Sexual penetration is key from the title sequence of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964) and sex continues to be a theme throughout Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece satirical commentary on human nature. From the visuals, performances, even the jokes layered into the dialogue we see some very odd sexual tension built up throughout the plot not only in the character interactions but in the head-to-head between the two countries themselves. Whether it is Peter Sellers desperately trying to talk sense into a drunken and forward Dmitri as the American president or Slim Pickins telling his men, “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,” we get flirtatious and sexual word-play on all fronts in a complete assault on the humor, the ego, and the patriotic sensibility.
THE COLD WAR AND KUBRICK
The idea of The Cold War as a story to be told is one that has been around since the actual era. Drama, espionage, and perhaps even a little sexual tension always make for a thrilling story that the public will gorge themselves on and remember for years to come.
Stanley Kubrick looked to the novel Red Alert (George, 1958) for his film. During a period of uncertainty about how to go about a follow-up to the adaptation of Lolita (Kubrick, 1962) he came across the novel due to a growing obsession with nuclear annihilation. He read dozens of books in this time period, only to come to the conclusion that “nobody knew anything and the whole situation was absurd” (Duncan, 2011).
Throughout the history of film we have more stories about the Cold War than most people realize. The Academy Award nominated Bridge of Spies (Spielberg, 2015) and the sleeper hit television series The Americans (Weisberg, 2013) are both examples of our modern audiences expressing a curiosity with the war that never actually got to happen. Classically we can look at Howard Hughes, renowned industrialist and recluse, who worked on an anti-Communist film in the 1950’s. The original title was “I Married a Communist” and this title is still tied to it despite the film’s public release as The Woman on Pier 13 (Stevenson, 1950). Daniel Leab discusses this in an article.
“Hughes’s ‘special interest’ (as a New York Times reporter described it) in I Married a Communist was an early manifestation of his anti-communist campaign.” (Leab, pp. 67)
As a country we experienced a large push for anti-communist cinema in reaction to The Cold War. The Criterion collection even released the film On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954) containing essays and transcripts detailing the director’s struggle with the House of Un-American activities as he tried to stay away from prison under accusations of being a communist, all of this information just to shed some light on what occurred in the industry at that time. Our interest in the subject pervades today.
Within the visual shooting style of Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove we do not yet see his obsession with symmetry or the one-point-perspective but we see specific and obsessive use of camera work. Kubrick was known for pursuing perfection in his imagery, pushing take after take in order to make every single frame of his films a piece of art in his own eyes. The war board, small angles of perception in context of character interaction, even the props all move towards a single goal. All of it culminating in two key shots – Slim Pickins riding a nuclear phallus to climax before the rest of the world reaches orgasm in a cacophony of mushroom clouds to romantic ballroom music.
NUCLEAR STALEMATE = BLUE BALLS?
Nearly everything in the film has a sexual connotation, from the weapon itself (the bomb is shaped like a giant penis) to the names of the characters; the imagery and mis en scene matches the setup and none of it is subtle.
Names like “General Jack Ripper”, suggesting a villainous role, and “Buck Turgidson”, suggesting sexual drive as well as embodiment of the theme of the film, are all over the plot. The word usage of a bygone era still plays to the audience when labelling the Russian Premier as “Kissoff” but it also hides some things, like the name of Colonel Mandrake, a name that subtly suggests the male organ as well.
Kubrick held nothing back when he put together the film, whether it is Ripper with his large cigars in his mouth or Major Kong riding to slam a giant metaphorical penis on a Russian site, but it is the underlying sexual tension between the countries themselves that drives home the point of the narrative.
We see President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) attempt to reach Premier Kissoff, hoping to warn him of the incoming nuclear threat. In this moment we are given a glimpse of the real, behind-the-scenes standing that the two leaders have with one another. The Russian ambassador shows no surprise that Kissoff is drunk and surrounded by women, enjoying the male privileges his position awards. Muffley attempts to break through the sexual activity and discuss the incoming bomber.
That, however, is not the interesting part of the conversation. The fascinating part is, to me, the moment where Muffley has to reassure his counterpart that he is pleased to talk with him. Kissoff is frustrated that the president has not called in some time and is desperate to hear that Muffley actually desires conversation with him. Like a distant lover he wants to be needed.
A second glimpse of the world of sexual frustration brought on by a war with no shots fired is General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden). The man is a complete basket-case by the time we meet him, but up until this point he was a high-ranking military official. He controlled nuclear bomb codes, he ran an air force base, and he had vocal access to American military and political leaders. Running in contrast to this is his desire to protect his “fluids”, the use of this term fluctuating in meaning. His own sexual perversion seems to come within the act of sex itself, his feeling of emptiness in post-game misinterpreted as a loss of “essence” to the woman. This has been interpreted as his fear of the Russian attack on our person, a loss of who we are via sex and a staunch position in favor of conservative abstinence but, according to F. Anthony Macklin in an article for Film Comment, has also been described by a woman as “the sexiest moment in any movie she has seen.”
Ripper’s case can be seen as one of metaphorical blue balls (a term used for sexual frustration in the male organs, causing pain at the lack of orgasm). Macklin also comments on this, pointing out his obvious connection to phallic symbology.
“Ripper possesses two objects that are obvious sex symbols. The first is his cigar, which is a dominant fixture. Secondly, there is his pistol. When the President discovers Ripper’s attack plan, he orders Ripper’s capture. Only Ripper’s code can halt the planes heading toward the U.S.S.R. As the army tries to unseat him, Ripper barricades himself in with the unwilling Captain Mandrake, a British exchange officer. While the enemy fights toward him, Ripper enters the bathroom and commits suicide with his pistol.” (Macklin, pp. 56)
“Hoist on one’s own phallic symbol” is a rather harsh view to take but Kubrick executes it masterfully in one of the most overlooked bits in the film. The death of General Ripper is often seen as the moment where hope may be lost, where the recall codes go beyond reach, but it is in fact a rather masturbatory act that jives well with his character. His fear of sex, his desire to keep his “essence” to himself is finally realized as he uses his weapon to put a hole where the codes reside and achieve his own kind of climax in the bargain.
Only the titular character of Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) seems to fully embody the ideology of the film as he fights his own physical disability in a display of uncontrollable penchants towards violence, Nazism, and misogyny. As he beats his own crotch, unable to feel it, or as he speaks to the men and pontificates on the feasibility of a small group of men scoring around the clock in order to repopulate the human race we see him for what he is – the embodiment of sexual desire.
The doctor cannot hide his tendencies either, they leap out at him from his nerve impulses in uncontrollable bursts. He raises his hand in the symbolic “hail”- phallic in and of itself – that was once reserved for Hitler’s honor, he beats himself, and he has a hard time controlling what one can only assume is a mechanical arm. All of his impulses are innate and yet he represses them right up until the end when, as the Cold War orgasms in a gratuitous display of nuclear explosions, he stands up and embraces his body’s natural impulses proclaiming “Mein Fuhrer, I can valk!”
A THOROUGHLY AROUSING CONCLUSION
The character work, visual style, and ideology in Stanley Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece revolves heavily around sex, much like his work in The Shining (1980) and especially in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) but it is only here mined for the humorous value it could have in terms of off-putting comedy discussing the megadeaths of American citizens. His blatant disregard for still-riled feelings towards the Russians and the disdain seen for American leadership drives home that when it comes to carelessly wielding that kind of power no one knows what they are doing, no one really cares, and that we’re all thinking with our sexual organs.
Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again” over the ending sequence and the relevance of that moment is as powerful today as ever, a lover saying goodbye to the one she truly loves even as they lay back in post-coital bliss. As the Russians and Americans go into hiding we feel the same strange sense of satisfaction, like we have just given in after a long bit of tension. Like the characters of Calixta and Alcee in Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” we have finally ridden out the bad weather, climaxed in the thundering hours of the night, and walked away – perhaps we will even meet again some sunny day.
Bromwich, David. “Dr. Strangelove: The Darkest Room.” The Criterion Collection. The Criterion Collection/Janus Films, 28 June 2016. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
Burgess, Jackson. Film Quarterly 17.3 (1964): 41-42. Web.
Duncan, Paul. Stanely Kubrick: The Complete Films. N.p.: Taschen, 2011. Print.
Leab, Daniel J. “How Red Was My Valley: Hollywood, the Cold War Film, and I Married a Communist.” Journal of Contemporary History 19.1 (1984): 59-88. Web.
Macklin, F. Anthony. “Sex And Dr. Strangelove.” Film Comment 3.3 (1965): 55-57. Web.
Southern, Terry. “Notes from the War Room.” The Criterion Collection. Criterion/Janus, 29 June 2016. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.