Updated: June 13, 2011



These Study Guides on War Films were originally prepared for a course entitled "Responses to War: An Intellectuall and Cultural History" given in the Department of History at The University of Adelaide between 1989 and 1999.

The Director


See handouts on Spartacus and Paths of Glory for details of SK's life and work.


See other Guides.

The Film

Meaning of the Title

The main title "Dr Strangelove" is the anglicised version of the name of a German scientist "Dr Merkwürdigliebe" - a reminder of the contribution played in US atomic research, defence, strategic thinking and the space race by ex-Nazi scientists and refugees from Nazism (Werner von Braun, Edward Teller) as well as a suggestion that there is a "strange" link between sex/love and killing/death - a "pornography of power".

The subtitle is a reference to the immediate period after the Cuban Missile Crisis when military planners, politicians and ordinary people accepted the fact that they could and would have to learn to live with the threat of nuclear wa for the rest of the Cold War.

Literary Source

The film was originally conceived as a serious adaptation of the novel Red Alert (or Two Hours to Doom) (1958) by Peter George (nom de plume was Peter Bryant) who, with Kubrick and Terry Southern, wrote the screenplay. Peter George had been an RAF Flight Lieutenant and his book had been well received by two leading US nuclear strategists Thomas C. Schelling and Herman Kahn. Kubrick was made aware of the book after a visit to the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies in 1961.

Republished as Dr Strangelove or, How I learned to stop Worrying and Love Bomb (Oxford University Press, 1988). The structure of the novel takes the form of a framing device, with a "Publisher's Note" which states that:

The pages which make up this bizarre and ancient comedy were discovered at the bottom of a deep crevice in the Great Northern Desert of planet Earth. The reader will see that there is a short introduction written by the men who discovered the manuscript. Aside from this, the pages are presented in exactly the form in which they were found.

After the end of the story there is also a brief epilogue which states why we have published this book....


Though the little-known planet Earth, remotely situated in another galaxy, is admittedly of mere academic interest to us today, we have presented this quaint comedy of galactic pre-history as another in our series, The Dead Worlds of Antiquity.

The Cast

  • Peter Sellers - Group Captain Lionel Mandrake; President Merkin Muffley; Dr. Strangelove
  • George C. Scott - Gen. "Buck" Turgidson
  • Sterling Hayden - Gen. Jack D. Ripper
  • Keenan Wynn - Col. "Bat" Guano
  • James Earl Jones - Lt. Lothar Zogg
  • Slim Pickens - Maj. T.J. "King" Kong, capt. of the B52 bomber the "Leper Colony"
  • Peter Bull - Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky
  • Tracey Reed - Miss Scott, "Miss Foreign Affairs"


About the Film

As SK worked on the film he realised a serious treatment of the possibility of nuclear anihilation from an accidently started war was impossible. The result is one of the great examples of black humour in the cinema. At the last minute SK changed the ending by editing out a custard pie fight in the War Room of the Pentagon between the Americans and the Russian Ambassador. SK explained the change in plans from a serious exploration of the idea of nuclear deterence to black comedy as follows:

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. (Quoted in Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1, p. 126).

The action of the film is largely confined to three sets: Burpelson Air Base, the elaborately reconstructed cockpit of a B52 bomber, and the War Room of the Pentagon. A renegade American Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) is in charge of Burpelson Air Force Base (with its prominent and reassuring signs which declare "Peace is Our Profession") and on his own initiative decides to send his fleet of B52 bombers to attack the USSR. He does this because he believes the West does not realise that it is being undermined by a communist plot to weaken it by flouridating the water supply (opposed by the far right wing such as the John Birch Society in the USA and Australia). JDR blames his sexual impotence on the damaging effect of flouridated water on his "precious bodily fluids." At all times US bombers with nuclear weapons are in the air close to the "fail safe" point, the point beyond which they cannot be recalled once they receive an order to attack. JDR sends the electronic code to all the bombers in his command ordering them to launch a nuclear attack. The recall code is known only to him and is a combination of the letters POE ("Peace on Earth" or "Purity of Essence"). On board one of the bombers from Burpelson Air Force base is the Texan, Major T.J. "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens), and his crew, who follow their orders "by the book" and do everything in their power to evade the Russian air defences.

When the Air Force realises what JDR has done General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) is informed. Caught in the toilet when the alert comes, T is a hawk who believes that the US should take advantage of JDR's actions and launch the surprise attack on the USSR they have been planning for years (JDR intends them to do this). T, the President Merkin Muffley (played by Peter Sellers), and his advisors gather in the War Room of the Pentagon to decide what to do. Muffley seems to be the only sane person in the War Room and realises the consequences of what JDR has done. His reasonableness seems out of place in the insanity of the War Room and the hawkish military and their advisors. After hearing a range of advice Muffley orders an army attack on the Air Force Base to arrest JDR. As the army attacks the base a visiting British Air Force officer, Captain Lionel Mandrake (also played by Peter Sellers), tries to persuade JDR to give himself up but cannot prevent his suicide. When the army overruns the base Colonel Bat Guano (played by Keenan Wynn) mistakenly arrests the "deviated prevert" Mandrake as the offender. M persuades G to let him phone the president to tell him about JDR but cannot get through because the White House refuses to accept a collect call. In order to get the correct money for the pay phone G reluctantly breaks into a Coke vending machine, warning M that he will have to answer to the Coca Cola company.

Back in the War Room we learn, when the Russian ambassador de Sadesky (Peter Bull) is summoned, that the Russians have built a "doomsday machine" to counter the superiority the US has in nuclear weapons. When it detects an American attack it automatically explodes, sending a deadly cloud of radioactive dust around the entire world, thus killing everything on it. The strategist Dr Strangelove suggests a plan to Pres. Muffley. Dr S (the third role played by the brilliant Peter Sellers) is a mad Nazi German scientist (whose real name is "Merkwürdigliebe" and is possibly based on the real life figure Edward Teller - the "father" of the American hydrogen bomb) who is now serving a new "Führer" (as he mistakenly refers to Muffley) on the arcane science of nuclear strategy. Dr S is confined to a wheel chair and has trouble controlling a nervous tick in his arm, which repeatedly makes the Nazi salute on its own volition it seems. Dr S comes up with a plan to survive the coming nuclear holocaust with a program of selective breeding (a plan dear to a true Nazi eugenicist) in underground bunkers. He recommends that the political and military elite be saved by seeking shelter in disused mine shafts. They would each be provided with everything they needed to survive for a hundred years, including 10 beautiful women each and a supply of nuclear weapons, thus ensuring that America would be able to rebuild after the war and start the arms race all over again (as suggested by Vera Lynn's closing song "We'll Meet Again"). As the end of the world arrives, the crippled Dr S miraculously rises from his wheel chair (rising from the dead like Lazarus) and salutes "Mein Führer." To the sight of mushroom clouds enveloping the world, the film ends with Vera Lynn's famous song from WW2 "We'll Meet Again".

SK summed up his bleak view of the world as expressed in "Dr S":

The destruction of this planet would have no significance on a cosmic scale. Our extinction would be little more than a match flaring for a second in the heavens. And if that match does blaze in the darkness, there will be none to mourn a race that used a power that could have lit a beacon in the stars to light its funeral pyre. (ibid).

Kubrick inserted the following "disclaimer" presumably on the insistance of the US Air Force or to avoid being sued:

It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.

In spite of Kubrick's claim to have thoroughly researched the question of an accidental start of a nuclear war Suid rejects the possibility for the following reasons:

When Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, however, the Cuban missile crisis was still fresh in people's minds. B-52s still constituted the nation's primary strike force. Audiences could thus readily accept Kubrick's vision of the accidental launching of a nuclear attack even though Kubrick created his dramatic impact with what was in fact, a story based on inaccurate premises and factual errors. A SAC (Strategic Air Command) base commander had no means of ordering a flight of planes to attack Russia, the script's explanation of events notwithstanding. The attack code came down the chain of command from the President through SAC Headquarters in Omaha to base commanders to planes on the ground and in the air. Moreover the code was transmitted to air crews orally, not by means of a black box as shown in the movie. And the air force's fail safe mechanisms operated on the principle of positive control - the planes on their missions had to receive a direct order to launch its attack. The absence of such a command would automatically abort the mission. Unfortunately, at least for the air force and its image, few people either knew or had the time and concern to ascertain how SAC procedures worked. Therefore most viewers could readily suspend their disbelief and accept Kubrick's version of the system and its implied weaknesses. They might well emerge from the theatre not only entertained, but also concerned over the future of the world, at least to the extent that any movie audience thinks serously about such things. (pp. 230-31).

Historical Background

Not available.


Peter George, Dr Strangelove (Oxford University Press, 1988). Extracts.

Herman Kahn, Thinking about the Unthinkable (1962) New York: Avon, 1966).

Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (2nd edition. Princeton University Press, 1961).

Lawrence Suid, "The Pentagon and Hollywood: Dr Strangleove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)," American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, ed. John E. O'Connor and Martin A. Jackson (New York: Ungar, 1987), pp. 219-35


Things to Note

Things to Note

  • The appropriateness of using black comedy to warn people about the possibilities of global destruction. E.g., Pres. Muffley says to Ambassador de Sadesky and Gen. T: "Please gentlemen, you can't fight here; this is the War Room!" Was SK's decision to exclude the "pie fight" in the War Room the right thing to do?
  • Peter Sellars was originally to have played four roles (also "King" Kong) but broke his ankle during the filming.
  • Satire on the leadership's collective insanity. SK seems to be arguing that no amount of sophisticated technical gadgetry (such as the code machines on the planes) can prevent insane leaders from acting out their fantasies of power. Raises issue of how the military should screen out "undesirables" or mentally unbalanced people from positions of authority over nuclear weapons. Gen. T admits failure of the "human element" in the chain of command. The "Human Reliability Tests" administered to all personnel had failed to detect JDR's insanity. Key aspect of deterrence theory is that even if the military and political elite is destroyed in an attack, lower echelon officers still have right to launch retaliatory strike. But what if they are unreliable? Continuing problem of "substance abuse" in US military.
  • Some strategists advised leaders to appear to Soviets as "unpredictable" and "crazy" as part of the policy of deterrence - Nixon.
  • The nuclear physicist and strategic thinker Herman Kahn in Thinking about the Unthinkable (a source used by SK and one influenced by George's book, p. 46) placed the prospect of "inadvertent war" ("mechanical or human error, false alarm, self-fulfilling prophecy, or unauthorized behaviour" (p. 42)) on top of his list of possible causes of a future nuclear war in 1962. Kubrick's emphasis on the sexual nature of the impulse for war is criticised by Kahn who notes that an "orgiastic spasm ofdestructionr" in which each side launches an all out attack on each other is "fanciful" in 1962 but "reasonable" a few years later in the mid to late 1960s! The idea of a "doomsday machine" might also come from Kahn's book (p. 232, 252) where he postulates a list of increasingly destructive weapons to show that every person "draws the line somewhere". Ityem 9 in is list of 10 is a "doomsday machine" (behind the ultimate "galaxy-destroying machines".
  • To avoid problem of "human error" idea is put forward of computer-controlled "launch on warning" during Reagan presidency. Parallel in "Dr S".
  • SK's occasional use of documentary style of filming: the narration at the beginning, the hand-held camera which accompanies the troops attacking Burpelson Air Base.
  • The theme of communication (or lack of communication). The repeated use of telephones to communicate but not to impart useful information or solve problems. Note the conversation between Pres. Muffley and the drunk Russian Premier Kissoff. Communication reduced to childlike language.
  • The theme of sex and its relationship to war. The names of the key characters are a play on words with sexual connotations: Dr Strangelove, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (named after the famous sex killer of Victorian England), Gen. Buck Turgidson (a buck is a sexually active male deer, turgid comes from the Latin "turgere" to swell, as in the male sex organ), Pres. Muffley ("muff" is American slang for the female sex organs), Premier Kissoff ("kiss my arse"), Ambassador de Sadesky (named after the notorious Marquis de Sade who wrote sexually explicit novels - "sadism"), Mandrake (a plant of the potato family with narcotic properties, was supposed to emit a shriek when it was torn out of the earth - Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet "And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth, that living mortals, hearing them, run mad" - and since it was supposed to grow in the shape of a man's "lower limbs" (i.e. the penis) it was often used as a stimulant for sex, or "love philtre"), Captain "King" Kong (named after a gorilla which kidnapped a women in the old film of the same name). The coupling of a B52 and a refueling plane in the opening of the film to Vera Lynn's song "Try a Little Tenderness" sets the tone for the whole film (suckling of child and mother or sexual union?). The sexual neuroses of JDR - his phallic cigar and his concern with sexual impotence (however, a corrective to the excessive use of Freudian references has been provided by the comedian W.C. Fields who once wittily said that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"). The neurotic desire of Dr S for an underground "breeding program" with 10 beautiful women per man. Maj. "King" Kong sits astride the bomb like a huge phallus as it falls from his plane. Gen. Buck Turgidson is with his mistress (a Playboy centrefold girl whom we see in a magazine being read on the renegade bomber) when the alert is sounded; he associates his own manliness with sexual prowess and "standing up" to the Russians.
  • The names painted on the sides of the nuclear weapons: "Dear John" and Hi There". Compare with names of first two atomic bombs - "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" (?).
  • The theme of impersonal machinery which frustrates the needs of humanity. The supposedly "fail safe" code machines on the bombers, the computers, the big screen in the War Room, the doomsday device, the nuclear bombs, the B52 bombers, the Coke machine which gets its revenge on Col. Bat Guano. What happens when humans relinquish their responsibility for decision making and place it in the care of machines such as computers? In other words, when they have "learned to stop worrying and learned to love machines like the bomb?" In late 1980s a Stanford professor attempted to sue the US government for relinquishing its power over foreign policy and war-making by programming computers to "launch on warning" like the "doomsday machine." He claimed it was unconstitutional because only the Congress had the power to declare war, not a military computer. JDR quoted Clemenceau's dictum concerning WW1 that "war is too important to be left to the generals." Rephrases it to state that "war is too important to be left to the polticians." Perhaps SK is arguing that "war is too important to be left to machines."
  • The references to the arms race. Film made when Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 was fresh in their memory. US and USSR nearly came to war over Russian attempt to station nuclear missiles in Cuba only 90 miles from Florida coast. Krushchev backed down and withdrew missiles. During Kennedy era the US military urged massive arms build up because of so-called "missile gap" or the overtaking of the US by USSR in arms race. Proved to be ficticious. Film refers to "doomsday gap," "breeding" or "mine shaft gap." Note reasons Ambassador de Sadesky gives for the Russians building the doomsday machine - because they had lost the arms race due to the cost involved.
  • SK's clever use of music and songs which were popular in previous wars - Vera Lynn ("Try a Little Tenderness" and "We'll Meet Again" was a popular singer in Britain during WW2) and the relentless soundtrack of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (an American Civil War song) as the bomber approaches its targets in Russia, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody.
  • Note the disclaimer at the opening of the film by the USAF that this could never happen.
  • Primary target "Laputa" - reference to Gulliver's Travels?
  • Reference to "BLAND Corp" by Dr S - RAND Corporation.
  • Turgidson's prayer - we have heard the wings of the Angel of Death. Compare John Bright's anti-war speech in the House of Commons during the Crimean War.