"I can no longer sit back
and the international
to sap and impurify all our
precious bodily fluids."
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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
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)...
realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous
communist plot we've ever had to face?"
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...
Sellers, in three brilliant impersonations, giving us a gamut of character types
who collectively express humanity in the grip of a hilarious and deadly
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
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
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.
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.
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
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,"
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
The War Room, Dr. Strangelove (1964)
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
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."
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
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
...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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
we create our enemy out of our own shadow.
Projecting the Enemy Within
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
final feeling is that this strange love for destruction is reborn and another
enemy will soon been created again and again...
with an empty canvas
forms of men, women, and children.
into the unconscious well of your own darkness
a wide brush and stain the strangers
the sinister hue of the shadow.
onto the face of the enemy
greed, hatred, carelessness
dare not claim as your own.
your icon of the enemy is complete,
will be able to kill without guilt,
Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy:
Reflections of the Hostile Imagination (New York:
Harper & Row, 1986), 19.
Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside
a Film Artist's Maze (Indiana:
Indiana University Press, 1982), 85
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London:
Ark Paperbacks, 1983), 2.
Nelson, Kubrick, 93.
C.G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 7 (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1959), 103n.
Keen, Faces of the Enemy, 19.
C.G. Jung, The Essential Jung, ed. Anthony Storr (New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1983), 87.
Keen, Faces of the Enemy, 9.
Michel. Kubrick. New York: Holt,
Rinhart and Winston, 1980.
C.G.. Collected Works, vol. 9, Researches into the
Phenomenology of the Self. New
York: Pantheon Books, 1959.
Notes, Dr. Strangelove. Hawk
Film Productions, 1964.