Dr. Strangelove (1964) — Fiftieth Anniversary



Man had emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer. Long ago…a line of killer apes branched off from the nonagressive primate background. For reasons of environmental necessity, the line adopted the predatory way. For reasons of predatory necessity, the line advanced. …the predatory transition (from ape to man) and the weapons fixation explained…man’s bloody history, his eternal aggression, his irrational, self-destroying inexorable pursuit of death for death’s sake. …Man is a predator with an instinct to kill and a genetic cultural affinity for the weapon (and whose) natural instinct is to kill with a weapon.

–Robert Ardrey, African Descent

Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved–that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.

–Stanley Kubrick

Here is the opening of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece. Very nearly the whole putative import of Kubrick’s deep drama set in the age of nuclear weapons, one more pressing/depressing than ever, the darkest prophecy about humanity, is compressed into the few seconds of his poetic opening, one in which our Earth is not of the old Deities but of the unimaginable, astonishing, beautiful and coldly impersonal Cosmos of modern times.

Kubrick’s Beginning bears a close experiencing.


Robert Ardrey, screenwriter (Khartoum) and paleo-anthropologist in pursuit of the primordial innate and instinctive qualities of Homo sapiens, influential thinker for Kubrick, sees man as finally a killer, a creature whose destiny is to make ever more terrible weapons, and whose idea takes form for Kubrick in a purported final act of the human drama in which the human, now the protean and masterful killer of all time, driven beyond helpless reason, is making ever more beautiful dooming weapons, lovely assailing forms sailing in bouyant brightness above the shrinking Earth, a carnal dance of a strenuous, sensual technological tenderness, this romance of refueling of the splendid KC-135 and B-52, over that lush and ironic music, paradoxical weapons of a deadly high art, weapons which humans for whom and for whose achievements they are fatal most dearly love, ultimate weapons devised in remote secrecy in far-flung fog-shrouded places, mysterious facilities where the doomsday weapon is being made.

In brief, Death.

Yet mysterious. Luring. Like the sweeping-up engrossment, the thrall, of old stories even though old stories now seen in a shocking new light, made into awful new revelations, by this thrillingly astonishing utterly final story.

And your reaction in the moment?

Rapture. The strangest rapture. Strange because, after all, nothing could be more worrisome, more dread, than that loveliness. But your rapture is effortless. Natural. It just springs up. You sink into it.

Kubrick is saying to you, “See what I mean about us?”


(Kubrick) told me he was going to make a film about ‘our failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war.’ He said that he had thought of the story as a ‘straightforward melodrama’ until this morning, when he ‘woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.’

–Terry Southern

Like anyone who truly lives with awareness of the threat from nuclear weapons in our averse, distracted and denying time, Kubrick undergoes a conversion. He ends up having to account for the most absurd human conduct of all human conduct, “our failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war.” And then, once he thinks he understands it, he must say something appropriate about it out of his understanding. Since he is an artist, this means he must create a fitting drama.

How does he account for “our failure?”

Dr. Strangelove arrives not fundamentally at our nurture but at our nature. Like Ardrey, Kubrick stresses our ancient inner attributes inclining our actions: We descendants of killer apes remain inherently in love with weapons owing to accidental long-ago imperatives of fitness and survival, and these innate predispositions are irrevocably destined to bring our own extinction, make our predetermined ascent (or, if you will, descent) to the end of our species: “The inexorable pursuit of death for death’s sake.” Fatalistic. Deterministic. Being in the grip of inscrutable and irresistible forces. Reason, a cherished power in human consciousness, can never finally prevail against the death grip of the fated mandate of our Great Innate. Nuclear war is the least reasonable prospect in history, and the light of reason spotlights its absurdity, but the human progression to doomsday cannot be halted.

Not that this idea of futility is new. Euripides’s Medea, just before she murders her children, declares:

…I understand what I am about to do/Passion–that cause of our most dire woes–/has vanquished my rational power.

Hence the storyline itself of Dr. Strangelove: a paranoid SAC general orders a nuclear strike on the USSR by his armed B-52s, then on standard readiness patrol, in which they change course to attack the Soviet Union according to a dire emergency plan. Now operating exclusively on coded orders to attack the USSR, the bomber crews can only assume that the US National Command Authority has just been destroyed in a Soviet first-strike nuclear attack and, as this contingency mandates, the crews should now retaliate under their own direction. In consonance with Kubrick’s theme of the all-determining Great Innate of the Homo sapiens killer with his strangelove of apocalyptic weapons, the “fail-safe” command-and-control precautions in place to halt such outlandish scenarios prove ineffective–at least one bomber “gets through” and drops a nuclear bomb on a Soviet target, an attack which, we learn, will shortly trigger a Soviet nuclear Doomsday Weapon which will shroud the entire Earth in a fatal radioactivity for decades, destroying all life. End of story. Obviously this awful outcome defies reason. But after all, we might say that in Kubrick’s profoundly driven world of Dr. Strangelove, deterrence is merely reasonable.

What could be a more powerful fable of the Great Innate?

Such a story–the absurdity of humans embracing their own self-destruction–cannot be “treated in any conventional manner.” Kubrick’s world is pre-ordained, deterministic, and he falls back on satire of its sure-to-occur absurdities: we already know the Answer; it can only be accompanied by a strange laughter as the predictable irrational mechanics of it unfold and are skewered.  Kubrick summons the superb satirist Terry Southern to collaborate on the screenplay. The compositional devices are classic and proven: two characters, intelligent but ineffectual, are stood up as reasonable: President Merkin Muffley and RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. Naifs about Kubrick’s/Ardrey’s version of human nature, both are shocked, dismayed and frustrated at every turn by the irrational behavior of all around them–the generals, diplomats, statesmen, strategists, weaponeers, et al.–none of whom seems decisively conscious of the mutual assured doom about to ensue from their pathetic fallacy of acting as though there might be a successful aftermath of a somehow fulfilling nuclear war. The satire is pervasive: in one of the many examples, President Muffley, horrified by a scuffle between the Soviet Ambassador and a US General in a Pentagon command center, shouts that there should be “no fighting in the War Room!” Then there are the names: General Jack Ripper; General Buck Turgidson; Colonel Bat Guano; Major T. J. “King” Kong; and so on. And, of course, there is the penultimate and famous scene in which Major “King” Kong, loving every horrific phallic moment of being astride his beloved Ultimate Weapon all the way down to its detonation over the target, rides the nuclear-tipped missile to Oblivion (and, it ensues, Doomsday), the ultimate encapsulation of the Ardrey/Kubrick summary of human history…and speaking of Killer Apes, how about the Major’s name?!

These Strangelove characters are kin to Kubrick’s full gallery of pivotal characters throughout his movies, characters who all finally manifest the determining Great Innate, the Killer Inside: Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket; writer Jack Torrance in The Shining; criminalistic Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange; volatile Barry Lyndon in Barry Lyndon; refined effete abductor Humbert Humbert in Lolita; and even murderous artificial intelligence HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (a postbiological being created, after all, by humans, those innate killers). The unforgettable killer’s leer of the true Great Innate assumed by Private Lawrence as he waits at night fully armed in a Parris Island Marine barracks toilet to kill Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and as well assumed by author Jack Torrance as, ax in hand, he rises from below the image frame to stand leering at us in the Overlook Hotel lobby over the body of his murdered victim, hotel chef Dick Hallorann, are virtual duplicates. Barry Lyndon’s primal self emerges often and regularly to expel him from Eden in the most exquisite settings of aristocratic civilization. Humbert Humbert is secretly gleeful over the death of the pathetic Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother and, as a woman of conventional morality, obstacle to his exile’s desperate and amoral aesthetics in a terrible century. Similarly, no amount of orthodox therapy can long suppress Alex DeLarge’s primal criminality, Kubrick’s joking rejoinder to the modern dogmas of “the mental health movement.” And HAL, that thinking machine and nonnatural child of Homo sapiens, visited by the sins of his fathers, kills crew members of Discovery One, the space ship he was configured to serve.

And then there is the dramatic power, the sheer convenience(!), of the Great Innate for the budgeteer that every director, even the greatest ones, must become par excellence: the Great Innate Take means that much messy and complicated human history, as well as old, deep, persistently mysterious complexities and unknowns in characters’ motives, can be sped over and past in a happy burst of Economy of Theater: an especially striking example occurs  in 2001: A Space Odyssey when Kubrick’s violent chimp throws its stick club–the earliest weapon technology–skyward and it morphs into a graceful space ship. What a quick tour of human history! In its compression, its telescoping, of Kubrick’s dark Human Comedy in the ascent of Homo sapiens, the stick-to-spaceship device reminds in principle of Major Kong’s final ride on the Ultimate Weapon.

Yes, Kubrick’s Grand View is also a great artistic convenience, and since Dr. Strangelove is a crucial drama, we must spotlight Kubrick’s deepest tradecraft secrets as one of the important movie makers, for these secrets may well affect how much we buy into his idea of the Great Innate (as opposed, say, to an antithetical theory, the Blank Slate–loosely, the Noble Savage idea, the supposed tabla rasa at human birth, leading to a stress on nurture over nature in the shaping of human conduct: The Great Dank Innate versus The Great Blank Slate).

An artist’s creative/compositional secrets…economy of art, mundane as it is, is among them.

Besides the above, another secret of artistic economy (as well as storytelling benefit) is elitism: Kubrick’s focus often is on elites: the government officials, military leaders, highly trained nuclear-weapons crews and their kin to be found in the three major scenes in Strangelove, scenes of exclusivity, places where not the public but elites of various kinds–wealth, status, training, etc.–gather: the War Room; the command building at Burpelson SAC airbase; and Major Kong’s high-tech B-52. (As other examples, recall the Overlook Hotel in The Shining and the Discovery One space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

As a final note in this matter: The irony of Homo sapiens returning to that old place–”the center of the Universe”–as we learn more and more about the Cosmos, benefits all storytellers, certainly including Kubrick with his dark Grand Vision. The characters in the stories take on greater importance. Fifty years ago, the old story about humanity becoming of less and less consequence, seemingly less and less important, clearly displaced from the old false idea Homo sapiens is at the center of things, this diminishing owing to the scientific discoveries about the enormous and brutally indifferent Universe–the insights of Galileo, Copernicus and forward–held fast. But if both the known scale of the Cosmos is increasing and simultaneously, as some secular scientists hold, the probability declining of intelligent life such as ours arising in any of the other “Goldilocks Zones” in which creatures can exist but only through a purportedly rare combination of circumstances–we may well be what an anonymous student of the Cosmos has recently called us: the only way in which the Cosmos knows itself and thinks about itself.

Not that it would be of any saving avail in Dr. Strangelove.


Aside from praising Kubrick for the superb art of Dr. Strangelove, here is a mere and brief suggestion about the state of things today in the Nuclear Crisis, fifty years after the Doomsday Weapon destroyed life on Earth, and a suggestion made with considerable simplification, and attempted only insofar as it furnishes something of a context for the movie: In the fifty years since the release of Dr. Strangelove, the Cold War has ended; arms control agreements have achieved some reduction of the massive arsenals of nuclear weapons built up by the US and Russia; international efforts to restrict testing and proliferation of nuclear weapons and to increase the security of nuclear materials have been undertaken; and other crucial initiatives with similar goals are underway. Many terrible problems of all kinds remain, old rivalries have begun anew, and some new frightening dangers have arisen, in trying to deal with the nuclear legacy. The imperative to make progress in reducing the danger has only intensified. And so the spirit of place in Dr. Strangelove does not really fit today. The movie is interesting as a contrast, as a haunting picture of an earlier day in the nuclear crisis from which we can gain some view of what has changed today that colors the nuclear threat and terror and affects the prospects for lowering the danger.

Dr. Strangelove has a specific pessimism that continues to bear reflection. Kubrick was understandably shocked by the historically sudden onset of the Nuclear Age, and the darkness of Dr. Strangelove cannot be a surprise, can it? But he has dramatized an earlier period in the Nuclear Age in a haunting and unforgettable way, a way which suggests how humans react to the Unimaginable.

We would do well to revisit it from time to time.