Scenes: Opening, rocky peaks of Zhokhov islands – credits – condition red – Airborne B-52s – wing attack plan R – Turgidson’s bedroom – “Your commie” – attack profile.
The film opens with a bleak shot of mountain peaks sticking up above a sea of clouds, as a narrator explains the rumors that the Soviet Union had been working on a doomsday device. We presume these to be the peaks of the Zhokhov islands, which the narrator mentions as the location of the doomsday project. The shot seems to be taken from an airplane approaching the islands, and wind can be heard rushing by in the background. The narrator takes on an ominous tone, is unable to give much information, and speaks in the past perfect tense and past simple tenses. The film then cuts to the credit sequence, shown over a montage of a USAF B-52 engaged in a mid-air refuel while “Try a Little Tenderness” plays.
The film then cuts to a series of exterior establishing shots of Burpelson Air Force Base, before showing Group Captain Lionel Mandrake inside a communications room. Mandrake is summoned to the phone to take a call from General Jack D. Ripper, the base commander. Ripper, shown on the other end of the line sitting in front of a poster that reads “peace is our profession,” issues instructions to Mandrake to put the base under condition red, seal the base, and impound all radios. He impresses upon Mandrake the seriousness and importance of the situation, telling him that a shooting war has begun, and has Mandrake transmit “attack Plan R” to the 843rd bomb wing, which the base commands. Mandrake understands the meaning of Plan R (a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union), and becomes distressed, asking Ripper if the situation is “really that bad.”
Over a montage of a B-52 bombers in flight with escorts, the narrator explains Operation Dropkick (though we only learn this name much later in the film), in which the US Strategic Air Command maintains a force of bombers airborne 24 hours a day, armed with nuclear payloads. It then cuts to the interior of a USAF B-52, where Major T.J. “King” Kong and his team are bored, snacking, reading Playboy, and playing cards. We assume they have been up in the air for some time, as part of Dropkick, and are used to flying in circles, intended only as a deterrent and never expected to deliver their payload.
Suddenly a radio transmitter springs to life and delivers a code that the communicator decodes as Wing Attack Plan R. Nobody on board believes it, and Major Kong comes back to the radio himself to double check the code. They assume it means that the Soviets have already attacked Washington D.C., and they are being ordered to retaliate. Once they get a confirmation from base, the song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" plays on the soundtrack, and Major Kong changes out of his flight helmet and into his stetson hat. He delivers a speech about the gravity and importance of nuclear combat, assuring the rest of his crew that it is necessary and that they will all receive promotions and citations upon their safe return, regardless of their race or background.
A telephone rings in the bedroom of General Buck Turgidson, USAF chief of staff. Turgidson is in the bathroom, and his secretary and mistress, Miss Scott, who is tanning on the bed under a light and in a bikini, answers the phone. A conversation between Turgidson and the Colonel on the other end of the line ensues, with Miss Scott as the middleman, shouting information across the room so Turgidson can hear. She is given too much classified information, and she relays it too loudly. Turgidson is told that Ripper issued Attack Plan R to his wing, and cut off all communication with the outside world, despite there being no credible threat to the US. Turgidson makes a sexual promise to Miss Scott using aviation metaphors before leaving for the War Room.
Back at the base, we are shown exterior shots of soldiers preparing to defend it from an attack. Ripper’s voice comes over the loudspeaker, telling his soldiers that “Your commie has no regard for human life, not even his own,” and most importantly, that the Soviets might come in US army uniforms to trick them. He issues order to shoot anyone that approaches within 200 yards of the base. As Ripper is finishing his speech over the loudspeaker, there is a cut to Mandrake closing down the communications room, and he comes across the last radio, switches it on, and hears jazz playing. It is civilian broadcasting. Excitedly, Mandrake takes the radio and leaves the room.
Back on the bomber, Major Kong and his crew open the attack profile, which is sealed until they need to use it. Kong reads out the attack profile, as he and the rest of the crew execute its instructions. He explains that they must turn on the radio’s CRM 114 discriminator, which prevents any communications from entering the aircraft unless they are preceded by a three-letter prefix. We see that the prefix is O-P-E. They check the radio’s auto-destruct circuits.
This opening group of scenes follows a somewhat traditional “crisis establishment” arc. We are introduced to the settings, most of the central characters, and the major themes of the film. We are also shown several images or given details that foreshadow much of the plot, in particular, things that will cause problems that drive the crisis escalation later on in the film. In fact, many of the characterizations and thematic images are so overt and over the top that Kubrick seems to be satirizing the dramatic structure itself. Such characterizations and images introduce the film as a satire and a comedy, despite the completely “straight” acting and the grim subject.
In the first scene, the narrator’s use of the past tense seems to hint that the story is being told after the fact, and the bleakness of the images and weight of what the narrator tells us hints that something terrible has happened. This voice-over gives the viewers information about a doomsday machine that the characters we later meet seem not to have, and this kind of foreshadowing will recur several times throughout the film. It reflects the attitude of the director, and an attitude that many held at the time, that the political and military leaders somehow missed, or refused to see, obvious flaws in the nuclear policy and defense strategy of the US. The way the narrator speaks about the doomsday machine in this opening scene also reflects the fear and uncertainty that every viewer at the time would have been feeling constantly, because of the delicate balance of peace and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. The film’s opening is a bit disorienting in the context of the rest of the film, as the voice over is not carried through to the end of the film. The out-of-place feeling of this scene may in part be due to its origin in an older version of the script, in which the story is told from the perspective of alien beings who discover the earth after a nuclear catastrophe, and attempt to learn what happened.
Throughout the film, the detonation of nuclear weapons, and warfare in general, is linked to sexual fulfillment. The credit sequence sets up this theme, in an image that clearly suggests a sexual act between two planes made to wreak nuclear devastation. As soon as the credits end, the planes complete their act and pull away from each other, and the “phallus” connecting them relaxes and drops. The song “Try a Little Tenderness,” playing over the sequence, helps to hammer the point home.
Open and direct criticism of the USAF and military strategy at the time begins immediately in the first acted scene of the film. As General Ripper issues the command to Mandrake to seal the base and transmit attack plan R, a command which will result in nuclear annihilation and massive civilian casualties, he sits in front of a USAF poster that reads “peace is our profession.” Here we have an instance of dramatic irony: the USAF and its leaders understand themselves to be protecting and ensuring peace, when instead we know that their policies do just the opposite of that.
The voice-over that ensues in the following scene creates situational irony with the scene immediately succeeding it. We are told that a patrol of bombers are kept on alert, airborne for 24 hours a day to safeguard against a nuclear attack, and we expect to find a flurry of activity within the bomber. Instead, we are shown a crew that is bored, distracted, and never expecting to have to take any real military action. This scene points to the absurd and contradictory nature of a “cold” war: though the bomber is armed with the deadliest weapon known to man, and everyone should be afraid of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, the lack of active warfare numbs those involved to the gravity of their situation and the “war” they are fighting.
Major Kong’s switch from his helmet to his stetson marks his transformation to a wartime attitude, and his Texan affectations satirizes the machismo that dominated the military at the time. The music cue of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," a civil war song, draws out the sudden switch from a ‘cold war’ to a ‘hot war,’ despite no effective change among the soldiers other the change of the Major’s hat. This emphasizes the ease with which peace can switch to utter devastation, while simultaneously drawing out the almost humorous absurdity of a real war sparking so suddenly. Further, Major Kong’s speech assuring everyone that they will receive promotions upon returning home, in concert with the theme of the song, is a reminder that no one on board is likely to return home. The comment on race here is a reminder of the only recent desegregation of the military, and the indiscriminate ruin and suffering the world will face at the hands of the white, male, macho, American military-complex.
Our introduction to General Turgidson further brings out the sex-military link in the film, and satirizes the USAF as incompetent and self-absorbed. The sharing of classified information through Miss Scott demonstrates a flippancy toward secrecy that is at odds with the extreme secrecy that the USAF and Soviets will employ in other instances, to the point of disaster. Further, Turgidson’s refusal to take the call seriously and Miss Scott’s relaying of the information waste important time that could have been put toward solving the problem. The wasting of time for selfish or stupid reasons will recur repeatedly throughout the film. Turgidson’s use of “countdown” and “blast off” when discussing sex with Miss Scott draws out the link between missiles and sexual climax, satirizing the military’s obsession with missiles as a kind of sexual fantasy.
Ripper’s speech about the commies coming in US uniform again gives a clue about his psychosis, and mocks the way that extreme US nationalists spoke about the Russians and communists at the time. The attack profile and the switching of the CRM 114 discriminator shows us many details that will become important during the crisis escalation later in the film, including the auto-destruct circuit. This circuit is a Chekhov's gun—because it is shown to us, we know that it must play a role later in destroying the radio, and causing conflict in the film.