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dr. strangelove

the mind that thinks the thoughts of war and loves it

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Dr. Strangelove (1964)
"I can no longer sit back and allow
communist infiltration, communist indoctrination,
and the international communist conspiracy
to sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids."


These are the words of General Jack D. Ripper and he's just ordered his wing of B-52 bombers to attack Russia.  The film is Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick.  And as I sit watching this dark comedy about the end of the world, I am split between laughing at its madness and this deep gnawing feeling inside that tells me something here is not very funny.  Over the years, each time I've seen Dr. Strangelove, it has opened my mind to thoughts I've rarely dared to look upon.      

Dr. Strangelove was filmed in 1963.  The 'cold-war' was at full throttle and the Military Industrial Complex was hard at work building up it's arsenal for a program aptly named:  'Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD).  At the same time, under this giant nuclear shadow, a young President was promising an optimistic vision of a 'New Frontier.' 

I believe that this split in the national mind - one hand promising a future called 'Camelot', while the other hand grips tightly to the trigger of mass destruction - is at the root of the dark comedic madness that weaves through every frame of Dr. Strangelove.  Yet somehow, this film seems just as valid today as it did back in 1963; partly because the the madness of war and terror still rage in the world, and partly because the film is a comedic indictment of a mind set, a way of thinking, that is the true cause of war.  This is the mind that thinks the thoughts of war. 

This is a mind gone mad; a mind that has a strange love for destruction.  It is a mind whose actions are disconnected from its words; a mind whose logic has fragmented itself into a truly schizophrenic state; a mind split by paranoia and projection.

Paranoia involves a complex of mental, emotional, and social mechanisms by which a person or a people claim righteousness and purity, and attribute hostility and evil to the enemy.1

General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) is the perfect example of this mind split by paranoia.  Here's a man whose translated his sexual impotency into a communist plot to sap his "precious bodily fluids."  Locked in his office after ordering his planes to attack Russia, Ripper tries to explain his mad logic to his assistant, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of the RAF (played by Peter Sellers)...

"Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we've ever had to face?"

Ripper continues to explain that he first realized his theory when he had a feeling of profound emptiness after the act of making love.  He was lucky enough to be able to translate these feelings correctly..."loss of bodily essence."   As we cut away from Mandrake's confused and horrified face, we see his face again and again.  It is the face of...

...Peter Sellers, in three brilliant impersonations, giving us a gamut of character types who collectively express humanity in the grip of a hilarious and deadly madness.2

Besides playing Mandrake, the innocent 'old world' soldier whose form and properness are no match for the madness of General Ripper and his machines of Armageddon, Peter Sellers also plays Merkin Muffley, the President of the United States, whose ineffectual logic and reasoning twist into the same madness he is trying to stop.  Sellers' third role is, of course, the character of Dr. Strangelove, whose dark mangled figure of a man in a wheelchair is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of this split.  The scientist whose gloved left hand not only acts on its own, but as we get closer to the big bang, this hand goes from reliving it's Nazi salute to Hitler, to trying to strangle Dr. Strangelove himself.  Here the scientific mind is literally split.  One side not connected to the other. This is man split apart - one part strangling the other, one thought circumventing the other.  How this split in us occurs and how it affects our world, is a process that seems to begin with...

The Thoughts that Separate

Collectively, we can say that there is a mind (a body of thoughts) that separates us from each other and ultimately ourselves.  On one level we have Man caught in his own web of technical and mathematical thinking...

In essence, the process of division is a way of 'thinking about things' that is convenient and useful mainly in the domain of practical, technical and functional activities...However, when this mode of thought is applied more broadly to man's notion of himself and the whole world in which he lives, then man begins to see and experience himself and his world as actually constituted of separately existent fragments. Being guided by a fragmentary self-world view, man then acts in such a way as to try to break himself and the world up.3

One embodiment of this fragmentation is the ominous 'Wing Attack Plan R' - the ultimate contingency plan, created to ensure that despite an enemy attack on Washington, our bombs would still reach their targets in the Soviet Union; thus assuring our mutual destruction.  The irony becomes apparent when we cannot stop our own planes from delivering their fatal payloads because of the fail-safe systems we ourselves designed. 

...the 'fail-safe' system itself - defined by manuals, decoding books, and attack profiles - represents the human obsession with the mechanics of time and the hope of anticipating both the designs of a known enemy and the unseen courses of fate; once triggered, the causal logic of the fail-safe system meshes with the doomsday machine to complete a timetable as inexorable as a mathematical formula.4

Lost in this vast labyrinth of theoretical fragments and numeric equations, Kubrick seems to be showing us man disconnected from his machines and his own logic. 

Each setting becomes a dark cave or womb, where characters are surrounded by machines that once served as tools of communication and progress, but now function as weapons of destruction and descent.5

The B-52 bomber, with its wall-to-wall dials and switches is peopled with human forms spewing out data and orders with the same disconnectedness as their instruments.  The only sign of humanity is the pilot, Colonel T.J. 'King' Kong, who is more the Cowboy hero archetype run amok, than a normal rational person.  In the War Room the "...huge circular table and halo of fluorescent light visually embody the processes of reason,"6 as the politicians and generals try to harness a system out of control.  Surrounded by giant screens of lighted geometric forms, notebooks containing reams of data, and concrete monolithic walls, the whole place feels like a machine.  A machine in which " mini-universes can be created and insulated from existential truths (i.e., death no longer is even real) outside computerized gameboards."7

The War Room, Dr. Strangelove (1964)

The outcome of all this is beautifully represented in the military rhetoric spewed out by General Buck Turgedson (played by George C. Scott), who translates 20 to 30 million people killed into "modest and acceptable civilian casualties" and "getting our hair mussed a little."  

Like the body counts and kill ratios of the Vietnam era, the reality of killing human beings becomes an abstract concept to keep us from feeling anything at all.  And hence, our words can be separate from our actions.

The Language of Madness

Dr. Strangelove is chalked full of obvious and hilarious contradictions in terms... All around Burpelson Air Force Base, home of the mad General Ripper, there are signs that read 'Peace is our Profession.' This phrase haunts us throughout the film as it stands behind troops of men gunning each other down, and as it sits in Rippers office while he yanks a giant machine gun out of his golf bag, loads the belt and blasts away. When General Turgedson tackles the heavy-set Soviet Ambassador because he sees him taking photo's of the 'Big Board', the President exclaims:  "Gentlemen, you cannot fight in here!  This is the War Room."

In fact, almost every sign and every spoken conversation in the film resonates with this language of madness.  And, beyond the words, almost every sight and every sound in Dr. Strangelove gives us its own unique visual and audio language that represents this mad split mind. 

From the opening frame, Kubrick splits our minds and senses with constant contradiction.  Shot in Black and White, at first the film appears to be a documentary, complete with the atonal voice of a narrator telling us about news reports concerning rumors of a doomsday device being built in the Arctic by the Russians.  Then, the phallic nose of a jet plane rises up and leads us into a title sequence of...

...a B-52 bomber being refueled in midair, suggesting both copulation and a mother giving suck, while on the soundtrack we hear 'Try a Little Tenderness' and on the screen read pencil-line credits that resemble a child's graffiti.8

Of course, the greatest contradiction Kubrick uses on us is the idea of a comedy about the most serious subject in the world...nuclear annihilation.  By making us laugh at what we're most afraid of, Kubrick finds a way to keep us in our seats while he shows us our own dark and hidden selves.

Primal Forces

Our hidden self is what Jung called the 'Shadow Self,' “…the negative side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious.”9 This part of us lies deep inside, where its unconscious primal forces are always at work. The most obvious primal force is sexuality and 'Dr. Strangelove' is saturated with sexual overtones.  Besides the opening symbolic montage of two airplanes fornicating, you've got a mad General Jack D. Ripper, named after the famous rapist, whose impotency has caused him to send a wing of flying phallic objects (airplanes) and have them drop their phallic bombs on the commies.  The guy who tries to stop Ripper is named after a plant believed to cure impotency (mandrake).  The President, whose name refers to an English slang for 'vulva', sits helpless at the War Room round table while General Buck Turgedson (translation: swollen male animal) talks about 'penetration' into Soviet air space.

At first glance it may appear as though Kubrick is saying that our primal sexual nature is at the root of our self-destructiveness, but that is only one small portion of the shadow within us.  Our fears and insecurities lie under our dark desires.  The shadow contains all the parts of us we dare not claim.  At the heart of the mind that thinks the thoughts of war is the denial of this hidden self.  This denial, aided by the separating language of science and technology, allows us to sever our selves from our own instincts and our own inner shadows.

The process begins with a splitting of the 'good' self, with which we consciously identify and which is celebrated by myth and media, from the 'bad' self, which remains unconscious so long as it may be projected onto an enemy.10

Thus we create our enemy out of our own shadow. 

Projecting the Enemy Within

This enemy, we believe is outside of ourselves, thereby enabling us to kill him.  Yet in truth, we are merely attacking the things inside of us we hate or fear.

We are driven to fabricate an enemy as a scapegoat to bear the burden of our denied enmity.  From the unconscious residue of our hostility, we create a target; from our private demons, we conjure a public enemy.  And, perhaps, more than anything else, the wars we engage in are compulsive rituals, shadow dramas in which we continually try to kill those parts of ourselves we deny and despise.11

When General Ripper warns his men - "The enemy may even come in the uniform of our own troops," and tells them - "Your commie has no regard for human life, not even his own", one has the feeling that Stanley Kubrick is holding up a mirror to our own face.  As the President of the United States speaks on the phone to his adversary, Premier Kissoff of the Soviet Union, we sense that the only difference between these two men is merely the flag of the countries they lead.  This is exemplified in their childish debate over who's sorrier than who for the impending doom. Meanwhile, General Turgedson and Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky grunt and prance around like two apes throwing a tantrum.  Each accusing the other of ignorance and evil.

Examination of those attributes which a man most condemns in other people (greed, intolerance, disregard for others, etc.) usually shows that unacknowledged,  he himself posses them.12

Nearing the end of the film, as Slim Pickens rides the hydrogen bomb into oblivion, hooten' and a holerin' and waven' his ten gallon cowboy hat, our heads resonate with the image of ourselves destroying ourselves.  And as the multiple bombs of the dooms-day machine blast across the globe, Dr. Strangelove rises from his wheelchair and walks again, declaring to his fuehrer that he has a plan! 

Our final feeling is that this strange love for destruction is reborn and another enemy will soon been created again and again...


Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline
the forms of men, women, and children.
Dip into the unconscious well of your own darkness
with a wide brush and stain the strangers
with the sinister hue of the shadow.
Trace onto the face of the enemy
the greed, hatred, carelessness
you dare not claim as your own.
 When your icon of the enemy is complete,
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.13



1 Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy:  Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (New York:  Harper & Row, 1986), 19.

2 Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick:  Inside a Film Artist's Maze  (Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 1982), 85

3 David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London:  Ark Paperbacks, 1983), 2.

4 Nelson, Kubrick, 93.

5 Ibid., 96.

6 Ibid., 94.

7 Ibid., 98.

8 Ibid., 91.

9 C.G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 7 (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1959), 103n.

10 Keen, Faces of the Enemy, 19.

11 Ibid.

12 C.G. Jung, The Essential Jung, ed. Anthony Storr (New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1983), 87.

13 Keen, Faces of the Enemy, 9.


Additional Reference Material:


Ciment, Michel.  Kubrick.  New York:  Holt, Rinhart and Winston, 1980.

Jung, C.G.. Collected Works, vol. 9, Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1959.

Production Notes, Dr. Strangelove.  Hawk Film Productions, 1964.  


University of Southern California,
School of Cinema and Television


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