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

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One thing I neglected to mention the other day regarding Kubrick’s screenplays is his propensity for long scenes. This wonderfully cinematic director has, paradoxically, a yen for long scenes, very long in some cases, another preference he shares with Tarantino. Generally in Kubrick movies, he’ll present a long scene, and then there will be a big leap forward in time where a bunch of stuff happens we don’t see, and then there be another long scene. The most famous of these cuts is in 2001, where we jump cut a few million years from an ape using a bone as a tool to satellites orbiting in space, but they occur in most of Kubrick’s work. Act I of Dr. Strangelove has a total of eight scenes, eight (a typical screenplay would have at least twenty, and probably more) and Act II has even fewer. There are seven actual scenes, but the bulk of the act is actually two scenes broken up into six sections.

First, we check in with Major Kong’s bomber crew, as Kong reads a long list of items to be found in the crew members’ survival kits. Items include walking-around money, nylon stockings and chocolates. There are two jokes being played here: one is that, after delivering their nuclear payload, the Air Force has provided the crew of the bomber with the supplies for a sexy party, and the other is that the survival kits have been concocted by an outmoded mind-set. The supplies have been designed for a bomber crew shot down perhaps in WWII Germany — there will be no opportunity for survival for the crew of Major Kong’s plane. And yet all his crew members peruse their survival kits eagerly, impressed with the contents and thankful for an Air Force that has taken their needs into consideration.

That’s all we get from Dr. Strangelove‘s third protagonist in Act II, the rest of the act cuts between Ripper’s air base and the War Room, where Turgidson is mostly sidelined. Act II belongs to General Ripper and his efforts to defend his office from President Muffley’s attempts to smoke him out.

We begin with the appearance of the Russian Ambassador in the War Room, an event that Turgidson sees as traitorous and a personal threat. That the President is working with the Russians to prevent the world from being destroyed is emasculating to him, and he does his best to salve his nerves by chewing copious amounts of gum. (I suppose Ripper has taken up the movies’ supply of cigars for this movie about orally-fixate men.) Turgidson catches the ambassador taking pictures of "thebig board," or says he does anyway. The ambassador insists that Turgidson has planted the camera on him. I tend to believe Turgidson in this instance, since the camera is disguised as a box of Russian matches, and I find it hard to believe that Turgidson would be carrying an item like that around on his person.

We then move to the attack on Ripper’s air base. These scenes are brilliantly shot at soldier’s-eye level in a documentary style, and many of the individual shots were later yoinked by Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan. (And by Kubrick himself in Full Metal Jacket.) But there is one interesting, curious thing Kubrick does here: the first part of the attack on the base is shown exclusively from the defenders’ point of view, then, mid-way through the act, it switches to the attackers’ point-of view. We cut briefly into General Ripper’s office during this scene and find that Mandrake sits on the couch, pensive, while the bullets fly outside. What’s he holding? It’s a stick of gum, the same gum Turgidson is chewing in the War Room. Mandrake, we see, is not orally fixated — he can hold his gum and not give in to chewing it.

Next we have a long scene at the War Room, the phone conversation between Muffley and Premier Kissov. They’re discussing the end of the world, but their conversation is as inane as it could possibly be. And I thought about this scene and why it’s written this way, and I linked it back to Turgidson’s earlier conversation with his secretary/lover: Muffley is talking to Kissov exactly in the manner of a man caught cheating, or at least a husband who is forced to reveal an embarrassing faux-pas to his long-suffering wife. And at first Muffley is fumfering and overly polite, but when Kissov doesn’t match his tone, he reminds Kissov of his military superiority: "if this phone call hadn’t been friendly you probably wouldn’t have gotten a call at all." That is, in the language of the marriage, "Look, I’m telling you I slept with the girl in the steno pool, I’m being honest with you, and if you can’t be grateful to me for that don’t forget I could knock you across the room." Ripper, Turgidson and Kong are "real men," who are seeking to destroy the world, the ultimate rape of the mother figure, while Muffley is a "modern man," a civilized rationalist who’s pussy-whipped and who needs some prodding before he asserts his male prerogative. And so, Muffley sorts out with Kissov about how to destroy American planes while Turgidson is shocked and disgusted — the president is figuratively castrating him. (It’s also worth noting that Muffley catches Kissov in the middle of a sex party, and while the notion is played for laughs, it’s nice to know that there’s at least one guy in the movie who’s having sex with women instead of with bombs and guns.)

We then go back to the base for the first part of the pivotal scene in the movie, where Ripper explains himself to Mandrake as he defends his office from the advancing (American) troops with a big machine gun he pulls out of a golf bag. He demands Mandrake help him with his gun and Mandrake demurs. Perhaps he’s experiencing a moment of homosexual panic, but the way the screenplay expresses it is that Mandrake is a coward, not a real man, using the excuse of "an old wound" to remove himself from Ripper’s agenda. So Mandrake is wounded, that is, he’s weak, that’s why he cannot kill, whereas Ripper is the "real man" who loves combat and killing.

Back at the War Room, the ambassador has some bad news: the Russians have recently activated the Doomsday Machine, which triggers automatically in the event of nuclear war, destroying all life on earth for 93 years. The device is madness, but its existence is explained easily: it’s cheaper. The Russian people want consumer goods (including the nylons that Kong’s bomber crew are carrying) and the nation is strapped for cash. It’s cheaper for the Russians to build a gigantic device that will wipe out all life on earth, infallibly, than to compete with the US in missile superiority. And so the titular Dr. Strangelove appears to explain this device and how it works. In another director’s hands, this scene would have been tedious exposition, but Kubrick (and his screenwriter) have created this rather incredible character, Dr. Strangelove, to deliver this long explanation, so we spend the scene thinking "Who is this guy" instead of thinking "Why is he talking at such length about this plot device?" Dr. Strangelove, of course, by his very name, ties together the themes of the movie. The protagonists cannot love in the normal way, their ability to love has been estranged and diverted instead into weapons of mass destruction. Turgidson, who so recently had been appalled by Muffley, likes this Strangelove guy, and he likes this doomsday machine too: he wishes that the US had something like that. The purity and finality of the concept appeals to him, he finds himself in a state of penis envy.

(The other thing entering into the narrative here is, again, the theme of humanity’s will being overtaken by powerful, unthinking machines, which will become a major theme of 2001 and, to a lesser extent, A Clockwork Orange.)

Back at the base, the attack is still under way, and Ripper explains the rest of his rationale to Mandrake. He believes that the flouridation of water is an international communist conspiracy, which, given some of the things that Glenn Beck spews out on a daily basis these days, barely sounds like satire any more. But the flouridation of water, shocking and obvious as it is, is not Ripper’s real problem. His real problem is that he became aware of the importance of his bodily fluids while having sex, and as a result, still has sex with women but refuses to ejaculate in them. This is the root, so to speak, of Ripper’s urge to blow up the world — he has a gigantic case of blueballs. He cannot come, so he will blow up the world instead.

The base shortly surrenders, which is Ripper’s big setback, and the traditional "end of Act II low point." Ripper believes that he has failed, and now there is only one way out for him: he must kill himself, sacrifice his life, in order to achieve his goal of blowing up the world. Mandrake tries to cheer him up, talk him down, play "good cop," and an interesting flip is revealed: it’s not Mandrake who is the coward, it’s Ripper. Mandrake has been captured and tortured in the field in WWII, Ripper has never actually seen action. So who is the real man and who is the lily-livered coward?

It’s also worth noting that Ripper goes out the same way Turgidson came in: through the bathroom.  The toilet disposes of Ripper but has produced Turgidson — they are connected, as they are to Kong, through technology.



13 Responses to “Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Act II”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    “… — there will be no opportunity for survival for the crew of Major Kong’s plane.”

    Well, yes, it’s a pretty useless survival kit if they ditch at weather ship tango delta, but we don’t know that yet. Kubrick still has a bit of suspense to play with.

  2. andrewhickey says:

    Wonderful stuff, but I’d just point out that several of the bits you point to (the ‘war wound’, much of Muffley on the phone, the characterisation of Strangelove) were actually not the work of any of the credited screenwriters but came from Sellers – Muffley’s phone call, in particular, was almost entirely improvised…

    • Todd says:

      Well, they’re in the movie now, so they’re Kubrick’s work. If he hadn’t wanted them in the movie, they wouldn’t be there.

      • gazblow says:

        Sellers’ improv brings up an interesting thought I’ve been having lately. While you’re absolutely correct that it is ultimately Kubrick’s decision to include the improv, its marital tone adds enormously to the satire. The leaders of the world’s superpowers bickering like husband and wife over the mutually assured destruction of everything is one of many discrete moments in this movie that remain with me (my favorite being Ripper’s speech amid gunfire about how he fortunately recognized his feeling of fatigue after the act of love as Loss of Essence. “I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I do deny them my Essence.” Hilarious.)

        The point I’m trying to make is that while writers struggle with the brutal demands of dramatic structure, audiences may not care. As long as there are some laughs, some tears, some sex and other stunts, audiences are generally okay with that. Though outside the scope of this conversation, I’m frequently reminded of The 40 Year Old Virgin. This movie does not have the world’s greatest dramatic structure but instead, has some very funny jokes/gags/situations/characters that people (read: Me) want to see again and again. For instance, the scene where Carell’s chest is waxed was improvised as well. You can see in the reaction of all the players that they are really watching his chest hair ripped off. Certainly, it is the filmmaker’s decision to say “Today, we improvise the President’s phone call to Premier Kissoff/the chest waxing scene.” Then they cast actors and technicians who are up to the task.

        But what the audience often leaves with are these moments, be they improvised or not. As opposed to a tight dramatic structure. Tho Strangelove has both an iron clad structure and the gags to back it up, I wonder if this is unique to comedy or if I’m just spitballing.

        • Todd says:

          Kubrick loved working with Sellers, McDowell and Nicholson because he could rely on them to do something “interesting.” He wanted to capture lightning in a bottle, and he was willing to shoot a scene for days or weeks until he got the take he wanted. I myself wonder if the take of Sellers’ bickering-spouse call was one of many similar ones, or if it was improvised in rehearsals and then perfected on camera, or what.

          In a broader sense, though, yes, any time when a camera can happen to catch a gifted performer doing something spontaneous, that’s going to add to the scene. But we think of it being more important to the success of a comedy. The Marx Brothers could not have cared less for dramatic structure, the director’s job was merely to light the set and capture those insane performances. And comedies do tend to be more performance driven.

  3. craigjclark says:

    “The Red Coats are coming!”

    I love the fact that Ripper tries to entice his British-born “brother officer” by invoking the threat of “the Red Coats.” It took me a few viewings to catch on to the irony of that.

  4. adam_0oo says:

    Heheh, sexy party.

  5. I’m kind of wondering why Ripper’s character is not named “Turgidson” since the literal meaning of “turgid” is “swollen,” which would seem to fit with his plight.

    • zartan says:

      He’s named after an infamous murderer who killed prostitutes and mutilated their genitals, which falls right in line with the whole theme of sexual frustration expressing itself as violence.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Act II low point

    I dunno, I think the End of act 2 low point actually comes when the missile almost blows up Kong’s plane – at that point, all 3 protagonists are at a low point – Turgidson’s consumed with envy of the doomsday device, Ripper’s dead, and Kong’s almost been blown out of the sky.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Act II low point

      Excellent point! But the missile, let’s not forget, is a blessing in disguise — it disables the CRM-114. So the low point, you’re right, is not when Ripper kills himself. It is, however, in the next scene, when Mandrake discovers the three-letter prefix for the CRM-114. Ripper has killed himself in order to make his plan work, and Mandrake has foiled that plan by deciphering his code (which, honestly, Ripper didn’t try very hard to conceal). That’s where the narrative turns into Act III.