Between 1964 and 1971 director Stanley Kubrick released three movies, each significantly altering the course of film history.
The first of these films was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Produced in the shadow of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Dr. Strangelove openly mocks the possibility of mutually assured destruction and the macho posturing that nearly precipitated it.
Sterling Hayden plays General Jack Ripper, a paranoid soldier convinced that water fluoridation is a communist plot to “sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids.”
To stifle this outrage, Ripper exploits a military loophole and authorizes a nuclear strike on Russia. Unbeknownst to him, the Ruskies have developed a doomsday device designed to destroy the entire world if the Soviet Union is attacked. Worse still, the doomsday machine cannot be disarmed; it’s automatic.
The plot serves as the backdrop for a series of brilliant comedic performances, three of which belong to Peter Sellers.
We first see Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, a befuddled officer on loan from the Royal Air Force. Torn between loyalty to his superior (Ripper) and his desire to prevent a nuclear holocaust, Mandrake congenially tries to pry the bombing recall codes out of his boss and talk him out of his fluoridation theory:
“I drink a lot of water, you know. I’m what you might call a water man, Jack – that’s what I am. And I can swear to you, my boy, swear to you, that there’s nothing wrong with my bodily fluids. Not a thing, Jackie.”
Sellers also plays the hopelessly earnest American President, Merkin Muffley, and the title character, Dr. Strangelove, a physicist who worked for Hitler in World War II and still has a habit of referring to the president as “mein fuhrer.”
It’s a virtuoso hat-trick for Sellers and yet somehow he is outshone by George C. Scott, who is more famous for stoic roles in films like Patton.
In Strangelove, Scott is in gum-chewing, rubber-faced, comedic overdrive as General Buck Turgidson. His eyebrows should be listed separately in the credits.
When President Muffley suggests that Jack Ripper is psychotic, Turgidson responds that he would never want to judge such a thing “until all the facts are in.” He is also positively giddy about the possibility of only losing 20 million American lives in a nuclear war.
Throughout Dr. Strangelove, phallic symbolism abounds. In the opening credit sequence Air Force jets are re-fueled mid-air in a manner resembling sex. Jack Ripper spends the whole movie chewing on a cigar that protrudes from his mouth like a you-know-what; and, in perhaps the most famous scene of the film, Major Kong (Slim Pickens) straddles a nuclear bomb and rides it rodeo-style down to its target.
Even Ripper’s fluoridation theory is sexually derived. During “the physical act of love” he suddenly felt fatigued. The conclusion we draw is that the total annihilation of the planet was instigated by one man’s inability to deal with his own impotence. It’s sharp satire.
Perhaps it’s due to the closure of video rental stores, but nobody seems to watch this film anymore. As evidence I present the recent behaviour of American politicians.
In January they narrowly avoided the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which would have precipitated massive tax increases and spending cuts if they failed to reach a budget deal. And more recently they tied themselves in knots over the “sequester” in which government programs would be slashed if a similar deal could not be reached.
Both of these events contain an eerie resemblance to the game-theoretical logic of the Russian doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove.
Like the doomsday device, which was designed to automatically trigger the apocalypse after a nuclear strike, both the fiscal cliff and the sequester were designed to automatically instigate disastrous results if compromise failed. The problem is that the American ruling class is not particularly known for its give-and-take these days.
Maybe it would help if there were a few more film historians in the United States Congress, or maybe the world needs more politicians who are less obsessed with their dongs.
Peter Jickling is a Whitehorse playwright and the assistant editor of What’s Up Yukon