Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove Character List

Brig. General Jack D. Ripper

Loosely based on the real US General Curtis LeMay, Ripper is the cigar-chomping, communist-hating, trigger-happy head of command at the Burpelson Air Force Base. His psychotic break, and inexplicable authority to issue a nuclear attack without White House confirmation, sets off the chain of events that culminates in global nuclear annihilation. He has become convinced that the fluoridation of drinking water, a fairly new dental health measure, is a Soviet plot to “sap and impurify” Americans’ precious bodily fluids, thereby weakening them. He insists on only drinking grain alcohol and captured rainwater, so as not to fall victim to this plot. It turns out his obsession with this conspiracy stems from a decline in his sexual prowess, which he blames on the corruption of his precious fluids, as opposed to his age. He is frustrated by politicians’ reluctance to go to war with the Soviets, and is able to take matters into his own hands by putting the base on red alert, blocking all communications, and issuing what is intended only to be a retaliatory nuclear strike to the 843rd bomber wing, which is under his command. Only he has the code needed to recall the bombers, and just as a US Army unit is penetrating the sealed base to get into contact with him, he commits suicide, leaving Group Captain Lionel Mandrake to try and figure out the code alone. The parallel in his name to famed serial killer Jack the Ripper is intentional, and he is played by Sterling Hayden.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake

Mandrake is a member of the British Royal Air Force, and is attached to the Burpelson Air Force Base in the U.S. as part of an officer exchange between the two allied nations. Mandrake is second-in-command to Ripper, and at first believes that the Condition Red initiated by Gen. Ripper is the result of an authentic attack by the Soviets. Condition Red requires that the base cut off all communication coming in from the outside world, and Mandrake is in charge of confiscating all radios on the base. Before he turns the last one in, he hears regular programming over the radio and realizes that there could not have been an attack, nor could one be imminent. He excitedly tells Ripper that he can recall the bomber wing because there must be some mistake, but quickly realizes that Ripper has gone insane and is looking to personally start World War III. Mandrake spends much of the film trying to get Ripper to tell him the code needed to recall the planes, and is subjected to Ripper’s psychotic ramblings. When Ripper commits suicide, Mandrake is able to figure out the code from a notepad on Ripper’s desk, gets in touch with the President, and saves the day. Mandrake is played by Peter Sellers.

Col. "Bat" Guano

Colonel “Bat” Guano is the commander of the army unit sent to penetrate Burpelson Air Force base and get in touch with Ripper, in order to recall the planes. Col. Guano is not told the reason that he needs to put Ripper in touch with the President, and is apparently completely unaware of the situation at hand (which shows the fatal consequences of the U.S. military’s rigid chain-of-command and adherence to secrecy). When Col. Guano storms into the headquarters at Burpelson and finds Mandrake there and Ripper dead, he is suspicious of Mandrake as a non-American, and thinks that Mandrake killed Ripper in some conspiracy to hide his own “preversions” (intended to be “perversions,” but repeatedly misspoken by Col. Guano, this may be a critique of the military’s stance on homosexuality). Mandrake, now the acting head of command at Burpelson, has a difficult time convincing Col. Guano to put him in touch with the President so that he can give him the recall code. Finally, Mandrake’s threats that Col. Guano would be punished for extreme negligence get through to him, and Col. Guano helps Mandrake get in touch with the President. They are slowed down, however, by Col. Guano’s incredibly protective attitude toward a Coca-Cola machine, which he does not want to steal from because it is “private property.” It should also be noted that guano means feces, and the Colonel’s name is therefor a transliteration of “Bat shit,” which is in line with several other funny character names in the movie. Col. Guano is played by Keenan Wynn.

Gen. Buck Turgidson

As Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Turgidson is one of the top advisors called into the War Room to help the President determine how to handle the escalating situation. Highly suspicious of the “Russkies,” Turgidson represents the hawkish side of the military, and also shares many qualities with the non-fictional General Curtis LeMay, who served as US Air Force Chief of Staff. Turgidson also likely takes many characteristics from RAND corporation strategists, such as Herman Kahn. In terms of personality traits Kahn was likely more of an inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, but many of Turgidson’s lines come right out of Kahn’s writing, especially his 1960 book, On Thermonuclear War. In one of these he claims 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 was 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. Turgidson is used at various points to critique the US Air Force and its commanders as excessively macho, paradoxical in their Christianity, childish, sexist, self-centered, and jingoistic. Turgidson behaves like a recalcitrant schoolboy in the War Room, more focused on defending himself and his program, and hating on the “Russkies,” than on solving the crisis at hand. Turgidson is played by George C. Scott, who did not want to play the character as over-the-top as Kubrick wanted. Kubrick tricked Scott into playing it that way by asking him to overact for “practice takes,” but then used many of the practice takes. Turgid means “swollen” or “pompous and bombastic,” both of which fit the character well.

Air Force Major T.J. “King” Kong

Major “King” Kong is the Stetson-wearing Texan who pilots the only bomber that fails to receive the recall code, and thus continues flying to its targets in Soviet Union. His plane’s radio is damaged by enemy fire, making them unable to receive the recall code, but still able to deliver the payload. Major Kong is a profoundly loyal officer, determined to fulfill his duty at all cost, but nevertheless struggling to come to grips with the idea of detonating a nuclear weapon. When his nuclear payload becomes stuck in position and unable to drop, Major Kong must go and manually free the missile. Perhaps the most famous image from the film is that of Major Kong riding the missile down through the sky like a rodeo bull, waving his cowboy hat and hee-yawin’ his way to oblivion. The part is played by Slim Pickens, a famous rodeo performer and actor in Westerns, who was reportedly not told that he was in a comedy so that he would play the part “straight.” The part was originally meant for Peter Sellers, who wanted to back out because he worried that four roles was more than he could handle, and did not think he would be able to do the Texas accent. Sellers was removed from the role when he sprained an ankle in the cockpit set, and some have speculated that he faked the injury to get out of his contractual obligation to play the role.

Lt. Lothar Zogg

Lt. Lothar Zogg is a member of Major Kong’s crew. He is likely a reminder of the then-recent desegregation of the US military, and how with that equality came the impartiality of victimization at the hands of crazy white generals. This aspect of the character is highlighted when Major Kong promises his crew that there will be medals and promotions for all of them, regardless of their “race, color or creed,” when they get home, despite the fact they will likely not make it home. Zogg is most notable as a character because it is James Earl Jones’ first role in a theatrical film.

Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky

Sadesky is the Russian ambassador to the United States, who becomes the first citizen of the Soviet Union to ever be allowed inside the War Room. This fact greatly disturbs Gen. Buck Turgidson who believes that Sadesky should not be trusted near sensitive material. Sadesky is a portrayed as a typical fat-cat Russian oligarch, dressed in fine clothes and carrying a cane, and shown to be pretentious about everything from food and cigars to his leader’s sexual prowess. Sadesky and Turgidson get into a physical altercation shortly after Sadesky enters, because Turgidson claims Sadesky was trying to take pictures. It later turns out this was likely true, though at the time the President scolds both of them, exclaiming ironically, “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!” Sadesky helps President Muffley get in touch with the Soviet Prime Minister to resolve the crisis, and reveals that the Soviets had built a secret doomsday machine. Once it seems there is no hope to prevent a nuclear catastrophe, he eagerly gets involved in the planning of the underground tunnel system that Strangelove proposes. Sadesky is played by Peter Bull.

President Merkin Muffley

Merkin Muffley is the President of the United States. He is an unusually soft-spoken politician and is bald, which is quite rare among both real and fictional latter 20ths century Chief Executives, though it may have been a reference to Eisenhower’s baldness. Additionally, a “Merkin” is a pubic hair wig, another character name joke that highlights his baldness in this case. Further, “Muffley” likely refers to the lewd term “muff” to mean a vagina or vaginal pubic hair. President Muffley is a “straight” character, struggling to handle the vast incompetence that surrounds him. He is an ineffective and weak politician, who cannot believe that the situation has gotten this far, even though he approved the orders that gave lower generals the authority to issue such strikes. His character is something akin to a schoolteacher who has lost control of a classroom: he cannot control Turgidson and Ambassador Sadesky from physically fighting in the War Room, and must calm down the drunk Soviet Prime Minister over the phone. President Muffley is also played by Peter Sellers.

Dr. Strangelove

The title character of the film is a former Nazi scientist who was working for the German nuclear program during World War II. Following the fall of Nazi Germany, the United States government overlooked a number of potential war crimes charges which could have been brought against men like Strangelove in exchange for their help in developing nuclear weapons for the US. This real-life program was known as Operation Paperclip, and it brought over 1,600 scientists and engineers from postwar Germany, many of whom had been members or leaders in the Nazi Party. The main inspiration for Strangelove is likely Wernher von Braun, who had been a part of the rocket development program for the Nazis and was a member of the Nazi party. Suffering from alien hand syndrome, Strangelove has a difficult time preventing his hand from giving a Nazi salute, and repeatedly calls the President “Mein Fuhrer.” Strangelove also takes characteristics from Herman Kahn of the RAND Corporation and John von Neumann, a lead in the Manhattan project who proposed the MAD doctrine, at least in many of his ideas about nuclear warfare. Strangelove is confined to a wheelchair until the very last scene, when he excitedly stands while delivering a plan for a network of underground tunnels that he and other important figures can live in while they wait for the nuclear winter to end. The film ends with his exclamation, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” Strangelove is played by Peter Sellers.

Miss Scott

Miss Scott is the only woman in the film, and she is Gen. Turgidson’s secretary and lover. She appears once, in Turgidson’s bedroom, and far too much information is given to her on the phone to relay to Turgidson, another joke about the secrecy of the military. Her character is also presumed on the other end of a phone call that Turgidson receives in the war room, when Turgidson’s talks down to her in a patronizing way. Miss Scott is played by Tracy Reed.