Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is often placed among Stanley Kubrick’s most important films. The 1964 dark comedy follows a satirical narrative of Cold War-era anxiety between the US and the Soviet Union. After a crackpot US Air Force General gives orders for a nuclear attack on Soviet soil, the US President is drawn into a battle with time to prevent the crew of the B-52 bomber planes from carrying out their deadly duties.
The film was shot in monochrome for the artful effect of antiquity, making the film appear as though it were real historical footage. Kubrick has also since explained that the use of black and white imaging granted him better use of shadows to create a noir film tone, particularly during shots of General Ripper smoking his cigars. The considered cinematography and the juxtaposition of humour against a very serious, and very real, political undercurrent have made the film extremely culturally significant and poignant amongst its generation of filmmaking.
The film was a big hit upon its release, receiving both critical and popular acclaim. The positive response to the film, among the people of America especially, reflected the growing disillusionment with the American and Soviet policies of nuclear stockpiling during the increasingly turbulent arms race. The comedic jabs at American military strategy appeared to strike a chord and seemed particularly relevant in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The movie was released at a time when it appeared to be spearheading the loud voice of protest that was rising among the US population. It was of course around this time that folk musicians like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs would be releasing protest songs calling out the government from an anti-war stance. This generation elicited an explosion of protest orientated art in both film and music that has echoed throughout popular culture over the past few decades.
Music, especially, has immortalised some of the most poignant stories from political history. Countless musicians have drawn inspiration from their adoration for film, and none, it seems, more so than from the work of Stanley Kubrick. The legendary director’s cultural impact is unparalleled. His work’s influences include David Bowie’s first major hit single ‘Space Oddity’, which was inspired by Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. His film adaption of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange has also influenced countless musicians, from the band name for Sheffield electro-pop duo ‘Moloko’ – which is the name for the milk laced with drugs served at the strange dystopian bars in the story – to New Order’s track ‘Ultraviolence’, the name of which means, as you might guess, excessive violence in the dystopian dialect of Burgess’ creation.
The influences of Dr Strangelove on music, however, appear to be fewer and further between, or if not, certainly less obvious. One of the more poignant references to the film was in Depeche Mode’s song ‘Strangelove’. I have always listened to the song with the assumption that it must be a reference to the film with the words ‘strange’ and ‘love’ put together like in Kubrick’s character’s name. However, upon closer inspection, the lyrics don’t appear to make an obvious connection with the film.
Looking deeper still, however, the lyrics depict a narcissistic and perhaps sadistic relationship between two people, apparently taunting and leading each other on. This behaviour within the relationship could be argued as an allegory of the international relations portrayed in Dr Strangelove. The film itself contains a number of sexual references after all, especially in the naming of the characters. Kubrick cleverly and comedically presents the warmongers as sexually frustrated men. Perhaps in ‘Strangelove’ Depeche Mode were pointing toward this element of the satire.
Have another listen to Depeche Mode’s Strangelove below and see if you can imagine it as a heated political exchange in the depths of the Cold War.