Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Act I

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Stanley Kubrick is lauded, justifiably, for his uncanny eye for composition and his chilly way of setting up a shot. But for me, Kubrick’s genius, like Tarantino’s, begins long before the cameras roll. It begins with his understanding of character and his approach to narrative, both of which were mind-bending for their times and still arresting today.

Dr. Strangelove has three plot-lines and three protagonists, each with his own antagonist. When I first sat down to analyze the screenplay, it seemed to me that the protagonists were Group Captain Mandrake, President Muffley and Major Kong. Two of those characters are "good guys," that is, characters who are actively trying to prevent nuclear war and the end of the world.

But then I went back and looked again and realized that no, the three protagonists of Dr. Strangelove are General Ripper, the lunatic who starts the plot into motion, General Turgidson, who realizes the genius of Ripper’s plan and presses it upon President Muffley, and Major Kong, who, despite all the obstacles in his path, manages to heroically detonate his nuclear weapon and therefore bring about the end of the world. Mandrake is not a protagonist, he’s Ripper’s antagonist. Muffley is Turgidson’s antagonist, and Kong’s antagonist is his own goddamned airplane, the machine that’s supposed to help him do his job but which turns against him in Act III. Dr. Strangelove is about three men at different levels of military command who conceive of and execute a foolproof plan to blow up the world. The drama of the movie springs from the tension they encounter from the pedestrian minds (and machines) who can’t see how brilliant their idea is.

Why do these three men want so badly to blow up the world? It seems that they all suffer from some sort of sexual displacement or malfunction, which we’ll discuss as we go along. The movie sets up the sexual subtext of the narrative during the opening titles, where we see footage of two bombers in a mid-air refueling session, with heavy overtones of sexual innuendo, and music appropriate for a "music for romance" album.

First we meet Group Captain Mandrake, who at first appears to be the protagonist. Mandrake gets a phone call from a paranoid, agitated General Ripper. Ripper orders Mandrake to seal the base, impound every radio and transmit "Plan R" to the bomber wing. Plan R is an important engine to drive the narrative, almost a maguffin — it’s a specific attack plan formulated for when the normal chain of command has been compromised — but we don’t know that yet. It appears for the moment that Mandrake is the protagonist of Dr. Strangelove and his goal is "to solve the mystery of Plan R" — why has General Ripper given such a radical order?

Next we meet our second protagonist, Major Kong, the pilot of the B-52 that will eventually trigger Armageddon. When we first see Major Kong, he’s reading a copy of Playboy. While hurtling through the air in a massive phallic symbol and with nothing but men on hand, one can hardly blame him for seeking a little release through pornography. The other men are reading, snacking or snoozing, very much a picture of barracks life. Into this idyll enters the CRM -114, another device, literally, a machine so important to the narrative that it almost becomes a character, the way that the HAL 9000 becomes a character in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The CRM-114 is the coded radio through which all commands from the base must pass. This narrow channel is one of Ripper’s secret weapons, a key device in both the literary and mechanical sense.

The first thing Kong does when he realizes that his nation is at war and it’s his job to even the score is to dash to his safe and take out his cowboy hat. The hat, of course, is a powerful symbol, especially for Kong, who appears to be Texan. The cowboy hat denotes, to him, the "real America," the frontier, Manifest Destiny and expansion of empire. He gives an inspirational speech to his men where he both assures them that the United States has been utterly destroyed (because of the provisions of Plan R) and that they will all be in line for promotions and medals after this is all over.

Next we meet General Buck Turgidson, and we meet him in a unique way — through his secretary, who is lounging on his bed while he uses the bathroom. Turgidson is taking a long time in the bathroom, as well he might — obviously he’s having trouble getting something out of his system. His secretary, who fields a call from the Pentagon for him, is wearing a bikini and heels — she’s set for an evening of lovemaking with Turgidson. (She is also having an affair with the man on the phone.) The fact that she’s tanning herself on the bed suggests to me that, whatever activities she has planned with Turgidson that night, she hasn’t gotten anywhere. She seethes sexual frustration and unhappiness — Turgidson is not giving her what she wants. The mystery of Plan R unfolds some more: Turgidson knows what it means, Mandrake knows what it means, Kong knows what it means and Ripper knows what it means — everyone knows what it means except us, and the tantalizing mystery of Plan R will carry us through to the end of Act I. Turgidson is ordered to the Pentagon to oversee this unfolding crisis, and he slinks off from his secretary without getting what he wanted from her. Strangely, he doesn’t show any sign of panic or even concern — rather, he talks to his secretary/date exactly in the manner of a man sneaking off to meet another woman. And we will eventually learn that the Pentagon, and the military power it represents, is Turgidson’s other woman. What his secretary cannot give him, total nuclear annihilation will.

Now we go back to the base. We see Ripper giving his own inspirational speech to the troops from his office. Ripper’s sexual problems are so pronounced he needs to grip two phallic symbols for this scene, his cigar and a microphone. Meanwhile, Mandrake finds asmall transistor radio hidden in a telex machine. The radio plays pop music. This shocks Mandrake, but we don’t quite yet know why yet.

Back on the B-52, the orders for Plan R are retrieved from the safe. And again, we see a close alliance of war and sex — there’s a pinup on the inside of the safe door. We then get a long detailed scene about how Plan R will work and what it means to the men on the plane. Kubrick is fascinated by process and he sweats the details; the explication of Plan R on the B-52 is an early cousin to the eight minutes of docking spacecraft in 2001 and the entire first act of Full Metal Jacket — it’s all about men caught up in the machine, being reduced to cogs in a vast undertaking they don’t understand and don’t care to. We also get another key piece of exposition here, as one of the steps of Plan R is to set the CRM-114’s three-letter code prefix. We still don’t know what that CRM-114 does exactly, but we’re getting there.

Back at the base, Mandrake goes to Ripper’s office with his radio. The radio, he says, could not be playing pop songs if Plan R were being implemented. We still don’t know what that means yet exactly, Kubrick is going to keep it mysterious until the end of the act. Ripper now reveals his part of this three-protagonist plot, and the movie undergoes a shift. Up ’til now, we’ve thought that the good, upright, sensible Mandrake was the protagonist of his story, but Ripper turns the tables — he is the protagonist, and Mandrake is his antagonist. He’ll gain other antagonists as the narrative progresses, but for now it’s him and Mandrake. Ripper tells Mandrake almost every detail of his brilliant plan, leaving out only the specifics of Plan R, which both he and Mandrake already understand. There’s no "As you know, Mandrake" scene here. The thrust of the plan is that Ripper has done an end-run around the normal chain of command, and he’s confident that once the people in Washington see the brilliance of his plan they’ll have no choice but to implement it. Ripper, who feels that warfare is too important to be left in the hands of politicians, is staging a military coup in order to get what he wants. And what does he want? Like Kong and Turgidson, Ripper wants — needs, badly — a way to vent his sexual frustrations. It will take us a while to fully understand the breadth and depth of Ripper’s sexual displacement, but for now we’re left to ponder the meaning of his concern about "communist infiltration of our precious bodily fluids."

Now we switch to the War Room and check in with Turgidson. We meet Turgidson’s antagonist, President Muffley. President Muffley is exactly the kind of person Ripper feels should not be allowed to fight wars, a Stevenson-esque politician prone to mistakes like "common sense" and "humanity" and "compassion." The thrust of this long scene involves Muffley trying to get from Turgidson exactly how the world has gotten into this mess, how could a general have declared nuclear war without the President’s say-so? And finally, Plan R is spelled out for us: Plan R exists for a general to be able to declare war if the President has already been killed. Which finally explains why Kong is so gung-ho, and why Mandrake was so alarmed at the radio — according to Plan R, the United States should already be largely destroyed, if only its major cities and government centers. Next we get the crucial information about the CRM-114, the maguffin that will drive Act II; in order to recall the planes from their bomb runs, the order must come with the proper three-letter coded prefix. The writing of this all is brilliant — the plot hinges on these ridiculously complicated, uncinematic devices, but because Kubrick stages the act as a mystery, we don’t sit impatiently while Turgidson runs through his exposition — we’re glad to hear what the hell is goingon finally. By the time Turgidson is through, the comprehensive brilliance of Ripper’s plan is finally clear and the table is set: the US is trapped, they must fully commit to all-out nuclear war, or else suffer a devastating defeat. Turgidson gets visibly excited when he details the plan (as sheepish as he gets when his girlfriend/secretary calls — again, he acts exactly like a man who’s been caught cheating) and he becomes agitated when Muffley digs in his heels and orders the arrest of Ripper, and then, to top it off, invites the Russian ambassador to the War Room to oversee communications between Muffley and the Russian premier. So not only is Muffley a weak-spined politician, not a "real man," but he’s a communist collaborator to boot!

In Act II, Muffley and Mandrake, who never meet each other, will work together to get that three-letter prefix that will recall the bombers.


43 Responses to “Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Act I”
  1. perich says:

    (1) Yes, please; more like this.

    (2) President Muffley does react with that sort of prissy, passive aggression that marked the Unmanly Men of early 20th century film (“when you instituted the human reliability tests, you assured me …”).

    • Todd says:

      Well, and Turgidson is also something of a politician in the early part of the scene, equivocating and making excuses. It’s not until he’s able to express the full brilliance of Ripper’s plan that he starts coming into his own.

      • perich says:

        Good observation. That’s also part of George Scott’s genius as an actor. Lesser actors would try to fill each line in the debriefing with momentous import (“Mr. President, about 35 minutes ago, General Jack Ripper …”). But Scott delivers the initial briefing with the detachment of someone who gives this sort of news every day. It takes real acting chops – and probably some coaching by Kubrick – to pull off that sort of casualness.

        • Todd says:

          I don’t know how much Kubrick really understood about acting. Near the end of his life, he was talking about his habit of shooting so many goddamn takes and said that he really just didn’t know what he wanted, he was always just waiting for the actor to do something interesting. I don’t remember an actor ever mentioning that Kubrick was a big help in realizing their performance, rather the opposite, that he was cruel and remote on the set. I know that he liked working with Scott because he was a chess player, and Kubrick liked to play chess during setups.

          • Anonymous says:

            According to a couple of bios I’ve read, Kubrick liked to push the actors to bigger and broader performances, he kept going until they nearly broke … Scott was initially horrified at his performance, felt to was far to broad and mannered, but later in life he appreciated it much more and let Kubrick know.

            He often just let Sellers go … in fact, in the scene where his arm (as Strangelove) starts to go wild, you can see the Russian trying to mask his laughter. Sellers liked Kubrick because he could literally go mad for him.

            He did the same on THE SHINING, let Jack go really, really nuts (much to King’s consternation) but it didn’t work with everyone … Scatman Crothers hated working for him, and Shelly Duvall was berated by him famously (if you’ve seen the doc by Kubrick’s daughter). He just pushed and pushed until you either went mad or pushed back.

            Which helps this movie,of course.

            Kubrick’s always liked to do that, but I feel the real stunning performance in this particular film is Sterling Hayden …

            Joshua James

            • Todd says:

              Kubrick’s catch-phrase was “It’s real, but is it interesting?” and I don’t think it’s a question of broadness or craziness because there’s generally a real intelligence behind a Kubrick performance. The other thing to consider is that, while Kubrick certainly enjoyed working with big actors, his other extreme was to work with blandly handsome leading men and have them give really buttoned-down performances. On the one hand you’ve got Sellers, Nicholson and McDowell, and on the other you’ve got O’Neal, Dullea, Modine and Cruise.

  2. misterseth says:

    Turgidson gets visibly excited when he details the plan (as sheepish as he gets when his girlfriend/secretary calls — again, he acts exactly like a man who’s been caught cheating)
    This reminds me of the earlier scene when Turgidson leaves his girlfriend with the excuse ‘The Air Force never sleeps! Where are my shorts?’
    A soldier commited to duty, yet caught with his pants down.

  3. An excellent article on an excellent film, looking forward to the other parts

  4. Anonymous says:

    I finally got to see this movie earlier in the year (Thank you Netflix Instant). It has become a permanent fixture in my Queue and I’ve probably seen it five times since then.

    After the second time, I checked here because I thought for sure Todd would have an analysis. I was very disappointed, but now here it is! Glad you’re back Todd.

  5. craigjclark says:

    The CRM-114

    Kubrick evidently liked it so much that it became a recurring motif in his subsequent films, the most obvious being Serum 114, which is administered to Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

    • Todd says:

      Re: The CRM-114

      Serum 114 being yet another crucial device that drives the act and enslaves its protagonist.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: The CRM-114

        Even more interesting and somewhat oddly enigmatic is that Bill Harford finds the morgue in Eyes Wide Shut in wing C, room 114 (C Rm114).

        Eyes Wide Shut is stuffed to the gills with references back to all of his other films, so it may have just been another of the dozens of self-references (or references by nerdy production designers hiding easter eggs to show their excitement to be working on a Kubrik film), but I am quite interested what possible significance the code had to him to use it again in Clockwork Orange.

        • Todd says:

          Re: The CRM-114

          I’m surprised the icky room in The Shining is 237 instead of 114. That way, Halloran could say to Danny, “Don’t you see room 114.”

  6. mr_noy says:

    Fascinating. I never thought of Ripper/Turgidson/Kong as the protagonists. At the very least I always thought of Mandrake as the one the audience is most likely to identify with. This is one my all time favorites and looking forward to the rest of your analysis.

  7. marcochacon says:

    I am fascinated by decisions ‘not to explain’ in film. I loved the way No Country for Old Men showed us the people doing things and lacked voice-over or a foil to ask questions (in fact, the only explanation in that movie I can recall is organic to it: the older cop tells the younger one what he’s doing as a training exercise).

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Strangelove but as I read your review I kept reaching for a term and then you hit it: the “as you know” dialog. Did Kubrick really realize that not telling us would get his exposition more attention? Or did he simply refuse to write “as you know” dialog and decide to bareface it out.

    Your write up implies the former (he frames it as a mystery) and you may well be right.

    Is there any “as you know” dialog in any of his other movies? In 2001, maybe? I can’t remember.

    Anyway: great to see you doing this. Keep it up–I’m loving it!


    • notthebuddha says:

      Is there any “as you know” dialog in any of his other movies?

      There’s a couple of expository lumps in THE SHINING where the hotel guys explain to the Torrances just how restricted the circumstances at the hotel will be.

      And Spielberg put about three into AI after his death, but that’s him.

      There’s some tiny bits in ORANGE, but well integrated: Mr Deltoid gloating over just how Alex has condemned himself, the drunk in the tunnel lecturing the droogs on how there’s no law and order any more, and the writer toying with Alex by relating the story of the crime they both know (hell, the audience knows!) Alex committed.

      I haven’t watched BARRY LYNDON since I was a kid, but I think it could have benefited from more exposition, assuming it had some.

      • Todd says:

        There are a number of long expository scenes in The Shining, but they’re not two people discussing things they both know about. The first is Ullman explaining to Jack about the hotel and the other is Halloran’s long, long list of what’s in the kitchen to Wendy. And there are others. But I’ll get to why those are important and why they work when I analyze The Shining.

  8. mimitabu says:

    hohoho, first a roundtable on the best movie i’ve seen in theaters in awhile, then an analysis of one of my top 3 favorite movies. wdtpw returns!

  9. jwz says:

    This is awesome. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Strangelove.

    Are you going to do Fail Safe next?

    I was amazed to learn that Fail Safe actually came out shortly after Strangelove!

  10. 55seddel says:

    Interesting to see the 3 letter conceit picked up in The Venture Brothers as ORB.

  11. ndgmtlcd says:

    There is this crucial bit of exposition right at the very beginning:

    “For more than a year, ominous rumors have been privately circulating among high level western leaders, that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon, a doomsday device. Intelligence sources traced the site of the top secret Russian project to the perpetually fog shrouded wasteland below the arctic peaks of the Zokov islands. What they were building, or why it should be located in a such a remote and desolate place, no one could say.”

    The interesting thing here for me is that they’re building this huge device, which, just like the B-52, seems either to have a soul or a crude intelligence of sorts. Just like the monoliths and HAL.

    • Todd says:

      Well, but there’s a difference between exposition and an “as you know” scene. Exposition is information the audience needs to know to understand the plot, an “as you know” scene is where two characters talk about something both of them are already familiar with. And it can be as simple and, to my mind, as irritating as when you have two people meet for lunch and one says “So Bob, how long has it been since we’ve seen each other?” I want to jump through the scene and punch somebody when that happens.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        By those two definitions then that short prologue is neither an exposition or an “as you know…”. It’s a warning by Kubrick that he’s going to show us a mystery?

        • Todd says:

          Well, he’s giving us a key piece of information that doesn’t mean anything on its own but which will later turn out to be the linch-pin to the whole plot.

          I’d have to look it up, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the prologue was not originally in the script. It certainly doesn’t feel to me like it was. Rather, I’ll bet Kubrick got to the editing suite and said “Ah, shit, the doomsday bomb comes out of nowhere in Act III, I’d better shoot some kind of prologue to stick up front so that the audience won’t feel like it’s a cheat.”

      • voiceofisaac says:

        Terry Pratchett referred to such scenes as “Your Father, The King…” and much the same reaction.

        It’s a tricky thing, sometimes, to convey information to an audience without falling into such traps.

  12. woodandiron says:

    Great to see you back and with an amazing movie too boot.

    I wrote a paper for my British Fiction class last year about Dr. Strangelove and argued much the same about sexual frustration leading to nuclear war. I included the “strange love” relationship that is between the US and Russia as evidenced by the phone call from the President Muffley (provocatively named, no?) to Premier Kissov (well that’s just obvious.

    Also, I argued (not very well, mind you) that the three men you single out as the protagonists each represent a stage of male sexual development. Major Kong is the adolescent/early twenties male, reading Playboy, fetishizing his cowboy hat and playing with the big bombs. Turgidson is the middle aged male, sexual frustration due to career mindedness and aging. And Ripper being the elderly male, all “life juices” gone and blaming it on others or fluoride in this case. It’s not a terribly strong argument but there’s something there.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for pinpointing why this is the ultimate black comedy: the PROTAGONISTS want to kill the fucking world! And they succeed!
    The extermination of humanity is not only played for laughs, it’s the goddamn happy ending!
    – Doctor Handsome