Strangelove Somewhat Dated (Thank God!)

Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove

Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove

Film Friday

Recently, maybe on National Public Radio, I heard a story that struck me as marvelous: an American tourist was visiting underground Russian bomb shelters. What with improving relations, apparently the Russians no longer feel they need a place where their government officials can hide out for two weeks following a nuclear attack.

The story took me back to one of my favorite films, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The movie is about a nuclear confrontation that is started by a rogue U.S. Air Force commander. He does not realize, however, that a single bomb dropped on the USSR will set off a “doomsday device” that will blanket the entire earth with poisonous radioactivity for (I believe) 200 years. The U.S. cooperates with the Soviet Union in an attempt to shoot down the invading American planes. One plane, however, gets through and the film ends with a series of nuclear explosions, lyrically and ironically shot to the strains of the beautiful 1939 Vera Lynn song, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.”

It also ends with U.S. leaders talking about how they can survive by retreating into mineshafts. Dr. Strangelove informs the men that they will have to take with them many young and beautiful women so that they can set about replenishing the species.

Just as everyone is reveling in this image of a Playboy paradise, General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) alerts them to a possible problem. Because the Russians have mineshafts as well he predicts that, some time in the future, the two countries will face, not a missile gap, but a “mineshaft gap.” Through the scene Kubrick makes the point that we don’t learn even when we are faced with the extreme consequences of our folly.  This unfortunately continues to be true.

Born in 1951, I have lived most of my life with the prospect of a holocaust hanging above us like the sword of Damocles. I used to watch certain statisticians, year after year, calculate the increasing odds of a nuclear conflagration. And yet, this past December, we watched the U.S. Congress (despite politicking by rightwing Republicans) pass a treaty reducing the number of nuclear warheads.  Now we have reports of Americans touring Russia’s “mineshafts.”

I can’t say that everything is hunky dory. Obviously the world is still a dangerous place. Some unstable countries have the bomb, other unstable countries are close to getting one, and terrorists could get their hands on nuclear material and wreak havoc somewhere. But the kind of world-ending scenarios that 1950’s and 1960’s movies specialized in seem to have passed. Can we give at least a half cheer?

I sometimes wonder if there is nostalgia in certain quarters for the days when we could define our lives by a monolithic fear. Now we have to make due with substitutes. Islam takes the place of communism for some while others, having learned to love the prospect of their own demise, now believe that the Biblical second coming is at hand.

Kubrick’s film puts his finger on their paranoia through the ravings of General Jack Ripper. Indeed, Dr. Strangelove makes the same connections between explosives and sexuality that Wednesday’s poem about the National Rifle Association does. Sadly, much of the film remains spot on. Expect more on its handling of this subject next Friday.

For now, however, suffice it to say that, in the eyes of most Americans, today’s terrorists don’t match up with the Soviets during the days of the Cuban missile crisis and the Mutually Assured Destruction standoff. If Western tourists now wander beneath the streets of Moscow through bunkers that were once top secret, then in this respect Dr. Strangelove is a relic of a past era.  Praise the Lord!

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  • Thanks for the reminder of the “mineshaft gap” quip.

    Anecdotal classroom evidence says, “Yup! this film is a relic.” When we watched it in class about three years ago, I realized I my laugh-key was minor (i.e. with a touch of horror since the Cold War is a living memory), while the students’ were laughing at a distant absurdity.

    When I teach Blake’s “Human Abstract” and talk about “‘mutual fear brings peace’ – just like during the Cold War,” I feel quaintly old-fashioned. The students know about it, of course, but Vietnam is closer to them.
    Perhaps it’s different in American classrooms?

  • Robin Bates

    Believe it or not, I didn’t know this Blake poem, Jason. What a great comment on the Mutually Assured Destruction policy that rules our nuclear standoff for decades. (We and the Soviets should build more and more missiles because, if we do, we won’t ever use them because we’re afraid they’ll be used against us in return.) Cruelty knits a snare indeed.

    The Cold War is a distant abstraction. And Vietnam too. And Clinton is rapidly getting there.

    Pity would be no more,
    If we did not make somebody Poor;
    And Mercy no more could be,
    If all were as happy as we;

    And mutual fear brings peace,
    Till the selfish loves increase;
    Then Cruelty knits a snare,
    And spreads his baits with care.

    He sits down with holy fears,
    And waters the ground with tears;
    Then Humility takes its root
    Underneath his foot.

    Soon spreads the dismal shade
    Of Mystery over his head;
    And the Caterpillar and Fly
    Feed on the Mystery.

    And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
    Ruddy and sweet to eat;
    And the Raven his nest has made
    In its thickest shade.

    The Gods of the earth and sea,
    Sought through Nature to find this Tree,
    But their search was all in vain;
    There grows one in the Human Brain.

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