Physics 3550: War and Pace, English Paper

December 3, 2003


Human Creations


Dr. Strangelove makes us laugh at what was and is terrifying close to reality.

Daniel Lindley


When we talk about nuclear war, we mean talking about bombs, radiation, destruction, chaos, and paranoia. Two movies, “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail-Safe”, have similar stories but in terms of characters and how they solve similar problems, they have nothing in common. On one hand we have “Dr. Strangelove” who makes us laugh about what we should be concerned and worried about, and the film transforms this horrible idea about the bomb and massive destruction into something funny and peculiar that we should accept as part of our normal life. In this film all the characters seems to be unreal and mentally insane. A human sickness is the one who determines when, where, and how we should drop a bomb.  On the other hand, we have “Fail-Safe” that, from a very serious point of view, exposes the problematic of nuclear bombs. This film causes stress and builds tension from the begging to the end. There are no jokes in this film, and it’s “fail point” is not directly a human one, but it a mechanical malfunction in the system that causes the conflict. The characters in this film are educated and knowledgeable people who are experts on the material, but still cannot resolve the problem. Both movies are catalogued under science fiction, and even though it seems improbable that the USA and the USSR could destroy each other, they were absolutely capable of doing it. 1 Although both of these films focus in the same subject, the way they approach the nuclear bomb problem is completely different. “Dr. Strangelove” with his sarcastic humor that it makes seem that it could never happen, and “Fail Safe” with his seriousness that let us believe that it could actually happen.

In the 1960s both the USA and USSR were threatening each other all the time with nuclear weapons. As Daniel Lindley says, “Today, the cold war is over, but the possibility nuclear war is not.” When these films were made there were about 34,000 nuclear weapons around the world; now we have about 31,500. 1 Today the USSR does not exist anymore, but there are many other countries who want to destroy us. In the films no one could stop the process of explosion of the bomb. In “Dr. Strangelove” a subordinate took control of one of the bases to start the process of the bomb. A similar situation could happen in Europe, if the lower commander took control of the weapons and decided to use them, then, what possibilities could we have to stop a full scale attack of nuclear war. 2 In “Fail-Safe”, a malfunction on the system caused the destruction of two major populated cities. At some point in both films there was someone willing to accept modest casualties of some thousands of civilian because the results justify the actions. We heard General Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove” say; “ We would therefore prevail, and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian causalities from their remaining force which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated ( 36:02)…”, and “Mr. President I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say... no more than ten to twenty million killed (36:56).” In “Fail-Safe”, General Black says: “The final act is mine,” (84:06) and then he drops the bomb in New York City. He was acting as a God taking away the lives of thousands of people. Both films in the end lead us to same conclusion, it does not matter if there is human or mechanical failure, but what matters is that millions of innocent people are the victims who suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions or decisions.

The black and sarcastic comedy of “Dr. Strangelove” was released first, and it was more popular than “Fail Safe”. It was met with great acceptance from the general audience. The two movies are talking about the same subject but with a completely different approach and their unique approach is the one that makes people like one movie over the other one. We hear nasty, cruel, insane, and completely unrealistic decisions, in “Dr. Strangelove”, about how to handle a situation if a bomb was to be dropped. The overall reaction of the population was that the people who watched this movie liked it. In a survey, the audience rated “Dr Strangelove” with a 9.7 on a scale of 103. On the other hand, in “Fail Safe” they tried to find a solution to the problem in a more realistic way. They took it very seriously and the idea of killing innocent people was mentioned several times, as well as the feeling of guilt, which was constantly exposed. The general audience rated them with 7.7. Therefore, people could conclude that we don’t like tension or stress and even though things seem really bad people still want to laugh about them.

Lack of communication and language barriers were two determinate factors in these films. First, there was the impotence of not been able to express yourself because the other party did not speak in the same language. The effectiveness of communication as a whole is not only to have someone to translate what the other party is saying, but also to emphasize in feelings, tone infections and translation not only what the word means but what the person is straining to communicate. Therefore, the translators’ job is not only to translate sentences, but it is to try to communicate an idea. In the films, the presidents of each country had to speak with the presidents of other ones. In “Fail Safe”, the president knew the importance of miscommunication. Therefore, he asked the translator to translate not only words, but to include any feelings and personal comments that could make the difference between winning or losing the confidence from the other party. Secondly, the information given is a tool in order to win the war. In “Dr. Strangelove” there is not a language problem, but they focus on letting people know what they know and what the purpose of the threats are to cause fear. If we cannot communicate what we know or what we have, then no one would be aware. Therefore, there would be no fear.1 In “Dr. Strangelove” we heard, “Yes but the whole point of the doomsday machine…. is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?” (56:29) The USA want other countries to fear us by causing chaos, panic and horror. When someone uses the word “Nuclear”, we automatically think about destruction because we have been informed that the word nuclear is usually linked to unpleasant events.

A “blacklisted writer” was a very popular term around 1940-1960, and several good writers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. The paranoia shown in “Dr. Strangelove” was not exaggerated, but it was a near reality for the people who were living in the 1960s. Senator McCarthy was committed to promote the phrase; “We have communist inflictors in our country”. He caused such a big revolt that a governmental agency was created to find, censor and limit all individual guarantees of US citizens if it was found that they had any links with the communists.  Afterwards, The House Un-American Activities Committees (HUAC) was created, McCarthy searched for traitors all over the country including, but not limited, to: government agencies, Hollywood producers and writers, and other industries. After, and during the investigation writers saw their colleagues get blacklisted because they wrote about communist or anti-communist ideas. Consequently, they had only one way to write, such us underground using a fake name or a nickname. Wilson Bernstein, a screenwriter for “Fail Safe”, was blacklisted for one decade that it was the same decade that this film was produced. Mr. Lumet hired him knowing that he could be blacklisted as well because he wanted make this movie as real as possible. The government attempted to stop any possibility of something like what happened in the films, which could actually happened in reality, but ironically, they were afraid to talk about the topic and refused to help in any way to produce these movies. Moreover, they cut off all rental houses for equipment related with military or government facilities.

At the end of the “Fail Safe” movie, Columbia Pictures had to add a disclaimer that protected them from the government. It stated that nothing like this could happen in reality. Even though, the producer thought that this disclaimer was completely destructive to the movie, he had to leave it in order to show the movie. Sidney Lumet said that the theme of the film was to “stop and think”2.  In “Dr. Strangelove”, the producer did not include any disclaimer because he thought the entire movie was so unrealistic that no one would bother to believe that something like that could happen in really. Ironically, talking about unrealistic situations, Dr. Strangelove was based on a book called “Red Alert” whose author, Peter George, committed suicide in June of 1966, and he was also affected by the paranoia of nuclear war.2 Whether Realistic or unrealistic, serious or funny, closer or farther the bomb that one day was only a myth, today is an unfortunate nightmarish reality.






Work Cited

1.      Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern. Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Based on the book by Peter Bryant (a pseudonym for Peter George), Red Alert (New York: Ace Books, 1958). The British title for Red Alertwas Two Hours to Doom. The book based on the screenplay is: Peter George, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(New York: Bantam Books, 1963. Published January, 1964). The film was scheduled for release on December 12, 1963, but was not shown until January 1964 due to President Kennedy 's assassination in November 1963. Ed. note: when talking about Dr. Strangelove, the film, the title is italicized. The character Dr. Strangelove is not italicized. A longer version of this guide is available via: www.nd.edu/~dlindley.

  1. Fail- Safe, screenplay by Sidney Lumet. Based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeller. DVD Special edition 2000.
  2.  Of the 31,535 nuclear weapons existent in the year 2000, 10,500 belonged to the U.S., 20,000 to Russia, 185 to the United Kingdom, 450 to France, and 400 to China. Several hundred additional weapons were in the arsenals of Israel, Pakistan, and India. U.S. weapons are in the active, inactive, reserve, and hedge categories. Russian weapons are assumed to be 50% active and 50& retired/reserve. See "Global Nuclear Stockpiles," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists56 (March/April 2000). A table in this article shows the yearly nuclear stockpiles of the first five nuclear states from 1945 N2000. It depicts the incredible "vigor" of the early atomic arms race. The active portion of the U.S. arsenal in the year 2000 included 2,000 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), 3,456 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), 1,750 bomber-delivered/launched missiles and bombs, and 1,670 nonstrategic missiles and bombs. "U.S. Nuclear Forces 2000," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists56 (May/June 2000).