Doctor Strangelove: A Cold War Satire

Before showing Doctor Strangelove at International Cinema, BYU professor Kerry Soper gave a background sketch of the director Stanley Kubrick and explored some of the themes of the unconventional film.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 7, 2017)—In 1961, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, disillusioned by working in Hollywood and spooked by the rising crime rates in the United States, moved to the United Kingdom where he bought an estate on which he constructed his own movie studio. With financial backing from Hollywood, he went on to create films that destroyed convention and are still regarded today as some of the best movies in American cinema. Kerry Soper, professor of Comparative Arts and Letters at BYU, introduced Kubrick’s second film made in his British studio, Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – loosely based on Peter George’s Cold War thriller novel Red Alert. .

Soper began by emphasizing the peculiarity of this particular film, and the impossibility of fitting it into a standard Hollywood genre. He attributed this partly to the film’s “decidedly dark comedic tone,” emphasized by Kubrick’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white instead of color. Loosely based on Peter George’s Cole War thriller novel Red Alert, “It mixes really dark themes, tragic ideas, and some fairly irreverent comedy,” Soper explained. “It’s grounded in an absurdist view of human nature which is fairly bleak and ultimately offers little hope that individuals can resist abusive exertions of power by institutions and authority figures.”

The incongruence of the comedic take on dark themes, known as black satire, is further highlighted by what Soper called “shifting tones” in the acting. He explained that some of the acting resembled a documentary, “and then you have some over the top performances.” Peter Sellers, in particular, who played three different characters, including German scientist Doctor Strangelove, gave a performance that Soper called “virtuoso.”

Soper continued, “[The film] is pretty sharp and satiric in its treatment of some fairly timeless – or timely – targets.” There is pervasive sexist treatment of women by the men in power. Soper said, “It’s meant to show that in periods of war, excuses are made for men behaving badly.” In addition, it is a criticism of bureaucracies – their dehumanizing aspect as well as their tendency to become “bloated and self-perpetuating so that they’re not actually serving their original purposes.”

The film also uses slapstick humor to deal with the seemingly ever-present threat of fascism. Doctor Strangelove, the American-recruited scientific advisor and former German nuclear scientist, suffers from “alien hand,” a condition where his artificial hand acts of its own volition. “Doctor Strangelove goes to battle with his own artificial hand that keeps wanting to pay tribute to his former Führer,” explained Soper. He finds this quite embarrassing and tries to hide it. “At one point, he actually goes to battle with his own hand and ultimately comes to terms with [it.]” Soper pointed out the physical metaphor for fascism “that is finally let in the door, once people are willing to let go of a lot of the essential things that make us a safe, democratic society.”

Such an unconventional film naturally came from the creative genius of an unconventional man. Even though tests showed Kubrick to be a genius, Soper said, “When he was a young child he got a ‘U,’ which means ‘unsatisfactory,’ in [categories like] ‘works and plays well with others,’ ‘generally careful,’ and ‘respects the rights of others.’” His parents then tried homeschooling him, and his father gave him a camera and endless amounts of books. After watching one Hollywood classic movie after another, Kubrick eventually concluded, “I was taken with the impression that I could not do a film any worse than the ones I was seeing. I felt I could, in fact, do better.”

He worked in Hollywood for some time before moving to the UK, which is where he had the freedom to “do better” – he was only loosely tied to Hollywood, and having his own studio at his estate in England gave him the freedom of an auteur – he controlled most aspects of each film he made. In addition, he innovated handheld camera technology and lenses that were better able to use natural lighting in an authentic way. Soper said, “He’s known for defying genre categories, going where his muse took him, and innovating some un-Hollywood-like filmmaking devices and storytelling methods.”.


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language ’18) 

Olivia covers events for the International Cinema for the Humanities College. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.