By Published: Feb. 27, 2024

CU Boulder’s chair of Cinema Studies and Moving Image Arts shares insights on Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ‘doomsday sex comedy’ and why the film is more relevant than ever

In early 1964, U.S. Air Force Gen. Jack D. Ripper ordered his bomber group to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from communist subversion.

Fortunately for the state of U.S.-Soviet relations at the time—and for the planet—the surprise attack was entirely fictional, serving as the plot for the movie Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, director Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy that satirized Cold War tensions while also offering up a heaping dose of sexual innuendo.

In the years since its debut, Dr. Strangelove has joined the pantheon of Kubrick’s great films, which also includes classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

Ernesto Acevedo Munoz

Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, chair of Cinema Studies and Moving Image Arts at CU Boulder, who has been teaching a course on Stanley Kubrick as a filmmaker for more than 20 years.

With this year marking the 60th anniversary of Dr. Strangelove’s debut, Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine recently asked Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, chair of Cinema Studies and Moving Image Arts at University of Colorado Boulder, who has been teaching a course on Stanley Kubrick as a filmmaker for more than 20 years, for insights into the making of the film and why it has retained its cultural relevance. His responses have been lightly edited for style and condensed for space considerations.

Question: Kubrick made a number of memorable films. How much time during your course do you devote to Dr. Strangelove?

Acevedo-Muñoz: There’s an advantage in that Stanley Kubrick only finished 13 movies and a normal semester is 14 weeks—and since this isn’t a comparative course, it’s more like the history of a filmmaker’s aesthetics and history of a filmmaker’s concerns—then we’re able to talk about all the movies he did.

And, unlike my Alfred Hitchcock course—Hitchcock completed 52 films, so to curate 14 out of 52, you have to start cutting here, cutting there, and being very jealous about the period that you’re going to cover—with Kubrick, we don’t have that problem. We start the first week of classes by watching his two shorts that we have access to and his first feature film, which is only 67 minutes.

And we talk about all the Kubrick movies all the time. I make reference to some visual moment in his early movies where I say, ‘Look at this here, we’re going to see this again in Dr. Strangelove, and we’re going to see this again in 2001: A Space Odyssey.’

Question: How you would describe Dr. Strangelove, if you had to describe it succinctly for people?

Acevedo-Muñoz: Well, I would make a very simple amendment to how Kubrick described this movie. We refer to it as a doomsday comedy, with the irony implied in that label. But I would add the word ‘sex’ to that label. So, it’s a doomsday sex comedy.

As the observant or the dirty minded will quickly realize, the movie is full of sexual innuendo and most of the punch lines in the movie are some kind of sexual innuendo.

It’s a doomsday comedy, but it’s really a doomsday sex comedy all the way up to and including the very explosive, orgasmic series of nuclear events at the end, with the irony of the lyrics, ‘We’ll meet again. Don’t know where. Don’t know when.’

When we saw the movie as kids, we were laughing at Peter Sellers doing Peter Sellers things—the body comedy, the farcical situations and such. But then seeing the movie again as an adult, there comes a moment where you realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I see now all these airplanes penetrating each other. That’s sexual innuendo. And the way Dr. Strangelove’s right arm keeps raising up in salute, that’s sexual innuendo.’

A working title of this movie was, I sh-t you not, The Rise of Dr. Strangelove. I’m not making this up.

Question: Besides the political and satire, what are other aspects of the film that you share with your class?

Acevedo-Muñoz: We spend a lot of time talking about two things in particular: the production design—what the sets look like and what the function of the of the movie sets are—and special effects.

Round table scene from "Dr. Strangelove"

A scene from the war room in Dr. Strangelove (Photo: Columbia Pictures Corporation)

In the case of Dr. Strangelove, when we talk about the production design, we’re talking particularly about the war room. There are stories, which may or may not be apocryphal, of the CIA and intelligence agencies being concerned about how Kubrick and his production designer, a man named Ken Adam, had come up with the set design, because it looked like the real thing.

The same goes for the interior of the bomber, which again, Ken Adam, the production designer, he’d been a Royal Air Force pilot during the war, so he knew what a bomber looked like. But then he had to sort of bring that up to speed 20 years, to the mid-1960s.

It’s really fantastic that Kubrick would put so much emphasis in production design of spaces that nobody has ever seen. Or nobody who isn’t part of a very special, small elite.

Do you know what the interior of the war room looks like? No, nobody does. So, how did Kubrick and Adam come up with this part? It’s one of the truly amazing things.

An important part of the movie is that all the action is contained within these confined spaces that are treated with this deadpan realism. And they have to be functional spaces. In fact, the lights that you see in the war room are actually doing the lighting of the set. That’s extremely rare.

The other thing I mentioned is special effects. Those might look primitive to contemporary audiences, but they are decidedly state of the art. Consider what we see with the B-52 in flight and the explosions.

With Dr. Strangelove, a significant part of the budget went to production design and special effects.

Question: Beyond the production elements, are there other notable or distinguishable elements about this film?

Acevedo-Muñoz: Few people realize that Dr. Strangelove takes places in real time. We have a phone call at the opening of the movie and the doomsday machine goes off at the end of the movie, and in between that we have about 89 minutes of action in which at no point is there a discernible time ellipsis.

Real time is a very hard thing to pull off in cinema. Kubrick was not the first one to do it, but this was his only real-time movie. It is admirable how compact this movie is kept in terms of its narrative structure.

In terms of story structure, that’s a very difficult thing to do, and this is a function of both the writing and editing to maintain a movie in real time. You have to write it that way, and then you have to edit it in a way that these transitions are seamless. It’s a major reason why Dr. Strangelove got an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.

I should mention the movie is based on a book, Red Alert, which is dead serious. Kubrick determined that the scenario was so demented that the only way to do the film was to make it a comedy.

Stanley Kubrick on the Dr. Strangelove set

Director Stanely Kubrick on the set of Dr. Strangelove in 1963 (Photo: Columbia Pictures Corporation)

To do that, he hired American humorist Terry Southern, who is really the person who shares most of the screenwriting credit with Kubrick. Southern was a humorist and a playwright and a screenwriter, and when Kubrick needed a funny person to come up with this script and make it absurd and yet believable, he came to Terry Southern, so I always emphasize that connection with my students. Coincidentally, Terry Southern’s son, Nile, is a long-time Boulder resident.

Question: How was Dr. Strangelove was received by the film critics and by the greater audiences when it debuted in 1964? Have perceptions of the movie changed over time?

Acevedo-Muñoz: The movie was a huge hit, commercially. Some critics may have been baffled by it, but the reviews were largely positive. The movie got four Oscar nominations, which was quite a feat at that time. It was Kubrick’s first nomination for best director, along with best screenplay. The movie was nominated for best picture, and it was nominated for best actor for Peter Sellers, of course.

In the end, Kubrick made some decisions where things could have gone differently. The movie originally was going to end with a big pie fight. They tried the ending and it kind of fell flat. So, he dropped that and gave us that ending that was sort of improvised with the orgasmic series of nuclear explosions. …

Today, Dr. Strangelove is regarded as a classic.

Question: How do you view Dr. Strangelove in relation to Fail Safe, which was released after Dr. Strangelove and which offered a serious take on the possibility of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union?

Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz: Fail Safe was perfectly well-received when it came out. It was made by Sidney Lumet, a respected director, and starred Henry Fonda playing the president of the United States. …

Dr. Strangelove movie poster

The original movie poster for Dr. Strangelove (Photo: Columbia Pictures Corporation)

It’s just that not every movie—even every good movie—is destined to be a classic. We don’t know if a movie is destined to be a classic until some time has gone by. But today, you didn’t call me to talk about Fail Safe, did you? We’re talking about Dr. Strangelove.

And Dr. Strangelove still gets shown on Turner Classic Movies and sometimes in movie theaters, and people still get up off of their asses and go to see it. That staying power is attributable to a lot of different elements, which is why it’s never possible to predict if a movie will become a classic.

Kubrick also made Barry Lyndon, which is the most gorgeous movie ever made. Period. And this was the movie that Kubrick wanted to be remembered for. And do you know what happened? Nobody remembers it. So, you never know.

Question: Do you think Dr. Strangelove was Kubrick’s most political movie?

Acevedo-Muñoz: Kubrick always said he wasn’t a political filmmaker, but you only have to look at his movies to realize that they are, in fact, political movies. … And I should add any movie made in the 1960s with a Cold War setting and the nuclear race as part of its environment is, by definition, political.

The fact that Kubrick and Terry Southern have both the president of the United States and the premier of the Soviet Union come out looking like complete morons is a political statement. And having the military establishment filled with this toxic masculinity is a political statement, which Kubrick went on to do even more transparently in Full Metal Jacket. …

Or look at the Slim Pickens character, Major King Kong, who rides the bomb between his legs like a bull, waving his 10-gallon Stetson hat as his cowboy persona takes over. That’s a political statement.

Question: The Cold War officially ended in the 1990s. Do you think Dr. Strangelove has the same relevance today that it did back in the day?

Acevedo-Muñoz: The cold war is over? We are having more tensions with Russia today than we have had in 30 or 40 years, since the 1980s.

Frankly, as long as there are lunatics with their finger on the nuclear button—and I’m thinking here of Kim Jong Un, I’m thinking of Vladimir Putin and I’m thinking of Donald Trump—this movie will be as relevant as ever, if not more. I have no qualms making a comment like that.

Precisely because it’s comedy, it also has that kind of lasting power. As the great American philosopher Homer Simpson says, ‘It’s funny because it’s true.’

It’s why we take movies seriously—and it’s why we’re celebrating 60 years of Dr. Strangelove. Hopefully at 70 years we’ll be celebrating it as a cautionary tale rather than as a prophecy.

Top image: Peter Sellers playing the titular Dr. Strangelove (Photo: Columbia Pictures Corporation)

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