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DR. STRANGELOVE, a Review by Les

Posted by Programs Manager On 13:51


Or, as Alfred E. Neuman might say “What Me Worry?”

How could a nuclear war start?

One would like to believe that no sane decision could lead to such a war. That would leave only accident or madness.

If you subscribe to the madness theory, come to the Diefenbunker on 16 Aug to watch Dr Strangelove. If you have already seen the movie, it may be time for your periodic fix. Bring some friends - it is often said that madness is better when shared. If you have not already seen the movie, come out and join the cult.

Dr Strangelove was not Stanley Kubrick’s first, or last, war movie, but it was perhaps his most enduring one – capturing new fans at each viewing. This iconic 1964 Cold War movie, a dark satirical comedy, is a leader in the genre of apocalyptic threat movies that sprang up in the 1950s as science, as the military-industrial complex, and as global political instability caused widespread psychological malaise in people’s minds. For the West the Cold War was a period of sustained alert against Communism.

Can one watch a great movie too many times? If a movie is great each time you view it you will appreciate more fully the creative camera styles, the careful writing, the insightful balancing of emotions, the artistic attention to detail, and the skillful acting that goes well beyond script. Dr Strangelove does not, even upon repeated viewings, disappoint. However, does one really watch Dr Strangelove for its artistic merit?

If you are of a certain age, and of a certain musical persuasion, you may recall that one of Johnny Cash's songs featured a man who had to grow up being called “Sue”. Unreal as this may be, I’ll bet that this man would have liked "Sue" a lot better than being called “Merkin” or “Muffley”. The latter two names are only a few of the unique appellations used by the clever and satirical, and perhaps puerile, writers of Dr Strangelove.

Does the movie depict Playboy Magazine like images because one of the writers had worked for Esquire Magazine? Foreign Affaires, really!

One can praise and condemn Dr Strangelove on so many levels. Why go on a roller coaster? Is it the thrill of the fear? Why watch a movie with characters that are clearly over the top? Is it the only way to portray a fatalistic approach to Armageddon without going mad oneself? Why watch a movie with so many sexual innuendoes? Indeed, most scenes have sexual connotations are blunt to the extreme. Is the purpose of the bomber re-fueling, the large phallic cigars, or the orgasmic atomic bomb that Kong rides between his legs to establish a connection between war, sexual obsession and the male sex drive? Why watch a movie that treats such a serious subject as human annihilation as humorous? Is it because nervous laugher eases the pain? Why add distinctive colours to props in a movie that is to be shown in black and white? Is it because a green war table depicts the poker game of war? As in one of Chris De Burg’s songs, one should not play poker with the Devil.

By the time Dr Strangelove was released in 1964 the Doomsday Clock had been extremely close to midnight several times. The nuclear bomb threat was the prism through which the world looked into the future.

The terror of WWII, with its inhumanity and devastation, was still fresh in many minds. Now, looking into the atomic abyss it was even more frightening. The Suez Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Wall Crisis, the unsettling malaise associated with the assassination of US President Kennedy, the worries of an escalating war in Vietnam, and almost constant announcements of an expanding arms race to counter Soviet achievements in weaponry, in space, in science, and in expanding global reach would not let the world’s population relax. Civil Defence and survival were on the minds of many people. Dr Strangelove would not let the viewers relax either. This first commercially-successful political satire about nuclear war was a cynical, humorous, biting response to the fears of the era.

Kubrick had read a book entitled “Red Alert” (originally “Two Hours to Doom”) by RAF Flight Lieutenant Peter George, published in 1958 under the pseudonym Peter Bryant. George was a pessimistic Englishman deeply committed to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s. The thesis for his book was the almost absurd ease with which a nuclear war could be triggered. Kubrick was introduced to the book through contacts at the London Institute for Strategic Studies when he expressed an interest, because of growing fears in society at large, in the issue of nuclear war. Kubrick then acquired the screen rights to the story and developed a cautionary tale, against the backdrop of an almost blasé attitude towards life, of the unthinkable - the destruction of mankind through nuclear war. As it was being developed the movie evolved from a suspense drama, initially titled “Edge of Doom”, into the almost silly satirical movie we enjoy today.

Apparently the B-52 bomber scenes in Dr Strangelove were so real that the US Air Force investigated to ensure that there had been no security breaches in access to technical information on its weapons systems. And yet, there was no correction on the estimated number of US deaths to be expected in a nuclear attack on the US. In this 1964 movie the estimate was for “only” 10 – 20 million US deaths in a nuclear war of that era. US President Eisenhower had a study done in 1956 and at that time the estimate was about 65% of the 168 million US citizens would perish.

When you tour the Diefenbunker prior to the movie you may be pleased, or disappointed, based upon your gender, to learn that Canadian Civil Defence and Continuity of Government Programmes did not consider Canada to have a “mine shaft gap” and therefore had no plans for a ratio of 10 women for every man in the bunker!

I must admit, I’ve not read Herman Kahn’s “On Thermonuclear War”. I understand that his book popularized the term ‘megadeath’ (1953) in discussing calmly the strategic doctrines of nuclear war, the lack of credibility of a purely thermonuclear deterrent and what “winning” such a war could entail. The term Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)” would shortly follow.

If the movie was to be written against today’s threat backdrop its title could well read something like “My Fellow Citizen – Please Don’t or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Live With The Terrorist Amongst Us”


Come out to the Diefenbunker and share your ideas on this movie with other viewers. You can also go on-line and DiefenBlog your comments on this movie, or on the above comments. How many times have you seen this movie? Why? How many times have you seen this movie at the Diefenbunker? Why?


If you subscribe to the accident theory of how a nuclear war could start, I would suggest another great Cold War movie, "Fail Safe". It was last shown at the Diefenbunker about a year ago. The same studio that released Dr Strangelove (Columbia Pictures) released the original version of Fail Safe in 1964, shortly after Dr Strangelove. Peter George sued on the charge of plagiarism and made an out-of-court settlement. Fail-Safe was, for its day, an ultra-realistic melodrama that became a commercial hit only long after release. It was re-made and released again in 2000. Want to see this movie (either version) at the Diefenbunker? Let us know. To get a real world feeling for how a nuclear war might start by accident look up NATO ABLE WARRIOR 83 on the Internet.

Perhaps you want to go even further back in time and see / see again, Nevil Shute’s “On The Beach” (1959). This may well have been the start of the apocalyptic post-nuclear war movie. Again, let us know if you want to see / see again this movie at the Diefenbunker.