Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove Literary Elements


Stanley Kubrick

Leading Actors/Actresses

Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, Sterling Hayden

Supporting Actors/Actresses

Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed, Peter Bull


Black Comedy, Nightmare Comedy, Political Satire




BAFTA: Best British Film, Best British Art Direction. New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Director. Writers Guild of America: Best Written American Comedy. AFI 100 Years 100 Laughs: 3rd Greatest American Film Comedy.

Date of Release

January 29, 1964


Stanley Kubrick

Setting and Context

Burpelson Air Force Base, the War Room of the President of the United States, Interior of B-52 Bomber: America, 1964

Narrator and Point of View

A third-person narrator introduces the audience to the potential existence of a Doomsday Device and to the Strategic Air Command: the section of the U.S. Air Force that oversees bombers fitted with nuclear payloads. The narrator speaks only twice, fairly early on, and is never heard again for most of the film. The point of view settles into objectivity.

Tone and Mood

Dr. Strangelove is an example of a “black comedy,” in which the humor is stimulated by themes and concepts normally reserved for dramatic interpretation. In fact, the mood of the film is paradoxically sober and the tone is almost semi-documentary in its seriousness—none of the actors perform as though trying to draw laughter from the audience. Much of the comedy in the film derives from ironic and absurd scenarios that arise.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonists: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, Pres. Merkin Muffley. Antagonists: General Jack D. Ripper, the US Air Force as an organization, and (indirectly) Dr. Strangelove.

Major Conflict

Several major conflicts drive the narrative of Dr. Strangelove. The Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union leads to a psychotic break in Gen. Jack D. Ripper, who issues a nuclear attack without the permission of the US President. The major conflict after this point is between the US military and political leaders who are trying to stop the attack from proceeding and several obstacles that get in their way, including their own stupidity and incompetence, and their bad nuclear policies.


The climax of Dr. Strangelove occurs when a single B-52, having been unable to receive the Recall Code due to an in-flight incident, finally drops its payload. It was the only plane to do so, but that bomb has the power to set off the Doomsday Device, thus triggering global nuclear annihilation.


The very first words of the opening narration foreshadows a major turning point in the plot by informing the audience about rumors of a doomsday device, the ultimate deterrent against a nuclear strike by an enemy. Other examples of foreshadowing include the image of an auto-destruct circuit on the B-52's radio and Ripper's warning to his base that "the enemy may come in our own uniform." Each of these hint at something that will become a major plot point that drives conflict in the film.


The most apparent use of understatement in the film is during President Muffley's phone call with the Soviet Premier. He explains that one of the US generals "went a little funny in the head" and "did a silly thing." Of course, the "silly thing" was to issue a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.

Innovations in Filming or Lighting or Camera Techniques

A general rule in directing comedy is to shoot or edit for the joke. For example, when one character says something that the audience is supposed to find funny, they may be cued to react that way by a cut to another character's response. Dr. Strangelove is an innovative comedy in part because Stanley Kubrick never directs the audience to respond with such cues. One way he achieves this is by limiting close-ups and any shots showing a single character in the frame. Instead, through a reliance on wide shots framing multiple characters, the humor depends on timing, Kubrick's use of ironic language, and a bleak absurdism.


A key allusion in Dr. Strangelove, from the perspective of advancing the narrative, is Gen. Jack D. Ripper's allusion to one of the strangest widely-believed communist conspiracies of the Red Scare. Adding fluoride to municipal water supplies was undertaken to reduce the incidence and rate of tooth decay. Starting in the late 1940s and reaching a peak in the late 50s and early 60s—and still a source of controversy among some today—fluoridation became a subject of widespread fear and suspicion as part of an enormous communist plot to poison Americans. We also find allusions to copulation in much of the imagery of the film, as well as in some dialogue. There are also several allusions to the military-industrial complex, Operation Paperclip (which brought former Nazis to the US to help with our nuclear program), homophobia in the military, and the recent desegregation of the military.


Dr. Strangelove's comic message is intended to underline one of the most widely accepted paradoxes of the late 20th century: the only way to prevent a nuclear war is to keep building more. Kubrick found the concept of continued proliferation and deterrence by mutually assured destruction absolutely ridiculous, and the plot is driven by an argument of reductio ad absurdum: exposing the fallacy of the argument by showing it logically leads to an absurdity.


The editing between the three settings used in Dr. Strangelove is an excellent example of filmic parallelism. All of the action plays out within the corridors of Burpelson Air Force Base, the President's War Room, and inside the tight confines of the rogue B-52 bomber. Kubrick maintains the same tone throughout cuts, and his cuts are constructed to unite the scenes into a cohesive narrative which the audience understands more fully than any of the characters in the three settings. The result is well-executed irony—the audience almost always understands something about a character's actions and situation that the characters do not yet understand.

Parallelism, by a more literary definition, also occurs in Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick uses parallel imagery to convey similarities between the Soviets and the Americans that both sides would surely deny exist. Especially in the final scene, Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi, is used to draw a parallel between the US military and political leaders and Nazis.