Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, commonly known as Dr. Strangelove, is a 1964 black comedy film which satirizes the nuclear scare. It was directed, produced, and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, and featuring Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, and Slim Pickens. The film is loosely based on Peter George’s Cold War thriller novel Red Alert, also known as Two Hours to Doom.

The story concerns an unhinged United States Air Force general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It follows the President of the United States, his advisors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer as they try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. It separately follows the crew of one B-52 as they try to deliver their payload.

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It was listed as number three on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs.


United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is the commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, which hosts the 843rd Bomb Wing of nuclear-armed B-52s. The base’s aircraft are currently part of a SAC airborne alert force, holding at their fail-safe locations only hours from Soviet airspace. Ripper calls Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a Royal Air Force exchange officer serving as General Ripper’s executive officer, and has him place the base on alert and issue attack orders to the aircraft. Mandrake initially suspects this is a drill, but Ripper tells him it is not.

Onboard the aircraft, the attack code is received and the crews express concern about whether or not it is real. After receiving confirmation from Burpelson, they begin their attack. As part of this process, the aircrew enter a code into their radio scramblers, which blocks any unauthorized transmissions. When Mandrake discovers the country is not at war, he confronts Ripper, demanding the code. Ripper refuses, locking them into his office.

In the “War Room” at The Pentagon, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) briefs President Merkin Muffley (Sellers). When the president asks whether or not the bombers will stop at their fail-safe points, Turgidson notes they were already there, and only the recall code will be useful. He mentions the problems with the CRM and states they are trying every possible code, although he admits this will take over two days. When the president asks how the attack could be carried out without his direct authorization, Turgidson notes the President himself signed the orders to remove this requirement to allow counterattacks in the event a Soviet first strike obliterated Washington, D.C. When President Muffley angrily begins to question the wisdom of the plan, the General states he does not “think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up”.

Muffley proposes that troops be sent to the Air Force Base to seize Ripper (and hopefully force the recall code from him), Turgidson warns that General Ripper will have put the security forces there on high alert. The Army general dismisses this concern, stating the airborne units being sent would brush them aside. In the meantime, Turgidson tries to persuade Muffley to seize the moment and eliminate the Soviet Union by launching a full-scale attack. The General believes that a first strike would destroy the majority of the Soviets’ missiles before they could retaliate. Even if the remainder were launched, the US would suffer only “ten, maybe twenty million dead”. Muffley refuses to have any part of such a scheme, and instead summons the Soviet ambassador, Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull). The Ambassador calls Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov on the “Hot Line” and gives the Soviets information to help them shoot down the American planes, should they cross into Soviet airspace.

The Premier and Ambassador have a heated discussion in Russian, and then the Ambassador reveals that his side has installed a doomsday device. This consists of a series of 50 buried bombs with “Cobalt Thorium G” that will automatically detonate and destroy life on Earth if there is a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. The American President expresses amazement that anyone would build such a device. The Ambassador notes the Soviet Union could not afford to keep up with the “arms race, space race and peace race” while the citizens demanded a better life. When a New York Times article stated that the US was working on such a device, the Soviets decided to build their own, fearing a “doomsday gap”. The President’s science advisor, wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), a former Nazi and weapons expert, admits that it would be “an effective deterrent… credible and convincing.” However, a recent study by an American think tank had dismissed it as being too dangerous to be practical – reasons that he points out are now obvious. He further points out that the “whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret”, and demands to know why the Soviets didn’t announce it. Ambassador de Sadeski sheepishly answers it was supposed to be announced the following Monday at the (Communist) Party Congress because “the Premier loves surprises.”

U.S. Army forces arrive at Burpelson to arrest General Ripper. Because Ripper has warned his men that the enemy might attack disguised as American soldiers, the base’s security forces open fire on them. A pitched battle ensues, during which time Ripper sits with Mandrake and explains his paranoid belief that there is a Communist conspiracy involving water fluoridation and contamination of everyone’s “precious bodily fluids”. When the Army is eventually victorious, Ripper shoots himself, fearing torture to extract the recall code. Colonel “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn) forces his way into Ripper’s office and immediately suspects that Mandrake, whose uniform he does not recognize, is leading a mutiny and arrests him. Mandrake convinces Guano he must call the President with the recall code (OPE) which he has deduced from Ripper’s desk blotter doodles. Off camera, Mandrake finally contacts the Pentagon and is able to get the code combinations to the President and Strategic Air Command.

The correct recall code is issued to the planes and all those that have not been shot down by the Soviet military turn back toward base. However, the jubilation is short-lived when Soviet defences note that they are not sure that one of their “kills” was actually downed. Onboard this aircraft a near-miss by an anti-aircraft missile has punctured its fuel tanks, and caused the self-destruct device on the CRM to fire, rendering it unable to receive the recall code. Knowing the bomber’s orders, President Muffley has instructed the Soviets to concentrate all available defences at its primary and secondary targets. However, as the crew continues to monitor the fuel situation they realize they cannot make it to either target, so the pilot instead heads for the nearest target of opportunity, an ICBM complex. On the bomb run they discover that the missile has also damaged the bomb release. Aircraft commander Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) goes to the bomb bay to open the damaged doors manually, straddling a nuclear bomb as he repairs arcing wires overhead. When he effects his repairs, the bomb bay doors suddenly open, the bomb releases and Kong rides it to detonation like a rodeo cowboy, whooping and waving his cowboy hat. The H-bomb explodes and the Doomsday Device’s detonation is inevitable.

In the War Room, Ambassador de Sadeski says life on Earth’s surface will be extinct in ten months. Dr. Strangelove recommends the President gather several hundred thousand people to be relocated into deep mine shafts, where the radioactivity would never penetrate. Strangelove suggests a sex ratio of “ten females to each male,” with the women selected for their stimulating sexual characteristics and the men selected for youth, health, intellectual capabilities and importance in business and government. He points out that with proper breeding techniques, the survivors could work themselves up to the present Gross National Product in 20 years and emerge to repopulate the United States after the radioactivity has ceased in about 100 years. Fearing the Soviets would do the same, General Turgidson warns of a possible “mineshaft gap”.

Just as Dr. Strangelove miraculously gets up from his wheelchair, takes a couple of steps and shouts, “Mein Führer! I can walk!,” the Doomsday Machine activates. The film then cuts to a montage of nuclear detonations across the world, accompanied by Vera Lynn’s recording of “We’ll Meet Again.”

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