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Encyclopedia > Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

For the hit 1987 single by Depeche Mode, see the album Music for the Masses

Film poster for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a 1964 satirical film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Dr. Strangelove, as it is commonly known, tells the story of an insane renegade general's attempt to start a nuclear war and the attempts of others to avert it.



US Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) plans to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union to stop what he believes to be a fearful Communist conspiracy to put fluoride in the water supply, by his reasoning, thereby threatening the "precious bodily fluids" of the American people. He orders -- without Presidential authorization -- the planes under his command to attack the Soviet Union, under radio silence which cannot be broken save by a recall code that Ripper alone knows. He then seals himself inside his base and hopes that the President will order a full-scale attack to prevent an otherwise inevitable retaliation from the Soviet Union. Ripper is apparently psychotic; his conspiracy theory seems to result largely from an episode of impotence when attempting sexual intercourse after drinking fluoridated water.

From the script:

Ripper: A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard core commie works.
Mandrake: Jack... Jack, listen, tell me, ah... when did you first become, well, develop this theory.
Ripper: Well, I ah, I I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.

General Ripper is unaware that the Soviets have constructed a so-called "doomsday device" which automatically detects any nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, whereupon it destroys all life on Earth via massive nuclear fallout. Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) explains to the staff assembled in the American war room how the device is a natural extension to the Cold War strategem of mutually assured destruction as a deterrent to an actual nuclear exchange. Moreover, the machine cannot be turned off as this would mitigate its value as a deterrent.

As a result, the American government cooperates with the Soviets to shoot the General's planes down until they can be recalled, and Ripper's plan is ultimately foiled by British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (also played by Peter Sellers), an officer participating in an "exchange program" with the USAF, who deduces the recall code from Ripper's childish doodles. Unfortunately, one B-52 ("The Leper Colony") cannot be called back as its radio was destroyed by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile and it continues its mission to drop its nuclear payload on a Soviet target, that will in turn set off the doomsday machine. The particular bomb is jammed in its bay, and in trying to release it, the pilot of the B-52, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) inadvertently ends up riding it down to global destruction — with Kong cheering all the way. Kong straddles the bomb, gripping it with one hand and waving his cowboy hat in the air with his other in an homage to rodeo bullriding technique.


Although it is a comedy, Dr. Strangelove is also suspenseful and engrossing and not the least "madcap". Two major scenes of action are the immense War Room dominated by the Big Board showing the location of every bomber in the world, and the meticulously recreated B-52 interior. The remainder is set in General Ripper's headquarters at Burpleson Air Force Base. The Pentagon did not cooperate in making the film, as it did in making Strategic Air Command (1955).

Dr. Strangelove takes passing shots at all sorts of Cold War attitudes, but focuses its satire on the theory of mutual assured destruction, in which each side is supposed to take comfort in the fact that a nuclear war would be a cataclysmic disaster. Herman Kahn in his 1960 On Thermonuclear War invented the concept of a doomsday machine in order to mock mutually assured destruction — in effect, Kahn argued, both sides already had a sort of doomsday machine. Kahn was a leading critic of MAD during the 1960s and urged Americans to plan for a limited nuclear war. The prevailing thinking that a nuclear war was inherently unwinnable and suicidal was illogical to the physicist turned strategist. Kahn came off as cold and calculating; for instance, in his works, he estimated how many human lives the United States could lose and still rebuild economically. This attitude is reflected in Turgidson's remark to the president about the outcome of a pre-emptive nuclear war: "Now I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I am saying no more than 10 to 20 million killed. Tops!"

It satirizes the conventions of Hollywood war movies, as well as the curious "red telephone" relationship between heads of state, in which a first-name intimacy competes with a culturally conditioned dislike for the other and for the entire political system which he heads:

"I'm sorry, too, Dmitri. ... I'm very sorry. ... All right, you're sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well. ... I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don't say that you're more sorry than I am, because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are. ... So we're both sorry, all right?! ... All right." (Dialog improvised by Sellers)

The title character, Dr. Strangelove, riffs on the US government's morally questionable use of Nazi scientists in programs such as nuclear weapons research. Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, retains a thick German accent, and mistakenly calls the President "Mein Fuhrer" on more than one occasion. His appearance echoes the villains of the Fritz Lang era in 1920s Germany whose sinister and evil characters were usually offset by some disability. Sellers improvised Dr. Strangelove's lapse into the Nazi salute, borrowing one of Kubrick's black gloves for the uncontrollable hand that makes the "Sieg Heil" gesture. Sellers found the director's gloves that Kubrick perpetually wore to avoid direct contact with hot lights to be especially menacing. The thought of the new, post-war centrally controlled, underground, male-dominated society with its members specially selected from the population is evocative of Nazi visions and animates Dr. Strangelove at the end.

Finally, the film can also be seen as a sex comedy, even though only one woman ("Miss Foreign Affairs", played by Tracy Reed, stepdaughter of film director Sir Carol Reed, dressed in a bikini) briefly graces the screen. Excepting perhaps the stiff-upper-lip Captain Mandrake, all the characters seem to be driven by sexual motives. General Ripper's psychotic delusions are triggered by his sexual impotence. Even President Muffley's eyes light up when Dr. Strangelove describes the situation in the mine shaft shelters. Dr. Strangelove is revived and able to leave his wheelchair at the end of the movie when he reflects upon the unequal number of women per men required to repopulate the earth. Sex drives the movie, from the opening titles with two copulating airplanes to the ending sequence in which the world is destroyed in a globe-spanning moment of sexual ecstasy.

The movie is based upon a Cold War thriller novel entitled Red Alert. Stanley Kubrick had originally wanted to film the story as a serious drama. However, he explained during interviews that the comedy inherent in the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction became apparent as he was writing the first draft of the film's script. Kubrick stated:

"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question." — Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1, p. 126


The planned original ending to the film was a chaotic pie-fight scene with the Soviet ambassador in the war room. It was cut from the final print.

Cast and crew

The film stars Peter Sellers, who improvised the dialog above during filming. Sellers plays multiple parts:

  • Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a sane, well-meaning British liaison officer;
  • Adlai Stevenson-esque U.S. President Merkin Muffley, decent, flustered and weak; the doomsday machine is a shock to him.
  • Dr. Strangelove, from Merkwürdigliebe, his German name, perhaps based on aspects of Herman Kahn, Wernher von Braun, Henry Kissinger, and Edward Teller. Dr. Strangelove's voice is supposedly based on that of Weegee. His speeches are distracted by a constant struggle to gain control over his affliction of alien hand syndrome (his hand at one point attempts to strangle him, at another it thrusts itself out in a Nazi salute).

Sellers was also to have played the B-52 bomber captain, but an injury (specifically, a foot fracture) during filming prevented him from doing so. The part of Major T. J. "King" Kong was played by Slim Pickens, who gives it the performance of a lifetime. Pickens was unaware the film was to be a comedy and played the role straight, thereby adding to the humor. Also appearing in the film are George C. Scott in his breakout part as General "Buck" Turgidson, a strategic bombing enthusiast (Turgidson was a thinly-disguised avatar of General Curtis LeMay); the debut of James Earl Jones as the bombardier, Lt. Lothar Zogg; Sterling Hayden, who came out of retirement for his role as Gen. Jack D. Ripper; and Keenan Wynn, as Col. Bat Guano.

Photography: Gilbert Taylor

Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George (from the novel by Peter George)

Editor: Anthony Harvey

Production design: Ken Adam

Special effects: Wally Veevers

Critical views

Dr. Strangelove is consistently in the top 20 on the Internet Movie Database's list of top 250 films, and was also listed as #26 on the American Film Institute's on its 100 Years, 100 Movies and #3 on its 100 Years, 100 Laughs. The film has also been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Despite its undeniable classic status, the film is not without its detractors. It has been claimed that the dialogue is often not as funny as its supporters think it is, that the use of silly character names is an infantile touch, and that the satire often looks as if it has been crudely pasted onto the original thriller plot.

Red Alert and Fail-Safe

Dr. Strangelove was based on the paperback novel Red Alert (1958) by Peter George. George collaborated on the screenplay with Kubrick and satirist Terry Southern. Red Alert was more solemn by far —Dr. Strangelove is not a character— but the plot and the technical elements were similar. In the same year, the same movie company (Columbia), also released Fail-Safe, a "serious" version of a similar plot directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the 1962 novel by Eugene Burdick.

Also reflecting the temper of the times, Warner Brothers released Seven Days in May the same year. The plot turned on a military coup d'état that sought to prevent the president from signing a nuclear disarmament treaty.

The Kennedy assassination

When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, the film was just weeks from its scheduled premiere. The release was delayed until late January 1964 as it was felt that the public was in no mood for such a film any sooner, and one joking reference to having a good time "in Dallas" was dubbed to become "in Vegas".


  • "Try a Little Tenderness", a sentimental pop song from the 1930s later recorded by Otis Redding is played under the titles during aerial refueling as probing tanker boom nestles into accommodating fuel opening. Thus the B-52s are kept aloft 24 hours a day.
  • "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again", American Civil War song celebrating the return of the survivors. Instrumental version used to accompany the B-52 flight.
  • "We'll Meet Again" sung by Vera Lynn, optimistic, sentimental World War II song, played as the world is destroyed at the end of the film.
  • Mandrake suspects that all is not as it seems, when he turns on an unconfiscated radio and hears pop music when there should be Civil Defense alerts, but the music itself is anonymous.


A film novelization (of his own novel Red Alert) was written by Peter George in 1964. (ISBN 0839824750, ISBN 0760709408, and ISBN 0192818406)

See also

External links



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