Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying Essay, Research Paper
Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a satirical black comedy about America’s paranoia over the threat of nuclear warfare from the Soviet Union. General Jack D. Ripper is convinced he has discovered a secret communist conspiracy to rob Americans of their “precious bodily fluids” and is determined to stop the Soviets at all costs. Activating nuclear safety provisions in the form of the ominous “Plan R” without the consent of President Muffley, Ripper instructs various B-52 bombers flying on their usual circulatory route outside the Soviet Union to bomb the country. Little does General Ripper, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, Muffley and his associates, and for the most part, the world, know that the Russians have created a doomsday machine guaranteed to destroy the entire planet should the Soviet Union ever be attacked. Through clever cinematography and the manipulation of mise-en-scene elements in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick reveals the complex character of General Ripper in such a way that the viewer achieves a viable understanding of the character’s attitudes and traits. Sterling Hayden, who plays the character of General Ripper, delivers a solid performance as a ruthless and cold-hearted man obsessed with the idea of a communist take-over of the world. The name, Jack D. Ripper, is appropriately derived from a serial killer who “ripped” his victims to death. Thus, Ripper’s namesake is an indication of his cold-hearted nature. He never makes any remote attempts to smile; his mouth is always set in a hard, straight line, and appears to be almost inflexible. Though clearly demented in the head, Ripper’s default facial expression is humorless, that of stern authority and practicality. Even his hair gives off an impression of severity as it is parted straight down the side and plastered to his head. Other visual elements are the general’s beady eyes, the hawk-like sharpness in his gaze, and his penchant for staring down those that question his authority; we see this when Mandrake demands to know the three letter code that will stop the B-52’s. His receding hairline an indication of his mid-forties age status, Ripper’s face, though noticeably lined with wrinkles, seems to retain a firm reticence or hardness to it that is difficult to describe. Fastidiously dressed in a uniform befitting of his rank, Ripper’s movements and gestures are aggressive, direct, and calculated. This is apparent particularly when he stops Mandrake from leaving his office by lifting up a folder on his desk and revealing a handgun, subtly threatening the safety of the captain. This is also shown in the way he stands up in a later scene, during a pause in the onslaught of bullets directed at his office, and fearlessly delivers a round of retaliatory shots from his rifle. Ripper is a hardened, experienced veteran in the art of warfare and is not unfamiliar with the casualties of war as opposed to Mandrake, who cowers on the floor during the shooting. Ripper never appears for any lengthy period of time without a cigar dangling out of the corner of his mouth. In a Freudian sense, one may say Ripper has an oral fixation. Due to its phallic nature, a cigar is similarly shaped to that of a nuclear warhead, and one may make a reasonable connection between this and Ripper’s obsession with communism and nuclear warfare.Scenes of General Ripper are shot only in his office. Interestingly enough, the setting of the office reveals aspects of Ripper’s personality. In the first scene where Ripper informs Mandrake on the phone of his intentions to bomb the Soviet Union, he is sitting in a leather chair at a huge, solid oak desk covered with stacks of paper and various other important looking folders and files. Because Ripper’s personal office is large and nicely furnished with expensive items of good quality, we know he is an important individual of high rank with much power under his command. From the arrangement of his paperwork and the general orderliness of his room, we see that Ripper is well-kept and organized despite his probable busy schedule. There are two standing flags to the left of the desk– the U.S. flag; the other, the state flag — and decorating the office walls are various pictures, medals and certificates, and most prominently, all sorts of rifles and handguns on display. All of this indicates Ripper to be a high-achieving man, patriotic, strongly nationalistic and highly-devoted to the up-keeping of his country’s safety. A stalwart defender of the very principles of liberty and democracy his country was founded upon and hugely anti-communist to the point of paranoia, he is a gun enthusiast, perhaps a strong believer in the constitutional right “to bear arms,” possibly an opponent to intrusive governmental regulation of firearms. Venetian blinds covering the vast windows of the office provide only slants of light to filter in; the main source of light in the room comes from an elongated light bulb shining from above Ripper’s desk.
Kubrick makes good use of the mise-en-scene element of light. The main light above Ripper’s desk is practical in terms of top lighting. In the scene where Mandrake attempts to extricate the code to halt the B-52’s, we are treated to several startling close-up shots of Ripper’s face before he subtly threatens Mandrake with the folder-handgun move. Additional lights have probably been added above where the room light is located. The lights shining down from directly above the general create shadows and serve to illuminate the contours of his face, particularly his cheekbones, and attribute to his craggy, sinister appearance. His head is tilted at an angle and takes up most of the camera frame which allows the top lighting to create unnatural shadows with his face, and what little of the background we can see is ink-black. Not only are his wrinkles more prominent, the shadows above his deep-set eyes are darkened and elongated, thus giving him a hooded look as if he is a creature ready to strike. The light makes his mouth more pronounced as it appears to be hardened and inflexible, molded into a straight line except for the fat cigar dangling from the left corner of his lips. Mouth slightly puckered, chin wrinkled, Ripper speaks and holds the cigar with his lips at the same time, giving him a slightly clenched-jaw look that furthers his sinister image. Overall, his hard, unblinking stare cuts an intimidating figure for poor Mandrake. The image of him opening his mouth to let out smoke gives us the impression of that creature once again waiting to strike, especially when his teeth are bared for a split second as if he is hissing. Kubrick gives the viewer an inside look into the mind and soul of General Ripper in those few close-up shots by brilliantly utilizing the technique of top lighting. The general is demented, perverted by his disillusions of a communist threat, unjustified in his actions, and we are clued in to all of this by the shots. Consequently, Kubrick uses the venetian blinds of the office windows to create cast shadows on the room’s walls and on Mandrake and Ripper. Because the blinds are opened at an angle, the light from outside casts strips of light and bars inside the office. Throughout Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick often uses a hard sidelight. Sharp shadows cast by his cheekbones, lips, and nose are illuminated in another series of close-up shots of Ripper which occur in the scene following the ceasefire and the surrender of the base when Ripper feels betrayed by his men. His profile’s shadow is projected sharply onto the wall behind him as he stands up and walks resolutely to his bathroom to commit suicide. General Ripper feels all is lost at this point in the film, and believes suicide to be the only alternative to a no-win situation. He shoots himself and never knows about the Doomsday Machine. Through the various elements of mis-en-scene and revealing close-up shots, Stanley Kubrick provides his viewers with a good understanding of the character of General Jack D. Ripper. Amongst his many traits, Ripper’s ultimate love for democracy and his country are his biggest flaws. Despite his dementia and his innumerable offenses, Ripper is a man not unlike many of his time in his belief of communist conspiracies. His suspicions and paranoia spell the end for humanity, for Dr. Strangelove ends with the complete and utter destruction of all life on Earth.