Dr Strangelove movie poster

"The genius of "Dr. Strangelove" is that it's possible to laugh – and laugh hard – while still recognizing the intelligence and insight behind the humor. "
-James Berardinelli, ReelViews.Net

"Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" was one of Kubrick's earlier films, released in 1964, and has the most straightforward narrative out of all his films that he had creative control over. This doesn't mean that it's one of his lesser films. In fact, it's universally regarded as one of his best and critics throughout the decades have called it his masterpiece, right next to "2001: A Space Odyssey" (but more on that one later.)

At it's purest, Strangelove is a black and satirical comedy about how war is so unfunny and terrible that the only sane way to cope is to laugh at it. A rogue general decides to take the Cold War with the Soviet Union into his own hands and orders a nuclear attack on Russia, with various people in the government trying their (unsuccessful) best to stop the attack before the Soviets retaliate with a doomsday machine and mutually assured destruction ensues.

Mood and Themes

Strangelove is a black comedy first and foremost, so the film's overarching mood is built on very serious actors saying very ridiculous things in very funny ways. To illustrate, watch the clip below, in which rogue General Jack. D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) explains why he just ordered a nuclear attack on the USSR.

In the scene, Kubrick gets a great close-up shot of Hayden and his cigar, while keeping the smoke mostly in-frame, for no other reason but to build up the gravity of Hayden's speech up until he says the phrase "precious bodily fluids," a perfect "did he just SAY that?" comedy moment. The clip features a scene later in the film in which Hayden explains his crazy "precious bodily fluids" conspiracy theory, and he just gets funnier with every sentence.

Hayden's General Ripper is speaking to Lionel Mandrake, his lieutenant and one of three roles in the film played by Peter Sellers. He also plays president Merkin Muffley and the titular Dr. Strangelove, a ex-Nazi scientist who has a bad habit of calling the president "Mein Furher" and can't control his right hand.

The film also shifts perspective to the soldiers carrying out General Ripper's nuclear attack, on-board a bomber called the "Leper Colony" and these scenes feel more at home in a more farcical spoof such as "Airplane" than a black comedy with something to say. Here's a scene in which the bomber's commander, Major "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens) is going through an emergency supply kit in case the plane crashes in "Rooskie territory."

Use of Music

"Strangelove" is interesting in this regard because of its distinct lack of recurring musical motifs, at least compared to his later films. However, there are two interesting uses of music. One of which is a motif that occurs whenever the perspective shifts to the bombers on the "Leper Colony," a minimalist take on "The Ants Go Marching," which can be heard in the scene to the left.

The other notable piece of music closes the film, a stylistic choice that done in pretty much all of Kubrick's films. In this case, it's Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again," which plays as the world is subsequently destroyed by nuclear war. It's an absolutely brilliant choice, both satirical and sad. Even though the song's lyrics are hopeful, the irony of meeting again in a bright future when the only future is nuclear winter and radioactive mutants drives homes the central themes of "Strangelove" and delivers an emotional impact to the audience.

Historical Context

By now the historical context of the film should be pretty clear based on the film's subject matter, unless you happened to fail History class. "Strangelove" was released at the height of the Cold War, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the world really seemed like it was going to end in nuclear hellfire. Professor Turim believes that it's effectiveness as an anti-war film is because of it's biting satire. She's a huge fan of the film and even shares some of her favorite scenes in our interview.

Interestingly enough, "Strangelove" is actually loosely based off of a book called "Red Alert," a straight thriller of which the movie takes its plot. The writer, Peter George, co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick and Terry Southern, a comic-novelist who Kubrick brought on-board once he realized the inherent comedy in the idea of mutually assured destruction. I mean, think about it. You'd have to be absolutely batshit insane to participate in such a no-win scenario.

Kubrick clearly thought the same.