scenes: civilian broadcasting – “General Turgidson, what’s going on here?” – survival kit contents – Russian ambassador in the War Room
Back at the base, Mandrake hurries into Ripper’s office with the radio still playing civilian broadcasting. Mandrake assumes that Ripper has been given the order by the Pentagon, and excitedly shows him the radio, telling him it must be some sort of test, and that he can recall the bombers. Ripper is frustrated that Mandrake was listening to a radio, which he had ordered be impounded, and scolds Mandrake for questioning his authority. Mandrake is still eager to get the planes recalled and Ripper is evasive, telling Mandrake to sit down and relax.
Mandrake begins to realize that there is something wrong with the situation and with Ripper. Mandrake tells Ripper that he will issue the recall code himself and tries to leave the room, but Ripper has locked the door. Growing more nervous and frantic, Mandrake demands the key and the recall code. Ripper shows Mandrake a gun on his desk as a threat, and tells Mandrake to sit down. Ripper then explains his plans to Mandrake, to force the US government into a nuclear war that he believes the US will win, because he can no longer sit back and allow “the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids.”
We then cut to the interior of the War Room at the Pentagon, where President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) asks Turgidson to explain the unfolding situation. Turgidson explains that Ripper issued an order to his 34 B-52 bombers, with 40 nuclear megatons each, to attack their targets inside Russia. The planes will be detected by Russian radar within 25 minutes. Turgidson is immediately resistant to the President’s criticism, and is more focused on defending himself than on delivering all of the necessary information as quickly as possible. The President must drag the information out of Turgidson, who slowly explains why Ripper was able to issue a nuclear attack, that the planes have already passed their fail-safe points, why we cannot communicate with them (the CRM 114), and that General Ripper is incommunicado.
Turgidson reads a transcript of Ripper’s last communication from the base that partially explains his plan and refers to the “purity and essence of our natural fluids,” revealing that he has had a psychotic break. President Muffley grows more angry with Turgidson for his incompetence, and the two bicker back and forth. The President orders a nearby army unit to attack the base and get in touch with General Ripper, and a call from Turgidson’s secretary/ lover distracts him.
After hanging up, Turgidson then argues excitedly that the best plan of action is to back up the rogue bomber wing with our entire nuclear force. He refers to two regrettable, but distinguishable, postwar environments: one with “modest and acceptable civilian casualties” (20 million killed), and one with 150 million killed. The President shuts down this idea, they bicker more, and the president invites the Russian ambassador into the War Room. Turgidson is horrified that the President would allow a Russian into the War Room, and quickly snatches up his binders, which read “World Targets in Megadeaths,” apparently in order to prevent the ambassador from reading them.
Back on the plane, Major Kong continues with the attack plan instructions. He goes through a survival kit contents check. The survival kit includes 4 days rations, a gun and ammunition, several increasingly ridiculous medicines (including tranquilizer pills), money, nine packs of chewing gum, lipstick, and nylon stockings. Major Kong jokes that a “fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”
Back in the War Room, Russian ambassador Alexi de Sadeski enters, passing a large banquet table with an ornate array of meats, breads, and pies. He is wearing fine clothes and a long coat, and demands fresh fish, fresh poached eggs, and Havana cigars. De Sadeski tells the President how best to reach the Soviet Premier, making a joke about his sexual prowess. Turgidson insults the Premier, and he and de Sadeski immediately start arguing. Muffley walks away as they try to reach the Premier, but a scuffle brings the attention back to de Sadeski and Turgidson, who are physically fighting and have fallen down onto a bench. The President exclaims, with a completely straight face, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Turgidson claims that de Sadeski was taking pictures of the threat board and de Sadeski claims Turgidson planted the camera. The situation is dropped when the Soviet Premier answers the phone.
This section of the film highlights the incompetence of the military and political leaders, and points out the absurdity of mutually assured destruction as a deterrent. Here, the audience is shown each character’s role in the imminent nuclear crisis more directly, and several elements from the first several scenes come together to build the conflict. We are able to determine the antagonists and protagonists of the film more clearly, though these vary depending on the setting (at Burpelson vs. in the War Room).
At Burpelson, Mandrake begins to realize that Ripper has had some kind of psychotic break. At the same time, the viewers, though given slightly more information earlier to indicate something was wrong with Ripper, finally begin to understand the extent of his insanity. Though we may not yet understand what Ripper means by “our precious bodily fluids,” it is clear that he wants to start a nuclear war over his own personal theory about the communists. The way Mandrake's realizations match our own establish Mandrake as the protagonist, at least in the Burpelson setting of the film. Further, the use of Mandrake, a British officer, as our protagonist further criticizes the US military by suggesting that it is so full of incompetence that only a foreigner could be counted on to protect the world from its stupidity or insanity.
We also see a continuation of the sexual/military theme in several scenes in this part of the film. Ripper’s cigar is shown from such an angle as to appear like an erect phallus, and this foreshadows the reason for his psychotic break, which we will later find out was caused by his sexual ineptitude. We are then introduced to President Merkin Muffley, whose name itself is a sexual reference.
The characterization of Turgidson that ensues in the War Room is perhaps the most potent criticism of the military in the film. Turgidson’s character in the film is an example of synecdoche—he is used as a stand-in for the entire USAF. Turgidson behaves like a schoolboy afraid of being caught for something bad he did, and is more concerned with his own self-preservation than stopping the impending nuclear war. He does nothing to help the President try to right the situation, including withholding important information until the president directly asks for it. He is often shown sulking, with arms crossed and a scowl on his face, like a child who is being reprimanded. The slow exchange between the President and Turgidson is also important for the exposition of the film: Muffley must ask the questions that the viewers would be asking, such as how a General could order a strike without presidential authorization, and Turgidson explains the situation one question at a time.
Turgidson wastes precious time defending himself and USAF policies, he postures at the President and another General, and he secretly takes a call from his mistress. On the phone with his mistress (and secretary), he is satirized as a sexist buffoon: he tells her that he “deeply respects her as a human being,” and goes on to say “some day, I am going to make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson,” completely failing to see the irony in his own words: that referring to marriage as a process by which you make another person your property and attach your name to them is at odds with respecting her as a human being. He is also adamant about making sure she says her prayers that night, drawing out the paradox of his religious views: he adheres to a vision of Christianity where it is seemingly more important to say one's prayers than to work to prevent massive and unnecessary loss of life. In fact, he advocates for a full-out attack that would kill many Russian civilians, in order to keep the death toll in the US at an “acceptable” level of 20 million. Turgidson’s idea of how to handle the situation is exactly what Ripper wanted to happen, and shows an eagerness of Turgidson and the USAF to use their nuclear arsenal. In fact, Turgidson cites a study that the USAF undertook to determine which nation would win in a nuclear war.
The context of Turgidson’s ideas about a full on attack is also important in understanding the realism of the situation, and how the movie would have been received at the time. Many of his ideas come from the writing of Herman Kahn, a prominent nuclear strategist in the RAND corporation at the time, who also advised Kubrick on the film. His ideas were known to the public, mostly via the publication of a book titled On Thermonuclear War that he published in 1960. Turgidson believes that under the present circumstances, it would be better to dig in and back up the rogue bomber with the rest of the US arsenal, explaining that there is a choice between two “regrettable but nevertheless distinguishable postwar environments: one where you get 20 million people killed, and the other where you get 150 million people killed.” Turgidson also has a binder labeled World Targets in Megadeaths. On Thermonuclear War has a graph titled “Tragic but distinguishable postwar states,” and Kahn coined the term Megadeaths.
In the survival kit scene on the B-52, we see our first criticism of the military-industrial complex. This was something that Eisenhower warned about at the start of the Cold War—he worried that a connection between the military and capitalist industries in the US would encourage warfare and heightened military action. The survival kit list that Major Kong reads begins fairly normally, with a gun and ammunition and food rations, and goes on to list far too many types of medication that grow increasingly ridiculous, as a comment on the pharmaceutical industry’s connection with the military. The point is finally hammered home when Major Kong reads that three lipsticks and three pairs of nylon stockings, which the soldiers would never need for survival, are also included in the kit.
When the Russian ambassador enters, he is shown as a stereotyped fat-cat Russian oligarch. The ornate spread of food in the War Room shows that the Russian oligarch’s lifestyle is not so different from that of the US leaders. Kubrick further draws out the parallel between the ambassador and the Generals and politicians in the room, by comparing their ideologies: though the ideologies seem to be opposites, they are both grounded simply in a blind hatred of the other (the ambassador insults “imperialist stooges” and an anonymous general insults “commie stooges”). The use of sex as a stand-in for power is brought up again when the ambassador praises his Premier for being “a man,” in a reference to his being away from the office with a mistress. The fight between the ambassador and Turgidson recapitulates Turgidson’s immaturity, alongside that of the ambassador, and demonstrates the president’s ineffectiveness.