Column: At age 60, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ feels more relevant than ever

Peter Sellers on the set of 'Dr. Strangelove'
Peter Sellers, in one of his three roles, on the set of “Dr. Strangelove.”
(Sunset Boulevard / Corbis / Getty Images)

If you’re looking for validation of the line from songwriters Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager that “everything old is new again,” you need not go further than a movie that premiered in New York City on Jan. 29, 1964 — 60 years ago Monday.

It’s Stanley Kubrick’s mordant nuclear age satire, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

One would have to go far to find an artifact of 1960s Hollywood that feels as fresh today — fresher, even — than it did the day it opened. Not much has changed in American politics in 60 years. If anything, we seem to be regressing.


‘I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.’

— Gen. Jack D. Ripper in ‘Dr. Strangelove’

Before turning to the details, let’s address the pleasures of the “Strangelove” script and production, as I outlined them in 2014, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. The bleakness of its nuclear war scenario is counterbalanced by its schoolboy jokiness, giving its characters names like Gen. Jack D. Ripper, Col. “Bat” Guano, and Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff.

Like those names, Col. Guano’s reaction to an order to shoot up a soda machine for a handful of change to make an emergency pay call to the White House — “You’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola Co.” — is traditionally attributed to Kubrick’s co-writer, Terry Southern.

Then there’s the line that reigns (in my estimation and others’) as the greatest in movie history: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

One other indelible moment comes near the very end, as the assembled dignitaries watch the titular Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers in one of his three roles), a former Nazi, wrestle with his own willful, leather-gloved arm before it erupts in a Hitler salute and he leaps from his wheelchair with the exclamation, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”


Among the witnesses one can spy British actor Peter Bull, playing the Soviet ambassador, trying to suppress a laugh at Sellers’ performance, and failing.

Now to the movie’s striking modern-day foreshadowings. The principal parallel concerns the paranoid fantasies of Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the Air Force base commander who sends his nuclear bombers into Russia and blocks their recall.

“It remains as outrageously prankish, juvenile, and derisive as ever,” writes David Denby in the New Yorker magazine’s blog.

May 19, 2014

Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is obsessed with supposed threats to the purity of American blood. “I can no longer sit back,” he tells his adjutant, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (also Sellers), “and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

Ripper’s subject is the fluoridation of drinking water, but that’s so 1960s. Today’s analogous paranoid fantasy involves the COVID vaccines — and by extension, all vaccines.

One feature of the attack on the COVID vaccines is an assertion that they can infiltrate and damage your DNA. This claim is being spread by Florida’s surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, whom I identified earlier this month as “the most dangerous quack in America.”

The Food and Drug Administration pushed back forcibly against Ladapo’s claim in a Dec. 14 letter.


The agency crisply informed him that he was purveying pseudoscientific hogwash and warned him, more tactfully than one might have wished, that “the challenge we continue to face is the ongoing proliferation of misinformation and disinformation about these vaccines which results in vaccine hesitancy that lowers vaccine uptake. Given the dramatic reduction in the risk of death, hospitalization and serious illness afforded by the vaccines, lower vaccine uptake is contributing to the continued death and serious illness toll of COVID-19.”

Ripper’s obsession with Communist infiltration and subversion may be a Cold War relic, yet it prefigures the assertions by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party today that Democrats are involved in some sort of Socialist project.

He issues a message to the president and Joint Chiefs about his dispatch of nuclear bombers in the name of the “purity and essence of our natural fluids.” Donald Trump might have taken his recent charge that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” right out of the Strangelove screenplay, with only modest emendation needed.

The presidential campaign just ending may give credence to the notion that truth is stranger than fiction, but that probably won’t put a dent in Hollywood’s fascination with the political thriller.

Nov. 8, 2016

Another modern-day concern that “Dr. Strangelove” presciently foreshadowed 60 years ago is our obsession with the threat of artificial intelligence, which is imagined to have the ability to follow its own civilization-destroying impulse without human intervention. In the movie, Ripper’s bombers can’t be turned back or even reached without a code that the general has brought with him to the grave.

More disturbing is the Soviet Union’s “Doomsday Machine,” a network of nuclear bombs programmed to be triggered by an attack on the homeland and impossible to countermand — and which, if we are to interpret the movie’s closing montage as it seems to be intended, fulfills its purpose.

“Dr. Strangelove” occupies a unique position in our cultural heritage in part because of its timing. An initial test screening originally scheduled for Nov. 22, 1963, was hastily postponed when news of the Kennedy assassination that day reached the public.


A line uttered by bomber captain Maj. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) about the pep pills, lipsticks and prophylactics in his bomber crew’s survival kit — “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff” — originally mentioned Dallas. But it was changed to avoid echoes of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. Eagle-eyed viewers can still detect the original reference on Pickens’ lips.

A new chapter in American history was opened with the Kennedy assassination. We have never been able to turn back to the optimism of the pre-1963 era. “Dr. Strangelove” exists to remind us that even then, our national optimism was overshadowed by a wholly American psychosis.