At first glance to the illiterate filmgoer this movie looks like an early 70’s lame attempt to show the ludicrous side of war. I was prepared from something slightly humorous and mildly entertaining. However, I was shocked to find that I was riveted to the storyline during the entire movie, absorbing so many symbolically charged characters and dialogues that I was practically transfixed while I worked out the meanings and messages that Stanley Kubric was slyly relaying to me through the medium of film. Kubric’s film, Dr.
Strangelove: Or How I learned to Love the Bomb, is a black comedy with some very interesting messages about men, sexuality and war. Symbolism abounded in a variety of forms and was so cleverly disguised that it took several moments for the viewer to feel the full impact of Kubric’s message. Consider the opening scene, set to the background music of very sappy romance music we are introduced to two giant warplanes in the act of refueling during flight. The first impression is that of discord. War-time aircraft and romance music in a scene that lasts what seems likes five full minutes.
The director prolongs the scene long enough for the audience to become suspicious of the underlying sexual symbolism of two planes mating before he cuts to his next immediately sexually charged scene of a perfect caricature of a US Army officer, with an enormous cigar protruding obscenely from his mouth. As the movie continues, so do the sexual innuendos. By the end of the movie Kubric’s message is clear, but it takes time to build us up before we reach complete realization of his purpose, which in itself is also interesting.
The first compelling character that we are introduced to is the US Army General and his ever present cigar. The cigar is obviously a phallic symbol. It rises when the General is excited and droops lamely when the disappointment of his men overcomes him. He is an interesting character mainly because of his obsession with “bodily fluids” and what he feels to be the infiltration of his “pure essence”. This is the viewer’s first real clue to the ties between men, sexuality and war that Kubric is trying to relay. The General’s name is Jack D. Ripper. Taking his name from a sexual psychopathic was no mistake.
Ripper is obsessed with the fact that he cannot ejaculate during sexual intercourse and tries to find the answer to this dilemma by blaming the Russians for fluoridating the American water supply. There are several interesting caricatures here beginning with the outward appearance of ultimate masculinity, that of an American Army General, his ever present cigar, and the enormous gun he pulls out as he starts shooting at the soldiers that are trying to save him. He is every inch a sexual psychopath. Ripper is more interesting when seen from the viewpoint that men and their obsessive sexual issues wreak havoc on the rest of the world.
Ripper’s psychopathic behavior leads him to believe that he must take issues into his own hands and declare war on Russia, even if that means overriding the President of the United States. He is bound and determined to annihilate anyone who stands in the way of his sexual dysfunction. The General moves smoothly from blaming others, to repressing himself, right into violent repercussions for himself and everyone else. Closely connected to Jack D. Ripper is an English Officer in the US on an Officer Exchange Program. Although the caricature of the English Officer is humorous, his name, Mandrake, keeps us on Kubric’s path.
Mandrake root is an herb that is often used in male impotence, for virility and as an aphrodisiac. This is interesting because of the interplay between Mandrake and Ripper. Straight-laced, foreign or different, and a bit feminine Mandrake is the complete opposite of Ripper. He also tries to console Ripper that his “bodily fluids” are perfectly normal and that he has no problem using them. Several times Ripper asks Mandrake to help him feed the enormous gun he is wielding about, and Mandrake’s response is quite feminine when he lays prostrate on the floor helplessly.
The sexual symbols grow more numerous and less hidden as the movie progresses. We are introduced to the small group of men on the bomber who are sent to carry out the orders. The pilot in charge, Major Kong, plays an interesting role in delivering a different type of caricature of men. As opposed to Ripper who was psychopathic and sexually dysfunctional, Major Kong was the All-American cowboy. Honorable, naive, and not afraid to get the job done. There are several scenes in which the major tries to drop the bombs he is carrying and finds that they are stuck.
Although his men cannot manage to solve the problem Major Kong leaves his post at the planes helm and goes to the underbelly of the plane to try to fix the wiring. He succeeds but when the bomb drops he is riding it, the bomb between his legs. This is the largest phallic symbol used in the movie and the considering the pilot’s name, Major Kong, it is no surprise. However, Kubric has the Major ride the bomb to its target where it then explodes in an enormous mushroom cloud. The explosion which is obviously symbolic of the finality of orgasm and the lunacy that drives men to achieve that end appears to be a recurrent theme.
The male sex drive as connected to war is again driven home by Kubric. Moreover, he builds on this theme and gives us a basis for understanding with the characters and plotting that occurs in the War Room. It is here that we meet the President, whose sexually illicit name refers to sexual zones of a woman, and the very outspoken Buck Turgidson. The caricature of Buck is perfectly summed up in the meaning of his name. The term buck means stud while the word turgid means swollen. These two main characters do most of the talking in a very large room. The President mimics the attributes of his female name and is very submissive and feminine.
His speech is whiny and apologetic on the phone and most of his arguing is with Buck. They argue across a large table and are so far away they practically have to yell to be heard. Buck only gets excited when he sees opportunities for destruction whereas the President is ready even to destroy his own bombers to keep the peace. The roles of these two characters are symbolic of the male versus female perspectives. Even the great distance across the room from which they speak contributes to the feeling that they are coming from different points of view. The female perspective of peace and harmony as opposed to the male perspective of domination.
As a character study Buck portrays several attributes of male domination. He is always the first to speak, overbearing when he communicates, often rude and petty, always stuffing wads of gum into his mouth and smacking obscenely, and pouts like a toddler when he is asked to behave. He uses tactics to overpower the others by standing on his chair, glaring defiantly with those who disagree, and becoming physically violent to get his way if all other tactic fail. Of all the characters he is most desirous to carry out the war plans, for no other purpose than to win.
The sexual innuendos associated with Buck relate to the only female in the movie who we meet briefly before he is called into the War Room. Kubric’s choice to make Buck’s love interest a secretary much younger than himself and who is always shown scantily clad in a bikini and high heels plays along with the typical male stereotype. At one point in the movie Buck receives a phone call from his mistress. He tries to assure her that he doesn’t want her for her body but “deeply respects her as a human being. ” He then promises he’ll be back soon to “take care of her needs” shortly.
Buck also was unable to have intercourse with his mistress before the meeting as he was busy going to the bathroom and then was called away. Kubric is mocking the male need to substitute sex for war. Another interesting aspect about the war room is the “Big Board” that is set up as the backdrop. It is an enormous map of Russia with the locations of all the bombers bleeping around the borders of the country. As the planes are all given the “go” code, the flashing lights start their course toward the border of Russia. The first plane to cross the border will then trigger the unwanted reaction of the Russians.
This is very symbolic of the sperm’s racing to the egg. All the sperm racing to be the first to invade the egg. One of the last characters introduced is Dr. Strangelove. Although he has little do in the movie his symbolic presentations are really Kubric’s underlying message. Firstly, the name Strangelove is an accurate portrayal of what’s been happening in the movie from the beginning. This strangeness or perversion of love is the essence of Kubric’s theme. Dr. Strangelove himself has several symbolic issues as a character. Firstly is his inability to keep his arm from involuntarily saluting Hitler.
Second is his sudden cure from immobility from his wheelchair when he stands erect from so much excitement. Although both of these acts are sexually symbolic, the cause for the excitement is the revelation. As the men sit in the War Room they discuss the possibilities and repercussions of nuclear war with Russia. Dr. Strangelove suggests taking a small community of people and living in underground mines. This prospect doesn’t seem appealing until he mentions that in order to recreate all the lives lost from the devastation of nuclear war each man will need to have ten female partners.
The discussion becomes lively and animated as the men imagine the possibilities and then start to designate appealing sexual attributes the women must possess. Suddenly the immanent doom that awaits them with the total annihilation of the planet doesn’t look so bad with a 10:1 ratio of women to men, and they find themselves looking forward to doomsday after all. It seems as though Kubric is trying to portray the fact that men use extreme situations such as war and total destruction as a tool to open up doors to consider sexual fantasies that would otherwise be taboo.
Kubric’s mockery of this attitude relays his thinking that this is the most ludicrous thinking of all, and suddenly the title makes perfect sense. The movie ends with orgasmic explosion after explosion of hydrogen bombs, just as it began with the foreplay of warplanes. Stanley Kubric’s insight and opinion about the relationship of sexual obsessions, power and war were shrewdly masked in the symbolism that abounded everywhere in the film, but even to the untrained eye his message came through loud and clear.
REFERENCES Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubric. 1964.