Last week, I made the claim that Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was one long sexual metaphor for the Cold War. While this occurred to me unbidden, I'm sure I'm not the first to say so. Still, with the most common discussions of the film taking the political route, with Fascism getting its legs back thanks to the Military Complex, etc., it may be worth exploring the idea on this blog. I've wanted to write more pieces on movies anyway.
One of the keys to the assertion that Strangelove develops an onscreen sexual relationship between two countries is the opening credits sequence. Right from the start, Kubrick is juxtaposing stock footage of a plane refueling, with its back and forth rocking motion and phallic fuel hose, with romantic music. At the very least, it looks and sounds like an educational film on the birds and the bees. Similar music will return at the film's climax, which we'll get to in due time.The other major component is the bizarre rantings of General Jack D. Ripper about the communists wanting our "bodily fluids". This very famous WTF Moment eventually gets explained. Ripper talks about how this mad idea came into his head - during the act of love. After losing his "essence" inside a woman, he returned to an impotent state. He resolved never to waste his precious fluids ever again, denying women his essence.
He has now applied this motivation to an illegal preemptive strike on the USSR. Ripper equates the concepts "World" and "Man" because both are 70% water. As communists want our fluids, their country is thematically linked to "Woman". The USA, by opposition, must be "Man", and as the images of phallic airplanes penetrating "Mother Russia" and dropping their "loads", it's looking like Uncle Sam is going to get some.
Men on the American side are basically separated into two types in the film. First, there are the military types who chomp on phallic cigars, are caught in compromising sexual situations, and desperately want to drop the bomb. They are the sexual frustration that a Cold War must represent to the military. Soldiers are built to fight, and men are built to have sex (and women too, this is implied by the very concept of gender). Sometimes a cigar isn't just a cigar.
While Ripper's rampant (if restrained) sexuality is obvious, the same holds true of other military types. Our first contact with the ebullient General Buck Turgidson is through his secretary Miss Scott, the only female character in the film, in her bikini and rather familiarly talking with a Colonel suggesting that she's slept her way to the top.
(She also appears as a Playboy centerfold with a book on Foreign Affairs on her fanny, linking her with Russia.) Turgidson's entire demeanor in the film is one of adolescent energy, talking to his girlfriend on the phone while in the war room and getting excited at both sex and bomb talk. Like the Cold War's hold on fighting, his tryst with Miss Scott must also be put on hold during the crisis, the release of sexual energies described as a "countdown".
Last, but not least, we have Major Kong aboard the bomber, which is the delivery system for the bomb, indelicately put, the penis of our story. Is it a coincidence that while setting the com system's prefix code to OPE, it lingers on letters that spell out GOD?
The military characters in Strangelove are universally potent and powerful. The bomber crew's survival kit contains some strange items: condoms, lipstick, nylon stockings. Items that recall transvestism, but as Kong puts it, we should equate the invasion of Russia as a sexual escapade:
Keep in mind that the mission's original target is at Laputa, i.e. "the Whore".
The other type of male character is the impotent one, exclusively played by Peter Sellers. All but Strangelove (which we'll get to later) want to stop the bombs from falling, and so aren't just depicted as the "reason" to the military's "passion", but as weak and powerless. Closest to Jack D. Ripper (remember that Jack the Ripper's murders were committed on prostitutes) is the RAF officer, Captain Mandrake. The English have a reputation for sexual repression and stuffiness that makes him a natural voice for restraint and the prolonged holding off of sexual release. As a representative of the Impotence Principle, Mandrake is continually ineffective at stopping the bomb from dropping. Nothing he says makes a dent in Ripper's opinion, he has trouble convincing Guano (who thinks of him as a "prevert"), difficulty calling the President, etc. He's also presented as "inexperienced" with (phallic) weapons and physically lame:
Next is the stuffy-nosed (again, physically impaired) President who rejects any and all military points of view. In the President, we may find a reason for the sexual dry spell that has hold of the world. If he is Man and the Russian Prime Minister is Woman, as heads of each of their "political bodies", their communications can be seen as those of an old fighting couple. Throughout, the President is awkward and ineffective.
The only other Russian is the Ambassador, who despite boasting about his leader's virility, is also "female" in the language of the film, as intimated by this embrace with the truly virile Buck (a potent name).
More signs of Russia's femaleness: Its people are hungry for nylons and washing machines, and of course, the idea that the bombardiers would have to disguise themselves as women if stranded on Soviet ground. If dropping the bomb is akin to an orgasm, shouldn't the doomsday device be the emasculating threat of Woman's "multiple orgasm" (i.e. revealing of women's greater, and thus threatening, sexual potency)?
Now let me open some parentheses here about a parallel symbol, i.e. what's with all the chewing gum? It appears frequently. The bomber's survival kits each have seven packs. Turgidson chews almost constantly. And Mandrake fiddles nervously with a stick, but never pops it in his mouth.
Gum, I believe, is a cigar substitute in the film. When characters cannot smoke (aboard a plane, in the War Room), they chew gum. In a sense, it is a delaying tactic for coitus, or perhaps a symbol of masturbation. Turgidson is without a doubt a cigar smoker like all the other generals, but his true climax is denied him both in terms of war and love (with Miss Scott still waiting for him in bed). For Mandrake, even masturbation is off-limits due to sexual repression.
Masturbation by an uncontrollable hand may also feature in the character of Dr. Srangelove. Here is a character of both described worlds. Like Sellers' other impotent characters, he is physically lame. But unlike them, he is a man of war. He smokes (though smaller cigarettes) and is a proponent of weapons. His right hand has a mind of its own that translates his particular sexual frustration into physical action. It wants to hold his cigarette (phallus), it wants to kill him (death as sexual release), it wants to salute in a fascist way (a warlike, and thus sexual, way).
Strangelove goes on to map out the postapocalyptic (postcoital) future of the human race, hiding down mine shafts, 10 women to each man, apparently screwing like rabbits. In this context, the Cold War takes the bent of the most primal sexual frustration, that of the virgin male. The first sexual act is preceded by an equal dole of anticipation and fear, and followed by sexual awakening (and for some the multiplicity of potential conquests delineated by Strangelove).
The film builds this anticipation in many ways, most notably the military march underscoring the bombing run, but also frequent double-entendres, both verbal and visual, that keep the audience's mind on sex.
The net effect is to make the audience want to see that bomb dropped. True climax comes when it is, with Kong riding it. His mind far from fear or doubt, he is exhilarated. Making ass-slapping motions, the angle gives him the biggest erection on record.
The bombs, by the way, have graffiti on them (an air force tradition) that are tied to man-woman relationships. "Hi there" being an opening line, and "Dear John" a reference to letters used to leave a relationship. In this case, and appropriately so, "Hi there" will be used, the other no doubt reserved for "goodbye sex".
In the postcoital world, Strangelove is sexually awakened and regains the ability to walk. Awkward at first, in a parody of sexual release's "limp legs" phenomenon, but nonetheless made potent with sexual energy again.
The final end, a montage of nuclear explosions, is set to the opening, romantic music, taking us back to the initial symbol of copulation. How then can we not understand these explosions in sexual terms, as the orgasms they necessarily represent?
An alternate ending, shot but not used, was a little less subtle than this, featuring a massive cream pie fight. I'm glad we were spared this ejaculatory frenzy.
Finally, and it's ridiculous not to see it from the word go, it's all right there in the title. Dr. Strangelove is too minor a character to reasonably inspire the movie's title. The "strange love" is actually the love for the bomb, or as this essay has attempted to show, the lust of one country for the other. Watch it again and tell me I'm wrong.