Plot: In this blackest of black comedies, a “Duck Soup” for the Cold War era, a rogue American general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes mad and sends planes to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. He cuts off all communication to the base, and only he knows the three-letter code to cancel the attack.
The mild-mannered President of the United States (Peter Sellers) and Captain Mandrake, a highly civilized British officer (Sellers again) are no match for the bloodthirsty General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the demented Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again!), a former Nazi expert on nuclear weapons whose arm gets out of control, giving a “Heil, Hitler” salute and even trying to choke him. Turgidson’s view is that America should take advantage of the accidental initiation of war to fight to the finish and establish American supremacy. Mandrake is unable to trick Ripper into revealing the code, but, after Ripper commits suicide, following his explanation that flouridation is a communist plot, Mandrake figures it out. He is almost prevented from revealing it, however, when the suspicious Col. “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn) arrives in search of Ripper, and then when it turns out that no one has change for the pay phone. At the last minute, the correct code is sent, but an enterprising American pilot insists on carrying out the mission. The Americans spend their last moments designing a post-nuclear world, where the few remaining people live in mine-shafts, with ten women (selected for their fertility and appeal) for every man. The Soviet ambassador thinks this is an outstanding idea, but Turgidson still worries that the Soviets might have more mine shafts than the Americans.
Discussion: Teens who view this movie may need some background to understand the sense of helpless peril of the Cold War years. More important, they may need some preparation to understand the nature of black comedy, and some may find it very disturbing, particularly the unconventional ending, in which the world is annihilated. This can be a good way to initiate discussions about the nature of war and peace (begin with Ripper’s quote from Clemeanceu about war’s being too important to be left to the generals), and about the best ways of ensuring an enduring peace.
Questions for Kids:
· What do you think of making fun of issues like madness and nuclear desctruction? Does it make you feel more or less comfortable about the possibility of nuclear war?
· If the movie were to be made today, what details would be changed? Who would the nuclear threat come from?
· Who should decide when to initiate nuclear warfare?
Connections: The same issues are addressed in a serious dramatic context in “Failsafe,” released the same year. Some of the same issues of control of the war machinery are raised by “Wargames” and even by “Independence Day” (which has an explicit reference to this movie in Randy Quaid’s attack on the alien spaceship).
Activities: Teens should see if they can find out what the current state of nuclear disarmamant is and what the current issues are.