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

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The question of Act I of Dr. Strangelove is "How could a thing like this happen?" The question of Act II is "Why would a thing like this happen?" and the question of Act III is "What if this happened?" The narrative takes us right up to the brink of unthinkability, then, rather incredibly, goes over it.

At the end of Act II, General Ripper, who initiated the disaster, has killed himself rather than risk giving up the recall code that would ruin his perfect plan to blow up the world. As Act III begins, the immediate question at hand is "Now, will the plane actually make it to the target?" Because now that President Muffley has used the US army to neutralize General Ripper, he now uses the Russian Air Force to go after Major Kong. A missile, which we only see on Kong’s radar, comes dangerously close to destroying the plane. In sexual terms (and every plot point in this movie is in sexual terms) Muffley and Kissov are teaming up to cock-block Kong — they’re going to use their dicks to kill Kong’s boner. And maybe we never see Muffley and Kissov’s missile because Kubrick wants to keep the narrative focused on Kong’s POV, but it seems to me if we actually see Muffley and Kissov’s missile, it gives it a power and personality Kubrick doesn’t want it to have. The "good guys" of Dr. Strangelove, Mandrake and Muffley, never handle a gun or any other weapon. Rather, their plots revolve around telephones — communication. Ripper and Kong want to kill, Mandrake and Muffley want to talk. And so it is implied that Ripper and Kong are "real men," one chomping cigars and the other a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy, while Mandrake and Muffley are not "real men" — one is English, the other is bald, both prefer communication to killing, what kind of "real men" could they be?

Back at the base, Col "Bat" Guano enters Ripper’s office and finds Mandrake there. Mandrake has deciphered the three-letter prefix for the CRM-114 (from way back in Act I). He has cleverly deduced the code from looking at a single piece of paper on Ripper’s desk, which is covered with words starting with the same three letters — obviously, Ripper didn’t count on the fine sleuthing mind of an Englishman. Col Guano, whose name literally means "bat-shit," as in "bat-shit insane," is a paranoid gun-carrier who, literally, knows nothing about why he was ordered to attack one of his own country’s military bases, and apparently never asked either.

Up in the air, in Major Kong’s giant flying metal penis, Kong is having trouble with his machinery — he’s worried that it’s not going to be able to "deliver its load" properly. We get two important plot-points: one, the CRM-114 radio has been destroyed, and two, the plane will now fly below radar to avoid another attack. We also get the most groan-inducing line of the movie: "The Auto-Destruct mechanism got hit and blew itself up."

Back at the base, we get a long scene between Mandrake and Col Guano, including a phone call more inane and bizarre than the one between Muffley and Kissov. Guano asserts his distaste for "preverts," which he suspects are hiding everywhere. He suspects that Mandrake, being English and not carrying a gun, might very well be a prevert, and that perhaps Mandrake and Ripper were both a couple of preverts cooking up preversions, and that this is why he was ordered to attack the base. It’s not hard to see what Guano thinks of as "preversions," in the sexual universe of Dr. Strangelove a prevert is any man who does not seek to assert his sexual dominance through a machine, preferably a weapon. But other forces, capitalist forces, also use machines to assert their dominance in Strangelove: the phone company is only too happy to risk the end of the world for the sake of a long-distance charge and the Coca-Cola company, in a moment of low physical humor, responds to its machine getting shot by Guano by having the machine spray its contents into Guano’s face as he bends over to take his payout. It’s a "money shot" in more ways than one.

We never actually hear Mandrake’s phone call to Muffley, we only know that it is successful and the bulk of the US planes are recalled in time to save the world. Everyone in the War Room is pleased at this outcome, and Turgidson steps forward to offer a prayer. And here he emerges as the most interesting — and even the most sympathetic — character in the movie. Just as in Act I he begins as a politician and ends as a general, here we see him revert back to a politician — he’s not an evil man, but he is an excitable one. He’s a little boy who likes to play war, but he also, somewhere in his mind, understands that war isn’t necessarily a good thing. While Turgidson pray, Dr. Strangelove watches from a distance, with a cool calculation that will only make sense in scenes to come. Turgidson’s prayer is interrupted by the news that Kong’s plane is still on the loose and headed for its target. (Which is called "Laputa," which means either "the whore" in Spanish or else refers to the floating island of Gulliver’s Travels. The first is in line with the sexual innuendo that permeates the Strangelove script, but the second has a stronger literary resonance: Laputa is a gigantic rock kept up in the air by its inhabitants belief in science, an apt metaphor for nuclear proliferation in the age of MAD.)

Back on Kong’s plane (ironic, isn’t it, that this time it’s Kong flying the plane — the movie could almost be called King Kong’s Revenge) we learn that, due to the damage caused by Muffley and Kissov’s missile, the plane is losing fuel and will not make it to its primary target — that is, the numbers say that Kong is suffering from a major-league case of erectile dysfunction and will not be able to come.

Back in the War Room, Muffley asks Turgidson what are the chances of Kong’s plane getting through to its target, and Turgidson, who was so recently humble and repentant, turns boyish and excitable again as he realizes that the chances of Ripper’s plans coming to fruition are are still alive after all. He’s positively joyous about the news, and only when he realizes what he’s saying is he embarrassed by the implications.

Back on the plane, they’re flying under the radar and moving in on their target. In something like real time, Kubrick gives a huge chunk of narrative over to the operation of a machine. (He’ll do this again, more than once, in 2001.) The dialogue becomes long lists of numbers,protocols and technical directives, which are all devised to disguise what is really going on: Major Kong wants to drop his load and his giant flying metal penis isn’t cooperating. Real tension ratchets up as we watch, riveted, as Kong’s crew work through all the different possible solutions to Kong’s problem — the viewer is both horrified that Kong might succeed in his goal and biting his or her nails in the hopes that he will. We like Major Kong, we want him to succeed, we like the rootin’ tootin’ cowboy who shows initiative, beats the odds and gets the job done. Then, in a climax (sorry) justly lauded for 45 years, Kubrick shows us the thing we’re rooting for and fearing — a man straddling a bomb as it tilts down and down, plunging toward its target. Kong is fully alive at this moment, from his POV his bomb is erect and he’s succeeded in dropping his payload — at the moment of impact, now he is a man.

Back in the War Room, there is no tension — the world is already on its way to ending. Now what? Well, Strangelove steps forward (so to speak) with a plan. His plan involves a purification of the human race, a plan to take only the most desirable specimens of humanity into mine shafts and breed them into a super race, with ten women to each man, until they can emerge, triumphant and healthy, in a hundred years. And so, suddenly, after all this, a fourth protagonist emerges from the shadows — the title character, Dr. Strangelove. Often in the past I’ve dwelt upon Strangelove’s Nazi past, but his Nazism is not his primary function of the script. When he sells the reluctant Muffley on his super-race idea, it’s suggested that Nazism has triumphed, but what’s really triumphed is male sexuality. Strangelove, literally, wants to take humanity back into the caves, a time when men were men and had as many women as they wanted, there were no "preverts" and men like Muffley were pushed aside and killed for the strength of the tribe. That seems to be what Ripper, Turgidson, Kong and Strangelove are after — they wish to use the most sophisticated forms of technology to return humankind to an utterly pre-technological state.

And so the ending montage, which, famously, uses a WWII song, "We’ll Meet Again," over footage of the world ending in a barrage of nuclear blasts, has always seemed to imply that the people we’ll be meeting again are Nazis. But I don’t think so: I think the song brings the movie full circle from the titles, it’s another romantic song played over footage of machines fulfilling sexual desires.

In Kubrick’s next movie, machines will, again, triumph over humanity, although they won’t be used in quite so sexual a way.


15 Responses to “Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Act III”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    I really hate when I write a long comment and LJ decides send it off into the ether.

  2. curt_holman says:

    “Did I say ‘Mein Fuhrer?’ I meant ‘Mr. President.'”

    I can’t remember if you’ve touched on this, but I’ve read the argument that Dr. Strangelove as a character literally embodies Kubrick’s tension of man and machine, since he’s confined to a wheelchair and has a prosthetic hand that seems to have a mind of its own.

    I wonder how the script portrayed Dr. Strangelove. Were there stage directions for the errant hand/wheelchair business, or did Dr. Strangelove just give the long final speech?

    • Todd says:

      Re: “Did I say ‘Mein Fuhrer?’ I meant ‘Mr. President.'”

      Well, Strangelove is obviously sympathetic, and even admiring, of computers — they have the will to do things that men can no longer do.

  3. this is one of my all time favorite movies. Ive never seen all the sexual imagery before, but that might be because i lack a penis! And my whole sexual imagery is different because of my POV. Really obvious though once you point it out! I laugh my ass off this whole movie until the end, but by then i feel like i got punched in the gut. Great post!

  4. Lest we forget, the film nearly ended with another, much more blatant, money shot.


    • Anonymous says:

      Which always seemed like a better ending to me. I like the conversation at the end, but the B-52 sequence preceding it builds such great tension, and the talk of bunkers just kills that momentum to me. It is that moment of fulfillment, the movie’s orgasm, and we cut away to a dialogue scene like a cold shower.
      I would have loved if it had cut from Kong’s bomb dropping to a montage of pies being thrown and bombs exploding. Though perhaps it would have required some sort of prior explanation for all the pies that would have ruined the momentum as well.

      We’ll never know, especially since Kubrik supposedly burned every inch of unused footage for all his movies. But that scene, just like the Bruce Lee’s Game of Death, is one of those regrettably lost potential classics that we’ll just never know how good it could have been.

      This movie also has one of my favorite Kubrik fun-facts. He apparently had the giant round table in the war room covered in green felt to give it the feeling of a poker game. It isn’t the most relative to the main theme of the movie, but I love that idea of staging the cold war like a game of poker.
      And what I love most of all is that Kubrik demanded that detail in the set knowing full well that no one watching would ever even be able to tell. That’s one of those things that illustrates what I love so much about him as a director. It was as if the movies were for him. He had in-jokes, and played tricks on the audience, and used the audience as an element of the film experience, he had inexplicable details and was uncompromising in his vision. The doesn’t suggest to me a man who wanted to make money at the box office or shovel out cheap thrills. That says to me that he made movies to satisfy no one but himself, and that is one those things as a film maker that I always like to remind myself of.

      • Todd says:

        I would love to have seen the pie-fight ending, but if it didn’t work it didn’t work and I trust Kubrick’s judgment on that. For me, the incredible tension resulting in Kong’s self-demolition and the end of the world casts this weird, vibrant energy over the final scene, where these guys in the War Room are still, after all this, still arguing about how they can “win” this thing. That’s what makes it such a great black comedy about one of the ultimate heavy subjects, the fact that, even after they’ve destroyed the world, the men at the top still don’t get it.

      • craigjclark says:

        Actually, the pies are set up early in the film when the Soviet Ambassador arrives in the War Room and is seen standing next to a long table laden with food (including, one would assume, plenty of custard pies).

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think the song brings the movie full circle from the titles, it’s another romantic song played over footage of machines fulfilling sexual desires.

    Yes, and more than just another romantic song. It’s a song of post-coital wistfulness that says: We’d like to have another encounter just like this, but we both know it will probably never happen again.


  6. noskilz says:

    Really nifty look at a classic film. With the current fashion for remakes and reboots, think there’s any danger of someone redoing Strangelove?

    • Todd says:

      I can’t imagine anyone re-making any of Kubrick’s movies, with the exception of Lolita, which in some ways doesn’t count, since the reputation of the novel towers over the reputation of the movie.

      • craigjclark says:

        And don’t forget the made-for-TV version of The Shining, which was made with Stephen King’s blessing since he didn’t like the liberties Kubrick had taken with his novel.

  7. taskboy3000 says:

    Strangelove is a brillant movie. Thanks for your analysis. Even without noticing the sexual subtext, it’s a great cold war movie.

  8. moroccomole says:

    Given your take on Turgidson et.al. wanting to revert to a pre-technological society, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the next scene we’d see from Kubrick would be Moonwatcher and his tribe at the beginning of 2001.