Spoofing the apocalypse, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (End 1.8)

One of the more interesting and entertaining films with apocalyptic themes is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (trailer here, official Kubrick site here, clips further below). The story goes that a psychotic general, Jack D. Ripper, has gone beyond his powers to initiate American planes dropping a nuclear bomb on a Russian city. Ripper’s psychosis manifests itself as a belief in a communist conspiracy to contaminate the bodily fluids of Americans through the fluoridation of water.

The meek and mild American president, who is played by Peter Sellers, then meets with the high command in the war room of the Pentagon in the hopes of recalling the plane–to no avail. Humourous phone-conversations between the American president and the Russian Premiere follow. One of the most hilarious episodes here is when the president stops an American general and a Soviet ambassador from fighting, saying something to the effect that “We can’t have fighting in the war-room”. Soon we hear that the American bomb is the least of their worries, since the Russians have developed a “doomsday machine” that will wipe out all living humans and animals in the event of an American strike. The end is near!

Slim Pickens rides the bomb

Photo: Slim Pickens excitedly rides the nuclear bomb, cowboy- (or is it phallic-)style, that sets in motion the end.

Now there is a surprising twist as one among the Pentagon high-command comes forward: the wheelchair bound Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers, and he’s hilarious). It becomes clear that this former German assistant of Hitler, now working for the Americans, had planned (“I have a plan!”) the entire scheme in the hopes of establishing a new superior race of people living, at first, far underground in the deepest mine-shafts. Strangelove’s arm has a mind of its own as it repeatedly attempts to give the “heil!” gesture; this hits its climax in one of the final lines of the film as Strangelove miraculously stands up from the wheelchair and shouts, “Mein F├╝hrer, I can walk!”. Immediately the viewer witnesses the apocalypse as innumerable nuclear bombs explode to the tune of “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…” Overall, the film is a spoof not only of Cold War politics but also of the genre of apocalyptic films which see nuclear war as the final apocalyptic battle.

There are several ways in which the film spoofs, twists, or inverts key elements in the apocalyptic worldview:

Dualism and the combat: Despite the fact that the viewer of the film, along with several characters, knows that the dualism is a false one, the good old Cold War dualism of righteous America versus evil Russia (which has more recently been replaced by a new, not-so-different opposition) is fundamental to the film. An aim of the film is to deconstruct precisely this simplified political dualism by spoofing it.

Final, cataclysmic intervention of god: Only towards the end of the film do we, as viewers, learn that Dr. Strangelove — the Hitler-loving distorted god of the film — has been instrumental in orchestrating the whole plan to set in motion the destruction of the world as we know it. It is he that has ensured the dropping of the fateful bomb that would bring civilization as we know it to a screeching halt. The mad doctor is behind it all.

Predetermined plan, elimination of the “less than desirable“, and kingdom of bliss for the chosen few: The “godly” Dr. Strangelove has a predetermined plan to create a Bizarro-heaven for the chosen — underground, that is, in the deepest mine-shafts. Seldom has the underworld been the kingdom of god. “Ten females to each male” is Dr. Strangelove’s answer to the eternal bliss of the chosen few. The judgment that will determine who will be saved is based on physical fitness and a list of other supposed superior qualities. They will be destined to repopulate the earth. Strangelove dismisses any suggestion by others that the “survivors” (including himself, of course) may not enjoy the mine-shaft plan as much as he expects. And the American general starts to worry about a “mine-shaft gap” (got to keep ahead of those “commies”).

In many ways, Dr. Strangelove is the apocalyptic film par excellence. The humour helps to lighten the burden of witnessing the end of virtually everything.

You should buy or rent the movie for yourself, but here are several short clips on You Tube: