Sunday, 7 December 2014

Dr Strangelove, or, Operation Mineshaft Gap

[Subtitled: Precious Bodily Fluids]

On one of my bookshelves is an ancient edition of Reader’s Digest, dating all the way back to 1961. That’s nine years before I was even born, and I’m not too certain how I came to possess it. I don’t think I filched it from anywhere and it most certainly didn’t appear on my shelf through an interdimensional time portal or something.

Anyway, one of the articles in that issue was a hagiographic portrayal of the then US Strategic Air Command, the force of long-range B52 bombers which kept the allegedly Free World free. It had detailed descriptions of how the crew flew these planes on exercises, how they’d react in the event of a “Soviet first strike”, and how a nuclear war would “only” kill twenty million people or so.

Freedom and Democracy

Anyone who’s read issues of Reader’s Digest (which I have characterised earlier as not only a propaganda sheet but a bellwether of US foreign policy) from the Cold War will know exactly the kind of article it was, without needing to read a word of it.

Of course, that was the era when nuclear war was not only considered fightable but winnable, a “doctrine” that seems to have some new adherents today (going by the anti-Russian rants I read online). Back then, of course, nobody had yet formulated the concept of “nuclear winter” – that had to wait a while yet, till the early eighties. Now we know, or at least those of us with sense and a smidgen of knowledge are aware, that all-out nuclear war will end up wiping out civilisation at the least and more likely than not the larger proportion of vertebrate life on the planet. But in the early sixties that was considered anathema.

[As an aside, in one of his books, the ultracapitalist novelist Arthur Hailey has the Canadian prime minister refusing to believe that nuclear war could end civilisation. “I don’t believe it,” he goes. “I won’t believe it!” Yeah, denial will always work. Look at the climate change “sceptics”.]

To get back to the subject, I just watched a film you’ve almost certainly not just heard of but already watched for yourself, Dr Strangelove. Believe it or not, I’d never watched it before – though, not having lived under a rock, I’d not just heard of it but had a fair good idea of how it went as well. I’m not going to really review it here, since that’s been done about a hundred thousand times, but just give a few of my general impressions. Of these I’ll save the most important for last.

[If you haven’t watched it yet, this might be a good time to watch it before you read any further. Go ahead, this article will wait.]

The first point is the amazing fact that anyone even dared to make a movie like this in 1964. The Red Scare was at its height, the proxy wars raging between the two superpowers across the globe, the Cuban Missile Crisis still fresh in memory, and here is a film which dares to satirise the entire concept of not just the Nuclear, or should we call it Unclear, Deterrent. This is a film which takes jingoism to pieces, rips its corpse to tattered shreds, and jumps on it with hobnailed boots. That’s the kind of thing I adore. As a card carrying traitor, I never had any time for nationalism.

The second thing is Peter Sellers. Now, I’ve watched the Pink Panther films. I watched some of his other movies. I knew he was good. But I did not know...I did not know he was this good. In fact if I hadn’t known that he was playing a triple role I probably wouldn’t have recognised him as the same person.

Of the three, he’s adequate as Group Captain Mandrake and good as President, um, Merkin Muffley (can anyone explain why a pubic wig should even exist in the first place?). But in his strictly limited role as Herr Doktor Strangelove he owns the flick. I mean he’s creepier than any serial killer I’ve seen in films in longer than I can recall. [If you haven’t watched the film, I repeat, go do so right now. I’ll wait.]

Good, so you’re done watching it and come back. Fine, the third main point is the rest of the acting, which is equally great. I couldn’t fault a single person, except maybe the slightly superfluous character of General Turgidson’s secretary, the only female character in the film and who apparently wears high heels to bed. I thought only porn stars did that. And if Sellers was the winner, second prize goes to the guy who’s not called Bat Guano but who’s batshit crazy. Yes, you guessed it, General Jack D Ripper. (Who said the names were subtle? I didn’t.) And if you thought his paranoia about water fluoridation and precious bodily fluids was insane and/or restricted to the period, you obviously haven’t encountered any of the anti-vaccinationists and chemtrail-believers who infest the internets.

Right, where was I? The fourth bit is the B 52 bomber. It may not be obvious to most people who read my blog, but I have a love of heavy machinery (like, I suspect, most males and not a few female women of the opposite sex – that’s a gratuitous reference to the British sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo, you Philistines). And I’m fascinated by large aircraft, especially large combat aircraft like heavy bombers. Though this was only a model, and the cockpit design was apparently copied from a photo in a flight magazine, I enjoyed the opportunity to get a good look at the workings. And the final bombing run was pure, undiluted genius.


 Now let me ditch the fun and games and come to the fifth and most important point. I mentioned that this movie was made way back in 1964. That was precisely fifty years ago as I write this. Now, can one imagine a film like this being made today?

Simple one word answer: No. One can’t.

Today, military movies are made for only two reasons:

1. To look cool, and feed the appetite of the immature morons who love stuff blowing up and

2. To attract recruits for the armed forces. This is quite explicit in the US, where any movie maker who wants to use military equipment has to turn in a product calculated to project the US military in the best possible light. I’ve discussed this in some detail in my dissection of the racist propagandist war trash called Black Hawk Down (go and read that if you haven’t already; you’ve all the time in the world, unless Ukraine blows up in everyone’s face before you finish). In India, too, the average military film is offensively “patriotic”, and those which dare to question the official stand tend to come in for hysterical denunciation from the right wing.

If Dr Strangelove was made today, it would probably never get released. Hollywood, which pretends to be liberal but is closely wedded to US imperialism, certainly wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. The fact that, as one article puts it, almost everything in it was true is neither here nor there. Satire and black comedy has no future in a market dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of brainless plots and slick explosions.

And one final observation. I’ve come across several people, invariably Americans, averring online that the US could “wipe out Russia’s nuclear arsenal” before it could be deployed. They’re some fifty years behind the times in realising that it doesn’t bloody matter where on earth the bombs go off. As long as the fallout reaches the upper atmosphere, you’re done for anyway.

The Big Bang, baby.

Once that happens, you can always start competing in closing the mineshaft gap, and conserving your precious bodily fluids, and see where it gets you.

Dr Strangelove knew.  

Mein Fϋhrer

* Sources to the images are provided in the links embedded in the captions,

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014


  1. Welcome to Team Strangelove. The movie is sheer brilliance, and one of my favorites. I promise there will be additional bits you get out of it after repeated viewings, of which I hope there are many.

  2. It's a fantastic movie, and I give a lot of the credit to director Stanley Kubrick. Remember that a few years before this, he had broken the blacklist by filming "Spartacus" using actors, cameramen, gaffers,. etc who were personas non gratis in Red Scare Era Hollywood.

    Strangelove doesn't pull any of its punches. I'm glad you finally saw it!

  3. Hi Bill. I keep the movie in mp4 format on my computer and watch it through at least once every year, like a ritual.

    Sellers was more nefarious than you would ever guess, when it came to his comedy. His role as Dr Strangelove lampoons the look and mannerisms of the famous anti-fascist Dr Eric Fromm:

    ^ Life was never so simple, eh? ;)

    GREAT MOVIE and you nailed it. Glad you've finally enjoyed a classic that today would get perpetrators of truth perhaps more than pilloried...

  4. I saw this movie when I was quite young and felt a good deal more hopeful. I saw it with friends who took me out of the theatre, sobbing, at the end.

    A good deal of the dialog of Peter Seller's characters was improvised by Sellers.

    The character of Jack Ripper is psychiatrically accurate. Uncannily so, as you have discovered. The obsessions with bodily fluids/essenses, purity and so forth is so spot on one wonders if Kubrick spent time in a mental hospital. Or on the internet.

    The whole movie is brilliant and I will never watch it (in totality) again.


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