Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 release of “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was more than the satirization of U.S. and U.S.S.R. relations during the Cold War; it was a driving force of social and political redefinition within American thought and cinema.
By its satirical depiction of governmental incompetence and dishonesty, the film encouraged public mockery of a subject that was previously considered too serious, or taboo, for such treatment. It also fueled American’s brewing criticism and disillusionment of the political establishment in the mid-1960s.
Although a new decade rolled around in 1960, Americans were still haunted by the previous one. While the 1950s had the lasting glory and patriotism from victory in WWII, Americans already had an impression of communism, which evolved into a Red Scare that consumed the nation. Within this was the notorious McCarthy era, which reeked fear through unjust interrogation and manipulation. Once McCarthy and the Scare were exposed as being a political ploy, damage had already been done. There emerged a serious polarization among American citizens regarding nuclear deterrence. The public had been disgruntled since the Waldorf Statement and the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, which preceded McCarthy. “Dr. Strangelove” is a direct response to this.
From this mass hysteria “Dr. Strangelove” responded with full force. If for every action, such as HUAC, there is a reaction, whether it is its renunciation or a fictional satire like “Dr. Strangelove,” then what is the film’s effect? For one, it was the public’s recognition of a work of art that illustrated a historically significant and current concern, that of nuclear deterrence, capability and policy, in a comical way. This had never been done before cinematically. There were films about nuclear war, and political fragmentation, but none with such a unique caliber as “Dr. Strangelove” presented. In the 1963 film “Fail-Safe,” directed by Sidney Lumet, and adapted from the original novel of the same title by Eugene Burdick, we have the same premise of potential nuclear war with heightened suspense. However, “Fail-Safe” fails to include any comical cynicism for its situation, nor does it contain quirky dialogue or sexual connotation within characters and mise-en-scene. Although “Dr. Strangelove,” too, was an adapted work from Peter George’s 1958 novel “Red Alert” aka “Two Hours Till Doom,” it ends in nuclear annihilation, due to the incapacity within the United States government, and not negotiated compromise before nuclear war.
The ability of Kubrick and the film’s production team to create a satirical piece out of possibly the most concerning issue facing the nation accounted for its instant shock value and mixed reviews – which is why I love it so much.
The film was a direct criticism of not simply technology in its “madness” and “uncontrollable properties,” but also a criticism of those specifically in charge of such technology. In this case, it was the federal government. Basically, this film further encouraged people to remain wary towards the government, for it wasn’t, and never had been, the flawless institution it had once been assumed to be. “Dr. Strangelove” made its goal to show inconsistency and ultimate chaos within the government, and it thus acted as a reminder to audiences of the rampant paranoia and blind faith in the federal government and modern technology.
The government didn’t simply let the film completely roam free, however. In fact, one restraint came in the form of a disclaimer from the United States Air Force that they forced to be screened at the beginning of the film:
“It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.”
Whether or not the US Air Force could in fact “prevent the occurrence of such events” is the very claim at which this film directs its criticisms. And, it is all too humorous to say that none of the characters are based on any living or dead individual, because some absolutely are. George C. Scott’s character, Buck Turgidson is an example His name, while only playfully hinting “swollenness” in the word “turgid,” may not suggest a once living pervert like Marquis, but nonetheless does imply the military strategist and theorist Herman Kahn. Kahn, in his work, was known for calculating an estimation of how many peoples’ lives the U.S. could afford to lose, but still progress. Turgidson, in advising the president of the U.S. in the film, Merkin Muffley, with his nuclear strategy and response, says, “Now I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I am saying no more than 10 to 20 million killed … Tops!” Hilariously cynical.
This film ultimately acted as a forefront in influencing the way in which people regarded their government. The time at which this film was released is critical in understanding its mixed popularity and influence. First, we must consider the ongoing political agenda and history of the country at the time. Such cinematic satire had never previously existed in such a format. Films such as “Fail-Safe” and others like “A Gathering of Eagles,” also 1963, did tackle the subject of potential nuclear disaster, but rather glorified and exaggerated the federal government as a safeguard dramatically.
Secondly, repercussions of the Red Scare were already in play. In recent years, or a mere five years prior to the film’s release there had been a serious arms race with Russia, for both space exploration and nuclear weapons. The United States, under John F. Kennedy’s presidency, experienced this through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Political fragmentation and the spread of communism was already in advancement in Southeast Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, and Americans were becoming progressively more uneasy with Russia’s ever-increasing size and support. Then, when Kennedy was assassinated a mere two months before the film’s release, the country was still in a period of shock and mourning. In fact, the film was set to be released in December of 1963, but Kubrick had the film postponed, suggesting that it would have done even more poorly at the box-office in a time of American solemnity. With all the shaking of the government’s foundation, the country was equally shaken. It was with “Dr. Strangelove,” however, that audiences were able to breathe a sigh of comic relief. Little did people know, waves of influence from the film had already formed, and were making their way overseas.
America circa 1964 was facing those political crises aforementioned, but come the next administration under Johnson, and then Nixon, citizens were able to identify with the film even more. This is because of Johnson’s failed policies to end a war in Vietnam that was heavily protested against, as well as Nixon’s scandal with Watergate. All of these had somewhat been foreshadowed from the film. Whether it was the draft, civil rights or other domestic issues, all ways of life and forms of culture were beginning to dramatically change. These changes were specifically targeted to rebel against the government’s policies and actions.
The film became a platform from which such criticism was able to stand upon.. Through its satire of ultimately “the worst that could happen,” it not only opened doors for what was acceptable on screen, but also in fueling ambitions of anti-war and anti-establishment movements in the 1960s through the mid-1970s.
I never get sick of watching this film. In fact, it’s a favorite in my household. Downstairs, in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, we have a room called “The War Room.” I can’t help but smile every time I walk past it, thinking of the lines, “Gentleman! You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”
Emily Felder is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]