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Out of This World

Dr. Strangelove* possesses a great many distinctions as a work of the imagination, but I should like to cite it, first and foremost, for valor: I think it may well be the most courageous movie ever made. It is certainly one of the funniest. A nightmare farce which proceeds from horror to horror, culminating in the annihilation of the human race after an American hydrogen bomb has been dropped on Russia, it is, despite its cata-clysmic conclusion, a peculiarly heady, exhilarating experience. I can account for this partially by the fact that the movie pays absolutely no deference at all to the expectations of its audience. Artistic courage always soothes the spirit and makes glad the heart, but when this quality enters as craven a medium as the American film one feels curiously exalted, ineffably happy. Then, too, there is something extraordinarily liberating in the nature of the movie itself. It is the kind of total theater that Antonin Artaud would have admired, with its dark humor, its physical and anarchic dissociation. Dr. Strangelove is a plague experienced in the nerves and the funny bone—a delirium, a conflagration, a social disaster.

What Stanley Kubrick has done is to break completely with all existing traditions of moviemaking, both foreign and domestic. While the European art film seems to be inexorably closing in on the spiritual lassitude of certain melancholy French or Italian aristocrats, Dr. Strangelove invests the film medium with a new exuberance, expansiveness, and broadness of vision; compared with the sweep of this masterpiece, the weary meanderings of Resnais, Fellini, and Antonioni seem solipsistic and self-indulgent. Moreover, Kubrick’s film is fun—this is its one debt to Hollywood. It is enjoyable for the way it exploits the exciting narrative conventions of the Hollywood war movie—say, Air Force or Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo—and even more, for the way it turns these conventions upside down, and cruelly scourges them. This is what is arrestingly new about the film: its wry, mordant, destructive, and, at the same time, cheerful, unmoralistic tone. We have heard this sound emanating from our comic novels, cabaret acts, satiric revues, living rooms, and dreams, but, although it rumbled a little bit under the conventional noises of The Manchurian Candidate, it has never before fully entered the mass media. With Dr. Strangelove, a subterranean vibration becomes a series of earthquakes, shattering cultural platitudes, political pieties, and patriotic ideals with fierce, joyous shocks. If the picture manages to remain open, it will knock the block off every ideologue in the country: even now, I suspect, Sidney Hook is preparing the first of fifteen volumes in rebuttal.

To avoid a repetition of Mr. Hook’s embarrassing performance on behalf of Fail-Safe, where he wrote some eighty-odd pages of closely reasoned, technical argumentation to refute the premise of a cheap, best-selling fantasy, let me announce that Dr. Strangelove is frankly offered to the audience as a cinematic sick joke, and that it is based less on verifiable facts than on unconscious terrors. The film’s source, a prototype for Fail-Safe, is Peter George’s Red Alert, but the film writers have employed the novel very loosely, and the director has imposed on the finished screen play his own style and purpose. This style is Juvenalian satire: this purpose, the evacuation of fear and anger through the acting out of frightful fantasies. Kubrick has flushed a monster from its psychic lair—the universal fear of nuclear accident—and then proceeded to feed and nourish it, letting it perform its worst before your eyes. The consequence of this spectacle is, as the subtitle suggests, a temporary purgation: to witness the end of the world as a comic event is, indeed, to stop worrying and to love the Bomb.

The outline of the film is this: a psychotic right-wing general, convinced that the Communists are poisoning Americans through fluoridation, exercises emergency powers and sends a wing command to bomb the Soviet Union. The President, trying to recall these bombers, learns that the Russians have perfected a deterrent, a Doomsday machine, which is automatically triggered to explode the moment a bomb is dropped on Soviet soil, spreading a shroud of fallout over the earth for a hundred years. After the general’s base has been destroyed by American forces, and the recall code has been found, both nations cooperate to bring the bombers back or shoot them down. One damaged plane, however, its radio inoperative, manages to continue on to target. Through the invincible doggedness of the pilot and his crew, a hydrogen bomb is dropped on a Soviet missile complex—and apocalypse follows.

Kubrick handles this external action with ruthless documentary realism. The battle scenes, for example, which show Amercians slaughtering Amercians, are photographed through a grey morning mist (the same smoky tones so effectively used in Kubick’s Paths of Glory) with a hand camera shaken by artillery explosions; and the flight of the bomber over Arctic wastes is a terrifying journey into the frozen unknown. At the same time, however, Kubrick is evoking savage ironies through the conjunction of unexpected images and sounds: the bomber, for example, proceeds to its destination (and to the destruction of the world) over a chorus of male voices humming “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

The same blend of farce and nightmare is found in other scenes. During the credits, a B-52 bomber is fueled in the air through a phallic hose, while the sound track plays “Try a Little Tenderness.” A looming shot of two monstrous hydrogen bombs, triggered and ready to go, reveals two scrawled messages on them, “Hi There!” and “Dear John.” And the epilogue is composed of a series of nuclear explosions (a sequence borrowed, I suspect, from a similar filmed skit used in The Establishment), which flower soundlessly while a female voice croons “We’ll meet again (don’t know where, don’t know when).”

What these images suggest is that our heroic postures and patriotic reflexes have become hideously inappropriate to modern weaponry—the same thing is illustrated by the conduct of the crew on the lethal bomber. Kubrick has sardonically included among these crew members the various ethnic stereotypes of Hollywood war movies: a Negro bombardier, a Jewish radio operator, a Texas pilot, etc., all of whom behave, in crisis, according to preconditioned movie patterns—they engage in sexual banter, become comradely, grow steely grim and fighting mad. When the order is received to proceed over enemy territory and drop the bomb, the Texas pilot, Major “King” Kong, takes off his helmet, puts on a ten-gallon hat, assumes an unctuous leader-of-men speaking style, and delivers an inspirational lecture to the crew about their duty to “the folks back home,” while promising them all decorations, “regardless of your race, color or creed.” When the plane is hit by a missile, he keeps it in action, flying low over putting peaks; and when the bomb doors stick, he courageously climbs into the bomb bay, determined to fix the short circuit and complete his mission.

Kong finally clears the doors, and goes sailing down to target on the back of a bomb, waving his hat and whooping like a rebel. American heroism has become completely identified with American lunacy. So has American know-how—it is almost a structural principle of this film that our technology is wholly mad. Inside the bomber, for example, the camera peeks into complicated equipment and technical apparati—the instrument panel, the radar, the navigator’s gear, the auto-destruct mechanism—all efficiently manipulated by this trained crew to create havoc and mass slaughter. The President’s War Room, similarly, with its huge locating charts, is a model of gleaming competence and quiet decorum (“You can’t fight in here,” says the President to two dissidents, “this is the War Room”). Even the telephone works as an obstacle to survival. In one hilarious sequence, a British officer—having discovered the recall code—is trying to phone Washington with only minutes to go; but he lacks the necessary change, and the Pentagon will not accept collect calls.

If our technology is mad, however, then so are the technicians who create, control, and operate it. Dr. Strangelove is a satire not only on nuclear war and warriors, but also on scientists, militarists, military intellectuals, diplomats, statesmen—all those in short, whose profession it is to think about the unthinkable. Thus, the movie contains a large number of superb caricatures, all treated either as knaves or fools, but still recognizable as familiar American types.

These include two sharp profiles of General Walker-like military men: General Jack D. Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden in another of his stiff, interesting non-performances—his eyes fanatically narrowed, his teeth clenched on a huge cigar, as he drawls to an aide about how he confines himself to pure alcohol and rain water and refrains from sexual intercourse to protect his natural essences against the Communist conspiracy; and General Buck Turgidson, Air Force Chief of Staff, played by George C. Scott in a fine frenzy of muscle-flexing pugnacity—stuffing his mouth with wads of chewing gum, and flashing an evil smile as he outlines his plan to obliterate the “commie punks” entirely (“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, Mr. President, but I do say not more than ten to twenty million dead depending on the breaks”).

Then, there are three magnificent satiric sketches by Peter Sellers: Group Captain Mandrake. Ripper’s befuddled British aide; President Merkin Muffley, a bald, bland, liberal Chief Executive, educated and slightly effeminate (a merkin according to the OED, is a “female pudendum,” while muffley is an obsolete word for a pubic wig); and, finally, that eerie figure from the Bland Corporation, the German scientist, Dr. Strangelove.

Strangelove (formerly Merkwuerdigichliebe) is the most masterly character in the film, a composite portrait of Edward Teller, Werner von Braun, and Herman Kahn, played by Sellers with an excess of mischief, and conceived by Kubrick in an excess of fury. Imprisoned in a wheel chair, his mechanical hand gloved in black, his face fixed in a perpetual smile, he stares through dark glasses and sibilates through false teeth, suggesting emotion only through a slight emphasis on certain phrases, the word human being particularly distasteful to him. Strangelove is the perfect synthetic man, and he comes to us by courtesy of a Universal horror movie. In his person, the Mad Doctor and the State Scientist merge—Boris Karloff with a computer, calculating the proper use of deterrents and the half-life of cobalt-thorium-G.

This is extravagant enough, but towards the end, Strangelove goes completely haywire. So does the movie, as if Kubrick, having breathed the air of the outer limits for the first time, were suffering from stratospheric drunkenness. The bomb has been dropped; the doomsday shroud is beginning to smother all life on earth; and Strangelove is outlining his plan for preserving “a nucleus of human specimens” at the bottom of mine shafts. His explanation is disarmingly rational but his mechanical hand has gone out of control. It shoots up in a Nazi salute, it punches him on the jaw, it strangles him, and finally it propels him right out of his wheelchair—where-upon he screams at the President, “Mein Fuehrer, I can walk!” The lunatic inappropriateness of the remark somehow sums up all the lunatic inappropriateness of the theatrics and celluloid heroics that have preceded it; and it makes the devastation that follows seem singularly fitting and just.

Dr. Strangelove is a work of comic anarchy, fashioned by a totally disaffected and disaffiliated imagination: it is thus the first American movie to speak truly for our generation. Kubrick has managed to explode the right-wing position without making a single left-wing affirmation: the odor of the Thirties, which clung even to the best work of Chaplin, Welles, and Huston, has finally been disinfected here. Disinfected, in fact, is the stink of all ideological thinking. For although Dr. Strangelove is about a political subject, its only politics is outrage against the malevolence of officialdom. Conservatives will find it subversive, liberals will find it irresponsible, utopians will find it bleak, humaniarians will find it inhuman—Dr.Strangelove is all these things. But it also releases, through comic poetry, those feelings of impotence and frustration that are consuming us all; and I can’t think of anything more important for an imaginative work to do.

Letters

Strangelove & Fail-Safe March 5, 1964

  1. *

    Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George.

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