Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove Themes

Sex and Death

A thematic link between sex and death runs throughout the entire film, beginning with the opening footage of the mid-air refueling of a bomber, which carries weapons capable of devastating entire cities and is highly suggestive of the act of copulation. The entire plot of the film revolves around the paranoia of a general driven to madness by his sexual dysfunction. When Pres. Muffley phones his Russian counterpart to warn him of the rogue bomber heading to his country, he can barely penetrate through the Soviet Premier’s obsessive attention to his mistress. Even the final plan for saving humanity following detonation of the Doomsday Device becomes centered on the need for there to be exponentially more women than men for the purpose of repopulating a depleted human race. And then, of course, there is the symbolic imagery of Major Kong straddling a giant phallic nuclear warhead on its path toward the surface of the earth.

The Absurdity of (Cold) War

Kubrick, in Paths of Glory, had already made a powerful anti-war film about what happens on the front line and in the trenches of a hot war. Dr. Strangelove reflects the Cold War sensibility in its lack of blood, guts, weaponry and battlefields. Though the conflict portrayed in the film was the most costly war in human history, this war movie is sterile and free of the conventions associated with the genre. This is war conducted by proxy with the participants far from the savagery of the lance and the spear. The heightened absurdity of such conduct of weapons of mass destruction depicted in the film is strikingly appropriate for the sterility associated with the Cold War, when the threat of the sudden annihilation of millions loomed every day, without a single shot being fired on a battlefield. This is drawn out in the first scene on Major Kong's bomber, when the crew switches from reading magazines, playing cards, and eating sandwiches, to preparing for nuclear devastation in seconds.


Dr. Strangelove pits the Americans against the Russians in a way that constantly defies political conventions of the time. In fact, less than a half a decade earlier, Kubrick could well have found himself subpoenaed to appear before Congress to answer charges of disseminating anti-American ideas and propagating communist subversion for making a film like Dr. Strangelove. The film cavalierly does away with the standard trope of American capitalism being beyond critique and Soviet communist being the devil incarnate, right on the heels of the era of Hollywood Blacklisting, in a manner almost beyond belief. Neither the American generals and politicians nor their Russian counterparts are presented in a particularly flattering light and the only conclusion to be made by this presentation is that both ideologies—capitalism and communism—are ultimately indistinguishable as long as humans are charged with trying to transform theory into practice.


Self-preservation as the main concern of military and political leaders runs throughout the film. General Turgidson, when faced with roughly 20 minutes to brief the President and form a plan to solve the crisis, is reluctant to reveal information that might incriminate the USAF and his policies as partly to blame for the crisis. He wastes time defending himself and his policies instead of working toward a conclusion, and then turns around and criticizes the President for doing the same thing and trying to preserve his own reputation in history books. We find criticism of the self-preservationist attitude most commonly in Turgidson, but also find references to it in the interaction between Mandrake and Col. Guano, on board the bomber, and in several other War Room characters. Most notably, the conclusion of the film focuses entirely on self-preservation, at the expense of others, as a way of summarizing the attitude of the military leaders and politicians throughout the film.

Military machismo

Criticism of the military as obsessed with manhood and machismo comes out in every US military character, and this is of course tied to the sexual themes that run through the course of the film. Though each of these characters may represent a different facet of the military, they each contribute to an overall representation of the US military and all of the problems Kubrick sees in it. General Ripper creates the conflict because of his obsession with sexual prowess and his manhood, and the imagery that surrounds him, in particular his cigar, constantly refers to his masculine power. He does not take Mandrake seriously because of Mandrake’s notable lack of such macho qualities, as the only military character not in the US military. Major Kong’s machismo is less overtly sexual and more focused on a Texan, rodeo-style manhood, though we also see sexual imagery in his reading of Playboy when he is first introduced, and his riding of the nuclear warhead into oblivion. Turgidson constantly postures and picks fights in the War Room, usually the President or the ambassador, in an effort to assert his masculinity. Even Col. Guano, a relatively minor character, seems very concerned that Mandrake might be a homosexual, which was not in line with the military’s idea of masculinity and was not permitted.

the military-industrial complex

Also frequently appearing in the film are references to the military-industrial complex, and the way that the military benefits capitalism. Increasing militarization benefits certain manufacturing industries in the US by providing business for their products. This is obvious in thinking about arms proliferation—a desire in the military for more guns means the need for more manufacturing of the guns and ammunition, and the desire for more nuclear weapons necessitates increased production of materials used to build them. The concern is that industry in the US then becomes interested in heightened militarization, and the expense of global safety. The film satirizes this concept, most notably in Major Kong’s reading of the survival kit contents, which includes products they would certainly not need to survive, and Col. Guano’s obsessive protection of a Coca-Cola machine.

the paradox of mutually assured destruction

The film’s central criticism is probably of the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Kubrick found it utterly absurd and paradoxical, and this paradox was the motivation for transforming the film into a comedy rather than a thriller. Dr. Strangelove’s explanation of the doomsday machine delivers the clearest explanation of this paradox. He asserts that the doomsday machine was not practical as a deterrent, for reasons that are clear in the situation in which the characters have just found themselves. The audience understands that were it not for the doomsday machine, or if the machine could be stopped, the Soviets and Americans in the film would ideally come to some kind of diplomatic agreement that did not thrust to world into a century-long nuclear winter. This points out that in the real world, during an unfolding nuclear crisis, the idea of MAD would likely be abandoned for a more flexible retaliation in order to mitigate loss of life and global catastrophe. Understanding this, we come to the conclusion that MAD itself, without a doomsday machine, cannot be a credible threat because we know that when the time comes it will likely be avoided. Therefor, the only credible use of MAD is the doomsday machine, and a credible MAD policy and a practical MAD policy are not compatible with one another. Thus, a both credible and practical MAD doctrine must rely on paradoxical thinking or the denial of certain facts, often referred to as doublethink.