Study Guide for Dr. Strangelove

1. Full Filmographic Citation

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (variously capitalized and punctuated). Stanley Kubrick, dir. United Kingdom: Hawk Films (production company)/Columbia (distributor), 1963 (completion)/1964 (US release). [Script by Kubrick and Terry Southern, based on Red Alert (UK title: Two Hours to Doom) by Peter George.]

2. Cast (with comments [to gloss unfamiliar])

Peter Sellers:

  • Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (The mandrake plant was thought to resemble a man and shriek when picked; mandrake was once thought to be an aphrodisiac [Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy].)
  • President Merkin Muffley ("Merkin": "counterfeit hair for women's privy parts" or the privy part itself [vagina]. "To muff" something is to fail at it in a clumsy manner. A "muff" is an accessory for keeping the hands warm and, from the appearance of such an accessory, a vagina [note contemporary expression "muff diver" for a man who likes to perform cunnilingus]. Seller's Muffley appears to be based on Adlai Stevenson, the model [so the critics assert] for the President in George's Red Alert.)
  • Dr. Strangelove (George W. Linden notes that there was a V-2 rocket builder at Peenemunde actually named Dr. Merkwuerdigichliebe, or "Dr. Strangelove" [Nuclear War Films, ed. Jack G. Shaheen (1978), Ch. 9, p. 65]. Thomas Allen Nelson, talks of "Dr. Strangelove, whose real name is 'Merkwuerdigichliebe' [which decodes as 'cherished fate']" [Kubrick: Inside a Film Maker's Maze (1982), Ch. 4, p. 91]. More important, the name refers to men's strange love of war and destruction.)

George C. Scott: Buck Turgidson ("Buck" for virility. "Turgid" means "swollen"; said of a penis, it means "erect," tumescent"; applied to language, it means "overblown," "grandiloquent.")

Sterling Hayden: General Jack D. Ripper ("Jack the Ripper" was the name given to an uncaught, unidentified murderer of London whores.)

Keenan Wynn: Colonel Bat Guano (I.e., "Col. Bat Sh*t")

Slim Pickens: Major T. J. "King" Kong (King Kong was a famous sympathetic ape of very large size, who dies from a fall from the Empire State Building, caused by being shot by pilots of US Army Air Corps biplanes. In the film of that name, King Kong is in love with Fay Wray- -necessarily, a platonic love. See Susan Sontag's "Imagination of Disaster" [in SF:F] for King Kong as the "animal" within humans.)

Peter Bull: Ambassador de Sadesky (Presumably alluding to the Marquis de Sade and sadism, but maybe also Yiddish Tsadski ["loose woman"?].)

Tracy Reed: Miss Scott (The only woman we see in the film. She appears both with General Turgidson and as the playmate of the month in the Playboy read on the B-52.)

James Earl Jones: Lieutenant H. R. Dietrich, D.S.O. (Jones is the Black in the SAC version of film cliche of the World War II platoon of GIs of every ethnic persuasion.)

Glenn Beck: Lt. W. D. Kivel, Navigator (The cool-headed intellectual, whose lack of passion makes a major point about modern warfare.)

Shane Rimmer: Capt. G. A. "Ace" Owens, Co-pilot

Paul Tamarin: Lt. B. Goldberg, Radio Operator (The token Jew.)

3. Other Names

  • Dimitri Kissoff: Russian Premier, with whom Pres. Muffley talks on the hotline (apparently based on Nikita Khruschev).
  • Ripper's SAC base: Burpelson Air Force Base (as in "burp").
  • Zhokhov Islands: where the Doomsday Machine is (probably) constructed. (Pronounced "zoo-koff.")
  • Original primary target for B-52 we see: Laputa (Spanish, La puta, "the whore," also the name of the flying island in J. Swift's Gulliver's Travels, where it probably derives from Martin's Luther's exclamation against "The whore, reason!").
  • Target of opportunity actually hit: The ICBM complex at Coblas or Coplas (Spanish for "couplets," usually in bawdy songs).
  • Commmunications gizmo on B-52s: CRM ["cream"?] 114, receives "FGD ["fugged"?] 135" for Plan R (R for Robert and later [and more exactly] Romeo. Note in film the failure of many communication devices and much communication.

4. Music

  1. Opening sequence: "Try a Little Tenderness" (a sentimental song advising men to be tender to their women).
  2. For B-52 scenes: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (a patriotic number song looking forward to welcoming victorious "Johnny").
  3. For closing doomsday sequence: Identified by Nelson as "Vera Lynn singing 'We'll Meet Again" (94) -- which sounds like a sentimental British World War II song.

5. Imagery

In Freudian terms, mostly "genital" and "oral." Note especially the sexual imagery of the opening aerial refueling sequence: the intercourse between the tanker and the B-52, in which the tanker generously gives the bomber a large quantity of its, so to speak, precious mechanical fluids. The "intercourse" seems to be quite efficacious, since the interior shots of the "womb" of the B-52 show the plane to be full of little men. Note this imagery for Kubrick's 2001 (1968); the implication in both films is that men and machines are coming together (pun intended). The oral imagery is in all the eating and allusions to eating and in Ripper's phallic cigar. As in 2001 , the eating reminds us of human animality; I don't know what it signifies beyond that, but note Kubrick's two bathroom references and early intention to end DrS with a food fight.

The upshot of the sexual imagery comes at the climax of the film, when Maj. Kong rides the H-bomb down into Mother Russia, into the circular missile complex, setting off the Doomsday Machine. Note the H- bomb as a humongous phallus, and Kong's riding it cowboy-style but ass- backwards, making him (in a grossly elegant student description) "both fuckor and fuckee."

6. Theme

However much "PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION" (both job and what we profess), what men really get off on is war, seen in Dr.S as a kind of sublimated, or super, sex. In 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick continues his investigation of human violence, using premises more anthropological, theological, and sociological (respectively). This theme and the man/machine conflation are both symbolized in Dr. Strangelove himself. Strangelove is the closest thing the film has to a villain, but note that he is played by Peter Sellers, who also plays the eminently civilized Muffley and Mandrake. (Note also Strangelove's black-gloved, mechanical hand: it alludes to the silent classic Metropolis and gets used again in a number of films.)