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A Mad Scientist, Mad Generals, and a Doomsday Machine: The Iconography of Science Fiction in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove"


What exactly makes Dr. Strangelove a great science-fiction film? How does this black comedy fit into the sci-fi genre? What themes does it deal with to qualify as a sci-fi classic? Does this cinematic masterpiece employ what Gwyneth Jones has termed “the icons of science fiction”? A frequent theme of the sci-fi genre is that of an imminent or actual catastrophe on a global scale. Nuclear-apocalypse films like Dr. Strangelove are a popular sub-category of the so-called “disaster movies.” Director Stanley Kubrick's “nightmare comedy” is a warning against irrational policies such as the threatened use or actual use of nuclear arsenals and the U.S. government's love-affair with newer, ever more devastating weapons of mass destruction. According to Jones, “since icons are culturally determined and to some degree each individual sci-fi book or story is a culture, each book or story will have its own variant iconography…to match the writer's particular intention” (163-164). Dr. Strangelove's sci-fi iconography—a mad scientist, two mad generals, and a robotic Doomsday Machine—serves to epitomize the absurdity and madness of the Cold War hysteria which gripped the post-WWII world.

Several authoritative film reviews and scholarly analyses offer valuable insights into the creative background of Dr. Strangelove and the antiwar philosophy inspiring this cinematic masterwork. For example, Steven Morrison, a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, defines Kubrick's cinema classic as a “British-American hybrid which is informed by both perspectives” (388). His essay in Cultural Politics emphasizes that the entire film was “made in Britain by a famously Anglophile American director with a British leading actor and a largely British crew” (376). Even the memorable song in its closing scene, Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again,” was a popular British hit from the WWII era. Dr. Strangelove is loosely based on a 1958 thriller by British author Peter George. His suspense novel, which was published under the pseudonym of Peter Bryant in Britain as Two Hours to Doom and in the U.S. as Red Alert, depicts what seemed like the most likely manner in which an all-out nuclear war might start—through a foolish and tragic blunder by Britain's main ally. At the time of its January 29, 1964 premiere, Kubrick's dark comedy reflected the British public's growing anxiety about the U.S.-driven nuclear-arms race and nuclear-armed Britain's controversial part in it (Morrison 376).

The “Mad Scientist”

One of “the icons of science fiction” discussed by Gwyneth Jones is that of “mad scientists”—representing “a set of stock figures” such as Mary Shelley's seminal Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Jones 171). Dr. Strangelove is a wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi scientist and top White House adviser on nuclear warfare. He is brilliantly played by the famous British comedian Peter Sellers (acting in multiple roles as Dr. Strangelove, RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and U.S. President Merkin Muffley). A proponent of a civil-defense “mine-shaft” to protect America's ruling elite during a nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove is an evil genius with rather comic proclivities. He speaks English with a heavy, Henry Kissinger-like German accent even when he respectfully calls his Commander-in-Chief “Mr. President.” Grant Stillman, an Australian-born writer, film director and film critic, quotes Kubrick as explaining that “Strangelove’s accent was probably inspired by the physicist Edward Teller, who became known as the [loving?] father of the H-bomb, though Teller’s origins are Hungarian and his accent isn’t really that close to what Peter [Sellers] did” (493). Dr. Strangelove often relapses into German, addressing the President as “Mein Führer” and uncontrollably greeting him with a stiff-armed Nazi salute from his wheelchair. It is obvious to viewers that the good doctor has yet to part psychologically with his Nazi past, during which he must have often enjoyed private audiences with his previous boss, Adolf Hitler.

Commentators have been “trying to pin down the particular figure upon whom various critics have taken Strangelove to be 'based'—Herman Kahn, Edward Teller, Werner von Braun, even Henry Kissinger” (Morrison 377). Sellers is quoted in Stillman's Film History article, revealing the story behind the ex-Nazi scientist's memorable black glove: “I put on the black glove and looked at the arm and I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, that’s a storm-trooper’s arm.’ So instead of leaving it there looking malignant, I gave the arm a life of its own. That arm hated the rest of the body for having made a compromise. That arm was a Nazi” (494). At the end of the movie, Dr. Strangelove unexpectedly lifts himself from his wheelchair, taking a few gingerly steps and joyfully shouting at the President, “Mein Führer, I can valk!” In this particular scene, Kubrick is slyly hinting at the revival of Nazi militarism and imperialism—albeit disguised now in a “democratic” American garb. Indeed, as an American author and film critic for The Nation magazine has put it: “Strangelove equaled the Nazis, with their heartless efficiency and brutal power. His mobility, regained, must therefore have equaled the return of unencumbered fascism” (Klawans). In the movie, the Nazi Third Reich continues to live on—at least in spirit.

The Mad Generals

Kubrick's political satire broadens Gwyneth Jones' “mad scientists” icon to include two mad generals as well. One is the insanely paranoid U.S. Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (played by American actor Sterling Hayden), who sends his B-52 strategic bomber wing to deliver an unauthorized first nuclear strike on the Soviet Union in order to “save” Americans from a deadly “Commie conspiracy”—namely, the “fluoridation” of their drinking water and “precious bodily fluids.” USAF Brigadier-General Ripper's obsessive dread of fluoridation has been traced to “the John Birch Society’s rabid fear of fluoridation as a vast Communist conspiracy to infect capitalist society” (Stillman 490). According to Stillman's well-researched article which tracks down this and other “Cold War roots” of Kubrick's farcical comedy, General Curtis LeMay, the controversial Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force during the Cuban missile crisis, was the real-life model for Gen. Ripper (497n23). Similarly to the war-mongering Gen. LeMay, Ripper is filled with instinctive and obsessive mistrust of all civilian politicians:

"Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war? He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids." (Dr. Strangelove)

It is now well-known that the top brass openly disobeyed President Kennedy's orders on several occasions during the Cuban missile crisis. Even after a shouting match with the visiting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a couple of admirals refused to move their naval ships closer to the Caribbean island of Cuba—the target of the U.S. naval blockade (“quarantine”). Instead, they kept the Navy nearer the middle of the Atlantic, where they started intercepting and searching Soviet cargo ships and even used without authorization depth charges to force to the surface two Soviet submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes.

Without any authorization from his superiors and under the false pretext of a sneak Soviet nuclear attack on America, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (whose name is a sarcastic play on the nickname of Britain's most notorious mass murderer, Jack the Ripper) seals off his Burpelson U.S. Air Force Base and orders its garrison to defend it against any intruders, even those in U.S. military uniform. Given its “special relationship” with America, Britain's troubling nuclear dilemma is symbolized by Group Captain Mandrake (again played by Sellers), the British RAF exchange officer in Dr. Strangelove who is traumatically under the total control of his U.S. commanding officer, the criminally insane Gen. Ripper. Threatening Mandrake, “a brother officer,” with a gun, Ripper forces the Englishman to participate in the ensuing firefight against the U.S. Army units which President Muffley has ordered to retake the Burpelson base by force. At the end of the futile defense of his USAF base, Ripper locks himself in the bathroom and shoots himself after proclaiming his fear of breaking down under torture.

Ripper's supposedly more “sane” Pentagon counterpart is the equally grotesque Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General Buck Turgidson (played by American actor George C. Scott). The jingoistic and emotionally unstable Turgidson recommends to President Muffley (also played by Sellers) to follow Gen. Ripper's deranged folly with an all-out attack on the USSR using the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal: “no more than ten to twenty million [Americans] killed, tops...depending on the breaks” (Dr. Strangelove). He is scandalized by President Muffley's willingness to cooperate with Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov during this entire terrifying affair, even helping the Russians shoot down a few of Ripper's B-52 heavy bombers. On his War Room desk, Gen. Turgidson has a binder bearing the title “World Targets in Megadeaths.” A “megadeath” was a quantitative unit of measurement actually used in the Pentagon's nuclear-war planning that equaled one million fatalities (Schlosser, Deconstructing). Not only does Turgidson want a “doomsday machine” similar to the Soviet one, but he also warns the President about the danger of a future “mine-shaft gap” favorable to Moscow.

Kubrick was intrigued by and actually immersed himself in the Pentagon's arcane and paradoxical doctrines of nuclear deterrence or what he described as the “delicate balance of terror” (Stillman 488). Many of the paranoid lines uttered by Gen. Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove are, in fact, direct quotations from the strategic writings of White House nuclear advisers Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger. Stillman even quotes Kubrick as saying that it would be very “difficult, and dramatically redundant, to try to top the statistical and linguistic inhumanity of nuclear strategists” (492). Kubrick appears to be unsure who is actually more dangerous: his film's ex-Nazi scientist and two sinister USAF generals or the White House's real-life “Doomsday” strategists such as Teller, Kissinger, and Kahn.

The “Doomsday Machine”

Apart from the satirical antiwar iconography of a “mad scientist” and two crazy Pentagon generals, another symbol/metaphor of the proverbial “two scorpions in a bottle” Cold War insanity is the world-destroying “doomsday device.” As if taken straight from Gwyneth Jones' “core repertoire” of classic sci-fi icons that includes “robots” (166-167), it is a robotic automaton with which the Kremlin intends to respond to any surprise U.S. nuclear attack. By exterminating—in an automated retaliation—all life on the planet, the Doomsday Machine is designed to implement the so-called “rational” nuclear-war strategy of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (official acronym MAD), which is publicly embraced by both nuclear superpowers in real life. This deadly robotic device is clearly in violation of the rationality of Isaac Asimov's axiomatic “Three Laws of Robotics” cited by Gwyneth Jones (166).

The Kremlin's failure to warn the White House in time about the Soviet “doomsday device” ultimately defeats its deterrent purpose and contributes to the accidentally triggered nuclear Armageddon at the end of the movie (Schlosser, Almost Everything). Dr. Strangelove angrily shouts at Soviet Ambassador Alexei Desadeski (played by British actor Peter Bull): “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?” (Dr. Strangelove). After Ambassador Desadeski reveals the existence of Moscow's automated retaliatory super-weapon during his invited visit to the War Room, a visibly shaken President Muffley is aghast: “This is absolute madness, Ambassador! Why should you build such a thing?!” (Dr. Strangelove). Director Kubrick is playfully implying here that in a Cold-War world gone totally mad, it would be naive to expect that the Russians would be any more sane than their American counterparts.

Reaction to Dr. Strangelove

Following its 1964 release, Dr. Strangelove drew a uniformly hostile reaction in America where Kubrick's ominous farce elicited a tsunami of mostly negative reviews. This was mainly due to a widespread public perception that it was a sardonic parody harshly critical of Washington's militaristic policies and reckless nuclear-warfare strategy. Writing in The New Yorker, an American nuclear-weapons expert recalls that at the time

"the film caused a good deal of controversy.... One reviewer described the film as ' evil thing about an evil thing.' Another compared it to Soviet propaganda.... An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film 'impossible on a dozen counts.' A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: 'Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.'" (Schlosser, Almost Everything)

Terry Southern, Dr. Strangelove's British screenwriter, has complained that even the movie's U.S. distributor, Columbia Pictures, immediately began to distance itself from its anti-militaristic and antiwar message, which the Hollywood studio's executives saw as running counter to America's anti-Communist frenzy at that time:

"In the months that followed, the studio continued to distance itself from the film. Even when Strangelove received the infrequent good review, it dismissed the critic as a pinko nutcase and on at least one occasion the Columbia Pictures' publicity department defended the company against the film by saying it was definitely not 'anti-U.S. military,' but 'just a zany novelty flick which did not reflect the views of the corporation in any way.' This party line persisted, I believe, until about five years ago, when the Library of Congress announced that the film had been selected as one of the fifty greatest American films of all time.” (Southern)

Indeed, the National Film Registry Board (NFRB) in 1989 included Dr. Strangelove in a very select group of the best ever American movies chosen for preservation in the U.S. Library of Congress. This prestigious film award clearly signaled a sea-change in the way Kubrick's black comedy about an ex-Nazi White House nuclear adviser and two unhinged USAF generals is now perceived and even praised in America.

Eric Schlosser's erudite New Yorker article has more recently extolled the anti-nuclear film's truly remarkable truthfulness and credibility as a historically accurate document about Washington's chaotic and unreliable system of strategic command and control, in which there are many fingers (even foreign) on the proverbial nuclear trigger: “Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media” (Schlosser, Almost Everything). Morrison, who has been researching the theme of nuclear warfare in science fiction, equally lauds Kubrick's political satire as being "the best and most lasting fictional statements about nuclear war, those which still repay close study and retain the most power to provoke, are those which manage on the one hand to avoid too clumsy a form of didacticism in taking up a more oblique approach to their subject matter…and on the other to avoid a tendency toward melodrama." (377-378)

Such laudatory comments go a long way towards explaining the enduring popularity of Dr. Strangelove. Even today it is praised for being a scathing caricature of America's out-of-control national-security bureaucrats, some of whom have periodically gone insane. President Truman's Secretary of Defense James Forrestal even jumped to his death from his office window on May 22, 1949, allegedly shouting “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! They’re right around! I’ve seen Russian soldiers....” Kubrick's legendary film's dystopian sci-fi iconography has stood the test of time and is even more relevant today when the apocalyptic threat of a U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation (over Syria or Ukraine) is greater than at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.


Works Cited

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden. Columbia, 1963. DVD.

Jones, Gwyneth. “The Icons of Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 163-173. Web.

Klawans, Stuart. “My Strange Love: Intimations of Stanley Kubrick Recollected from Early Childhood.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 26.2 (2002): 13-26. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Morrison, Steven. “'Are the Russians Involved, Sir?': The British Dimension of Dr. Strangelove.” Cultural Politics 4.3 (2008): 375-390. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.

Schlosser, Eric. “Almost Everything in Dr. Strangelove Was True.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Schlosser, Eric. “Deconstructing Dr. Strangelove.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 18 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Southern, Terry. "Strangelove Outtake: Notes From The War Room." Grand Street 13.1 (1994): 64. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Stillman, Grant B. “Two of the MADdest Scientists: Where Strangelove Meets Dr. No; or, Unexpected Roots for Kubrick's Cold War Classic.” Film History 20 (2008): 487-500. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.