets himself when he speaks, referring to Muffley as “Mein Fuhrer.” Strangelove is yet another intelligent and powerful character who is unable to avert a nuclear crisis. Despite his intimate knowledge of the subject, he is not in control of the monster he has created (his research into the possibilities of a Doomsday Machine prompted the Soviets to build one).

breedprodigiouslyIn the final scene in the War Room, placed between Major Kong’s detonation of the bomb and the flurry of mushroom-cloud explosions which signal the end of the world, Dr. Strangelove comes forward to outline a plan for the preservation of humanity. He proposes that a group of Americans, to be selected based on a variety of qualities, could be housed in a deep mineshaft for a period of a hundred years to escape the deadly radiation on the surface. His idea captures the attention (and imagination) of Muffley and Turgidson when he explains that “of course it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition.” Their interest is heightened further when Strangelove describes a necessary ratio of ten females to each male, to ensure prodigious breeding to repopulate the planet, and adds that “the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics, which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.”

highlystimulatingThroughout this scene, Sellers’ comedy becomes increasingly physical as Strangelove involuntary gives the Nazi salute, swivels his wheelchair back and forth, and tries to strangle himself. While he is explaining the “prodigious service” which will be required of the men in the mineshafts, his eyes widen and drop to his lap, where (it is implied) his black-gloved hand is stimulating him sexually. His plan naturally excites the lecherous Turgidson and his Soviet counterpart de Sadesky, but it also seems to convince Muffley, bringing the three unexpectedly into harmony.

icanwalkMost significantly, as he warms to the possibilities of his plan, Dr. Strangelove suddenly stands up from his wheelchair and takes a halting step forward before forgetting himself completely and crying out, “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” With the earth’s surface about to become as lifeless as a moonscape, only the prospect of unbridled sexual activity can revitalize the characters, hypermasculine and emasculated alike, and unite Strangelove’s fractured identity behind a unified purpose, curing him of his crippling ailment. The scene cuts directly from Strangelove’s exuberant cry to a montage of nuclear explosions accompanied by the sentimental romantic ballad “We’ll Meet Again,” and the audience is left to connect these violent ejaculations with the sexual ejaculations which are implied deep beneath the earth’s surface. Dr. Strangelove concludes where it began, by humorously suggesting biological copulation with symbolic martial imagery.

piefightCrowther’s review of Dr. Strangelove reveals a belief that certain subjects should not be treated lightly. Ironically, Kubrick seems to have shared this belief. The film was due to premiere on the evening of November 22, 1963, but was delayed (as many films were) due to the assassination of President Kennedy. Before it finally reached movie screens some months later, one of Major Kong’s lines was redubbed: Where he had previously said “A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff” the location was changed to “Vegas.” More significantly, the film was originally supposed to end with a giant cream pie fight between the men in the War Room. However, at one point, Muffley is hit in the face with a pie, and Turgidson cries out, “Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!” The scene was cut.

Despite this seeming repression, the comedy of Dr. Strangelove is clearly constructed out of Freud’s two types of tendentious jokes (that is, “jokes that have a purpose”): the hostile and the obscene. Kubrick uses hostile jokes as a means of attacking what he regards as foolish American foreign policy, while at the same time ridiculing the paranoia and ignorance of the extreme right-wing. He uses obscene jokes both as another way to mock his targets and for the additional comic value of dirty humor, referred to by Freud as “smut,” or “the intentional bringing into prominence of sexual facts and relations made by speech.” By subordinating Freudian theories of human sexuality to Freudian theories of humorous release, Kubrick manages to acceptably communicate his otherwise inappropriate message through Dr. Strangelove, which continues to evoke both laughter and thought in audiences nearly five decades after its release.

~ by Jared on March 31, 2009.

One Response to “Learning to Love the Bomb: Sex, Laughter, and the End of the World in Dr. Strangelove

  1. […] من النقاط والمشاهد في الفيلم، والتي تحمل رمزية جنسية بداية من مشهد الافتتاح عندما تعتلي إحدى الطائرات حاملة الوقود طائرة أخرى […]


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