Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Post your comments here about Stanley Kubrick’s classic interpretation of the Cold War nuclear standoff. You can watch the film for free (albeit, with some advertising mixed in) on Crackle here.

A most critical moment in the film Dr. Strangelove!

In your comments, write your general impressions of the film and what you think it says about life in the United States and the Cold War in 1964. Also, consider these questions: why do you think Kubrick chose (dark) comedy to explore the nuclear standoff? Is that more or less effective than a strictly serious exploration of nuclear war? Also, how would a historian research this film and what kinds of sources would you need to examine its cultural impact? Finally, how do we read this film today? Does it resonate at all with things going on in the world today? And what are we to make of Kubrick’s decision to put the main character in a wheelchair and ridicule him throughout the film as a madman? As historians, what kinds of questions does the film’s ableism raise about the time it was made and about the ways comedy uses the differently abled?

9 thoughts on “Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

  1. The film represents the conspiracy theories circulating en masse in Cold War America. Even though the movie is intended to be a comedy, it’s believable through its depiction of how worked up certain characters became over even the thought of the Russians. I think this movie provides an excellent timestamp for how American society reacted to the Soviet Union and how many people bought into such conspiracy theories. I think the film’s premise was believable enough back then, causing the producers to begin the movie with a disclaimer that it was purely fictional.
    Given the intense fear that the American public felt about the threat of nuclear war, a serious film about nuclear war likely would not have gone over well during that time period. Kubrick likely chose to use comedy as a means of parodying how people were acting during the ‘60s and asked himself “what if such people were high-ranking military personnel.” This demonstrates the flaws in the military system and the handling of nuclear weapons by making it apparent that regular human beings are in charge of such things. In the 1960s, making a parody of a nuclear war was probably the only way that people would listen to the message behind it. Had Kubrick made the decision to make a more serious film, it may have resulted in a panic or he could have been accused of fear-mongering.
    As a historian, a wide array of sources could be utilized to examine the cultural impact of this film. If one wanted primary sources, one could conduct interviews of different parts of the population who watched it during that time period or look at the reviews of film critics in the ‘60s to see how they reacted. If one wanted secondary sources, one could look into what other historians have said in regards to the American fear of communism during the Cold War, films on nuclear apocalypse, stereotypes of Soviets and American military officers, and how film was evolving during this time period.
    Reading this film and gauging reactions to it today is complicated. While it makes astute observations on the American public and the terror over nuclear armageddon, there are certain aspects of the movie that haven’t aged well. Before I deconstruct what hasn’t stood the test of time, I will say that the stereotypes of Russians and the constant fear of the world ending has continued into today’s society. Despite the fact that the Cold War has long since ended, remnants of it remain where people still assert absurd conspiracy theories about Russia, communism, and nuclear warheads. Even though the fear of who we’re fighting nuclear war with has shifted to countries like China, Iran, and North Korea, the same fear is present.
    The ableist parts of the film are distasteful and bizarre. Each of the characters depicted as disabled contributes in some callous level of destruction where other characters react poorly to them. Clearly, this reflects a time where disabled people were seen as “less than” and the film could be used by historians studying how disabilities have been shown in film.

  2. After watching the film Dr. Strangelove for the first time I found the most compelling parts of the film to be, first, the characterization of Dr. Strangelove as a caricature of German and the Nazi party ideology and, second, the phallic and sexualized subtext between characters that represent the military industrial complex in the United States. Dr. Strangelove is immediately ostracized in the War Room as a German foreigner, furthering the us vs. them narrative held during the Cold War. Additionally, much of the symbolism in the film is representative of phallic imagery and the dialogue is often sexually suggestive. Whether these stylistic choices were intentional by Kubrick or not they represent a larger theme in the United States’ cultural identity where the military complex is a keystone of importance and is often idealized to uphold specific narratives that this satirical comedy attacks. At the time that the film was published (1964) the United States was fully immersed in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The threat of a nuclear war and the fallout that would result as a consequence was weighing on the peoples of each nation and thus Kubrick’s use of dark comedy to criticize the institution instigating the conflict reflects the tone of the (American) people at that point in the war. Dark comedy is a common tool to convey serious topics in a digestible way to the public and done with a level of sensitivity can be an effective tool in delivering a message such as the satirical objective of Dr. Strangelove.

    Historians would research this film by asking questions about what the production of this film meant to the cultural context of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Additionally, looking at the National Film Registry where the film has been preserved and the various wards it was nominated for/won would be useful sources to explain the cultural impact of the film in addition to reviews and critiques. Additionally, this film still speaks true to the hypocritic realm of politics and military industrial complexes that exist in the modern international sphere of the global society. Despite there currently being no official Cold War in existence, the presence and conflict over nuclear weapons is still a heavy topic of discussion.

    Dr. Strangelove’s character represents Germany’s defeat in World War II. This is made clear by Kubrick in his decision to place the character in a wheelchair and to surround the character in a narrative of mockery. By doing this, Kubrick symbolizes the American victory over Germany in WWII and the ridiculousness of the Nazi regime in the American perspectives. However, when Dr. Strangelove presents his mineshaft plan to survive the radiation from the Doomsday Machine to the President and the rest of the War Room, Strangelove repeatedly struggles with not referring to the President as “Fuhrer” and “sieg heil-ing.” Additionally, Dr. Strangelove’s plan for the Doomsday fallout is reminiscent of the ideology that fueled the goals of the Nazi Party during WWII. This is especially apparent when he defines the ideal individuals to take down into the mineshafts to protect the American population and indicates that they will be selected based on the best physical attributes and skillsets.

    By using an ableist comedic device, such as this symbolism in Dr. Strangelove’s character, the film encapsulates the acceptable structures and parameters of comedy at the time. The use of the differently abled as a comedic tool in the film correlates to what Kubrick wanted Dr. Strangelove’s character to represent. Strangelove is a motif for the Nazi ideology in the post-WWII era and confining him to a wheelchair shows not only an othering technique of the ideology form the rest of those in the War Room, but is representative of how the differently abled are/were perceived during the time of filming – as othered.

  3. Overall, I thought Dr. Strangelove was a very interesting movie. While it is not entirely the type of film that I tend to watch, I did appreciate it. While watching it, there were times when I was a bit confused. However, by the end I understood completely what was happening and how it all tied together. It was unlike any film that I have ever seen before.
    I think Stanley Kubrick chose dark comedy to explore the nuclear standoff because it is what would reach the American audience best. For the most part, a viewing audience does not want to sit and watch a movie that makes them scared about what could possibly happen in the future. A more strictly serious and solemn exploration and delivery of nuclear war would probably not been as well accepted by the mass viewing audience. By also choosing the dark comedy route, Kubrick makes the audience think a little more in depth about certain scenarios instead of directly telling them what each and everything means in the film.
    For a historian to research this film, they would want to look at sources relating to dark comedy. For example, how it was used, how the viewing audience reacted to it, and more. They would also want to look at sources regarding the time period in which the film took place. What was nuclear policy at the time? What were the various nuclear strategies? How did the citizens of the time feel about the possibility of nuclear war? What were their opinions on nuclear war? These questions could be answered by looking at sources such as old documents, newspaper articles, interviews, and journal entries.
    In my opinion, I think that this film does resonate with things going on in the world today. Nuclear weapons and military unrest still exist. In the 2016 presidential election, the nuclear codes were brought up many times in debates. While this movie did come out at the peak of Cold War tension, I still think that it is applicable in 2020.
    Kubrick’s decision to put the main character in a wheelchair and ridicule him throughout the film as a madman has me a bit baffled. Having only watched the movie once, my initial response is confusion in relation to this and makes me wonder what the deeper meaning is. I think Kubrick might have done this to depict that Dr. Strangeloves’ ideas were crazy and connected to his past. One thing I have learned this semester in my Special Education course is that those with special needs and disabilities have only recently been seen as valued within the last few years. Before then, they were not seen as having any value or as contributing to society. Historians could ask about how people with disabilities were viewed during this time period. They could look deeper into and ask questions about why Kubrick chose to have him in a wheelchair with an arm that he seemingly could not control. They could ask how has comedy shown those with disabilities throughout the years and compare them. They could ask and research to see whether or not Dr. Strangelove was one of the first films to have the main character be someone with disabilities. Finally, they could ask whether comedy tends to make fun of those with disabilities or accepts them into their works.

  4. Dr. Stangelove was a very interesting film to watch and to learn how the plot explores many different interactions between the United States of America and Russia during the time of the Cold War. My general impression of the film was that it was very confusing and hard to understand, until the last ten minutes or so of the film. I did have a tough time following along with some of the conversations as the voices of some of the characters were hard to hear and understand. This movie did touch on many different topics; for example, there seemed to be an oversexualized sense of relationships between men and women throughout this film. This could be done on purpose as a way to show just how the American military can be seen in regards to how relationships are seen within the military world, as well as how men are expected to act, in regards to masculinity. There was also a sense of dark humor seen throughout the movie, this could have been done for comedic relief to counteract the dark plot of the movie, or it could have been done as a way to show the Cold War was not a serious war, as there was not actually any combat. A historian could research this film for many reasons; some being to see how military actions could work during a time of crisis, or even what their culture and lifestyles were at the time this movie was set in, just to name a few. Some sources that a researcher might need to consult in order to examine how this impacted the culture would include, newspapers, diaries and journals, and other personal, or first hand accounts. Today, I think this film can resonate well with what is currently happening today as there are very serious issues happening, and there are a lot of people who are making jokes in regards to these events. Even when the topic itself is very important to understand. For the use of comedy, I would like to ask about how the humor has changed from the time period this film was made in, to today’s humor, and how these two compare. For example, there were a lot of hints at Dr. Strangelove himself, as he seemed to be handicapped, and the other men in the room seemed to downplay the fact that he was a genius just based on the fact he was in the wheelchair. He used the wheelchair for the majority of the movie, only to make it known at the end that he was able to walk the entire time.

  5. Overall, I thought that film was great. It had a wide range of interesting characters that engaged in a variety of outlandish moments. Like when the secretary is having to repeat what is being said over the phone for 2-3 minutes before the General finally picks up the phone, or when Colonel Kong rides the warhead like a cowboy to its target. When the film was released in 1964 most people remember he Cuban Missile crisis 2 years prior.
    So, Kubrick’s choice to make it a dark comedy could have been a way to prevent some anxieties or stress of the people watching it in 1964. While Stanly Kubrick wants his audience to know that Nuclear War is a serious thing, he also wants us to know that neither side wants to destroy each other like we almost did in 1962. The behavior of the high-ranking military officials and the President shows us that even the top people can be prone to mistakes and insane and almost human behavior. Furthermore, the film brings political humor that we today are familiar with, with shows like Saturday Night Live and others.
    If a Historian were to study this film they would need to look at how people perceived the film at the time and then ask them if it changed their views on the arms race between US and USSR, further you can look at reviews of the film and other research papers on or about the film.
    Today we read this film as a comedy of the problems our Parents and Grandparents concerned themselves with. Today we do not worry about the potential nuclear war, that part of history is over for us. Instead we worry about poverty and corrupt political systems etc. The character Dr. Strangelove is given very little screen time, but his crazy personality carries a lot of weight in the few minutes he is on screen. Dr. Strangelove is an obvious depiction of a Nazi scientist that started working for the Americans after World War 2, and him being disabled is kind of ironic considering the Regime would have seen him as subhuman. At the end of the film his madman rant about living underground and have hundred of women per man seemed like a fantasy of his and that gets lost in his salutes to the president (Who is calls Mein Fuhrer once) this further shows the persona of a mad scientist cliché we are use today.
    The ableism part of the film is quite odd. while Dr. Strangelove is the obvious disabled person in the film. At times the filmed showed everyone including high ranking officials to be deficient mentally in some form or another. Like when the Colonel is arresting Mandrake, whom is telling him that he can stop the attack. This makes it seem like no one told the Colonel that General Ripper was probably working alone and others like Mandrake did not have any part in the attempt nuclear strike.

  6. In “Dr. Strangelove” Stanley Kubrick chose to satirize the events between the United States in Russia during the cold war. He does this by using boisterous and very comical characters to represent the leaders and military of both countries. None of them were portrayed as serious as military personnel in other movies about significant military events. They were depicted as more accident prone and frivolous, tripping over themselves and eating snacks in serious situations. One of the main generals seemed very conspiratorial, calling everyone a “commie” and blaming everything that goes wrong on the “commies”. This can be a direct depiction of America at the time and their anti-communist behaviors. He also did not seem that smart, very loud, and most of his sentences did not make sense. Once again this can be a satirical depiction of Americans at this time, loud and wrong, or this could be a depiction of the actual military generals. It is interesting how one of the pilots decided to stop in the middle of a crisis to find his cowboy hat to wear it and continue flying the plane. I do not know if that was a joke towards a certain demographic, but it seemed to be. It is also interesting how they portrayed the president. Even though they never said who the satirical character was portraying, usually films try to make the character look and act as much like the president during that time as they can. This did not seem to be the case, as the fictional president, Merkin Muffley, was a short bald man with glasses who was very friendly to Russia and also very emotional. Muffley was not the typical strong president that demanded things, but instead he tended to plead with Russia, speaking in a very whiny tone. The most interesting character was the title character, Dr. Strangelove. However, I found him more terrifying than interesting. Although it was quite interesting how the loud general constantly put Europeans below the United States, intelligence wise and power wise, but yet they have a German as the president’s head scientific adviser. It is interesting how Kubrick chose to make him disabled. He seemed to be the smartest man in the room until the very end of the movie and then he is miraculously not disabled anymore. I think that Kubrick using a more comedic approach makes it more enjoyable to learn about, but as someone studying history the funniest part about it all is the fact checking. However, I think it would be interesting to see how people reacted to the film when it was released. This is because this film can easily be seen as soviet propaganda. The depiction of the president, the generals, the pilots, and Dr. Strangelove, make the United States seem a lot les powerful and influential than Americans would like to believe. The portrayal of the president can be connected back to today, because President Trump seems to be very friendly with Russia and I personally do not see him as a strong commanding president, but more like Muffley, whiny and bald.

  7. Dr. Strangelove maintains a comedic and satirical tone yet accurately portrays the mass hysteria and paranoia during the Cold War. Kubrick’s dark humorous approach was also the reality of the extreme tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. In my opinion, I think his approach his more effective because the movie grabs the audience’s attention during the more serious parts such as the approach to nuclear war while adding comedic relief so that the viewer is not bored and separates from rational thought to absurdity. The hysteria that encompassed the Cold War is outrageous yet unsurprising and logical. Both powers were developing nuclear weapons for possible destruction if ever necessary. However, their own contributions furthered the question: what if nuclear war were to happen? Regardless, of Kubrick’s comedic relief, his film exemplifies the rational and the extreme ends of thought surrounding the Cold War. General Turgidson had no regard for Soviet life and when questioned on his actions to commit genocide, his answer was decisive that millions of deaths did not matter in comparison to the possible threat of communism. Opposite to him was President Muffley, who greatly disdained the idea of nuclear war and his reputation alongside it. Moreover, Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi, who believed that life could rehabilitated underground with extremist selection of the worthiest to live and grotesque breeding measures. Additionally, Kubrick highlights the paranoia in General Ripper’s character who believed that Soviets were polluting America’s water. From the characters alone, historians can summarize the differing perspectives of the American side on communism in the most extreme ways. To examine the film’s cultural impact, historians could look at film critic reviews when the film was released and of the audience’s perception. Today, this film would read as possibly too extreme in ideologies such as Ripper’s, Turgidson’s and Strangelove’s. However, today there are going to be similar people in the world who do heavily disdain and conspire against their government or question other country’s involvement. Today, there is still fear around Russian influence and more with other foreign powers such as China and North Korea. Kubrick’s decision to put Dr. Strangelove into a wheelchair as a symbol of weakness was distasteful but showcases what was acceptable when the movie was made. Dr. Strangelove was made to look weak to focus in on his absurdity of a former “crazed” Nazi scientist that lost World War II and now a scientific advisor to the United States. Historians can look at this film and study Kubrick’s treatment of Dr. Strangelove as the attitude toward former Nazis and see how they were now inferiors to the United States and the Soviet Unions as the two emerging powers after World War II. Today, the use of making Dr. Strangelove disabled to represent the ridicule towards him by his peers would be widely criticized because of its distasteful perception of the disabled as being weaker.

  8. . I found the film to be fairly interesting in its depiction of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. I have not watched Kubrick’s other movies other than The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, so it was nice being able to watch another one of his films, especially with the two films being so different from one another. The ways in which it depicts the attitudes that the United States and the Soviet Union had towards one another are what make this film stand out as a key insight into how things were during the Cold War.
    Kubrick is regarded as one of the most prominent American film directors of the twentieth century. Dr. Strangelove is just one of the films to justify this title. Kubrick’s decision to successfully depict the Cold War in a comedic way was genius, and it shows that he knew his audience. The Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was one of the most intense and truly terrifying periods in history for the American public. Nobody knew exactly what was going on or what was going to happen on a daily basis, Making Dr. Strangelove into a parody of the situation helped put audiences somewhat at ease by making light of an intense situation, while also helping the audience to understand what was going on.
    Kubrick’s decision to oversexualize the film also played a major role in responding to what was going on. From the obvious sexual references with the names of most of the main characters, such as General Jack Ripper and President Merkin Muffley, to the motives behind the characters’ actions and the imagery that the viewer is practically bombarded with from start to finish; this is clearly an anti-war film that claims that violence and war are deeply connected with male sexuality and sexual frustration.
    Historians would research this film in regards to its cultural impact through a variety of methods. They would want to know what kind of impact it had upon its release in 1964, as well as the impact it has today. One could look into reviews of the movie published during that time in newspapers and magazines, as well as conduct interviews with a wide variety of people, from those that were around when the film was released and lived through most of the Cold War conflicts, as well as younger viewers to understand its impact today, and possibly make parallels with the 1960s and today.
    Lastly, focusing on the Dr. Strangelove, a lot can be researched in regards to his role in the film, how he is portrayed, and what this portrayal says about this period in history. In the film, Dr. Strangelove is a wheelchair-bound former Nazi scientist, somewhat mad and constantly ridiculed. Although he is not given much screen time, his presence in the film says a lot. This portrayal makes two claims. It showed American attitudes of the Germans after the Second World War, pushing the fact that the United States had defeated them. It also shows American attitudes towards physical disability, and shows that this was something difficult for many to understand, so it was ridiculed. While this portrayal is appalling in today’s standards, it is easy to understand when looking at when the film was created.

  9. I think that this film was actually really interesting as a whole. Overall it was so weird that it really kept me interested in trying to figure out the legitimate storyline which I found kind of confusing overall. I think that the visuals of the War Room and the way they depict the pilots and fighters in the bomber are a good example of the United States during the Cold War. Using these visuals allow the public to see what Kubrick wanted to depict of these important US Officials. Especially how they depicted Ripper going crazy and finding any way to blame the Soviets for a conspiracy. Even if it was that he thought that it was the flouride in the water affecting him and the general public. I think that Kubrick chose comedy to explore the nuclear standoff because people are more likely to be drawn to something funny rather than a sad story. I know for me if there was a comedy on a history topic I would much rather choose to watch that than a documentary on it. This I believe is less effective than a strictly serious exploration of nuclear war because to the people watching it at the time gives a false representation of what was really going on and gives people the idea that it’s not as serious as it really is. This is a serious topic that has the capability of killing millions and the fact that he decided to use humor to get it across says a lot about what the United States was like at the time of creation of the movie. I would say that a historian researching this would try to look at the legitimate sources that were taken into account when creating this. Overall it is a fake narrative but it has to come from somewhere so I would look into the legitimate actions of the US Government at the time of the Cold War. I would then use the film to see how far astray the makers went into making this something that the general public can understand and enjoy to see the cultural impact. Sources you could look at are movie reviews of when it was released to see how the general public reacted to it. Today we use this film for exactly what this essay is, a learning tool. Not something to be taken too seriously but if analysed you can see what the United States was seeing at the time of the Cold War. I think Kubrick’s decision to put the main character in a wheelchair and to be ridiculed opens perspective into how people treated those with disabilities at the time. Ridiculing him and making him seem “mad” in some way shows that people did not have the respect for people with disabilities as we do today. I would say the questions that this film raises a lot of questions of the intent behind using somebody in a wheelchair. Was it to make them more popularized or polarized? Comedy is always something that takes a situation and puts a funny twist to it so there has to be knowledge that no matter what they put on the screen they’re going to try to make it a funnier version of what it really is. Overall this was a really interesting movie to watch and get to look at from the perspective of a historian.

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