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Crafted with Love: ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and the Cthulhu Mythos

Crafted with Love: ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and the Cthulhu Mythos

Dr. Strangelove poster

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
USA/UK, 1964

Having finished Lolita, a subversive Hollywood piece even by noirish standards, Stanley Kubrick returned to war. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb‘s scope was more encompassing than the private torture of Paths of Glory, looking forward to the threat of apocalyptic destruction instead of a reflective portrait of immediate world wars. Instead of matching and multiplying the grave tone inherent in his previous work and the source material, Red Alert by Peter George, Kubrick opted for a brand of blacker-than-pitch humor, claiming, “The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy or, better, a nightmare comedy, where the things you laugh at most are really the heart of the paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible…”. This does not deter from the omnipresent horror surrounding the film and the historical environment that determined its existence. Beneath the antics and the (wonderfully) strained acting of Peter Sellers and George C. Scott lies the taut strains of nuclear holocaust, with only these chummy actors in control. It’s dread at its purest, comfortably resting amongst the instantly quotable dialogue and perfectly composed images: an atmosphere of unspeakable horror-that-is-to-come.

Dread, at least the kind we know that developed from international wartime, loomed viscerally in the writing of beloved cult figure H. P. Lovecraft, so much so that the principal association to Lovecraft is not through the specifics of his mythos, but to the sort of atmosphere of unrelenting mystery he provoked. Look no further than recent lists exalting the use of atmosphere to “shock horror” to recognize the critical appreciation of the tool formally honed to dominate expressions of anxiety throughout the 20th century.

Lovecraft traversed through fiction, horror, hard science, and philosophy to amalgamate into his works. His appetite for intellectual influence into his creations mirrors the legend of Kubrick, the man who dedicated months of intense background research into everything he aspired to create (simply look at the thickness of collected research for his unfinished Napoleon). Perhaps then, there is a string of intelligence to follow throughout their passions and projects eventually leading to a common entry point of discussion between these seemingly disparate demiurges.
Dr. Strangelove War Room

The story of Strangelove takes place within three confined locations. Sellers’s first character, Mandrake, accompanies and tries to talk the crazy out of the unstable, conspiracy-ridden Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) at the air force base that signals a nuclear assault on Russia. The bomb carriers, led, whether they like it or not, by the authentic cowboy Major Kong (Slim Pickens), cease communication with any superiors as part of a complicated assault plan, guaranteeing that they carry out the mission no matter what might happen next. Finally, there’s the iconic War Room, filled with the President (again played by Sellers) and every possible advisor, watch as their accidental strike begins a domino effect ensuring an atomic holocaust thanks to the USSR’s atomic defense mechanism. Much of the film is carried out through a comedy of futility, of watching the men gather and reason and plot to no avail as their imminent destruction lurches forward. It’s the darkest brand of humor, as the tension associated with the worst possible outcome of planet Earth cannot be maintained, only casually interjected by the President’s phone talk with Dimitri, Scott’s antics as war advisor Buck Turgidson, and the bull-ride of a lifetime as Kong personally delivers the apocalypse.

Strangelove has been long placed in the category of American classic cinema, its influence and appreciation ranging from Hollywood purveyors to hardcore politicos (even Ann Coulter claims it as her favorite movie). However, it still remains a Kubrick film, and contains whispered legends of its preparation and production. Much of these murmurs belong to the infamous pie fight scene, the actually-filmed moment of expensive slapstick that was eventually cut from the feature for being too antithetical to its tone. Less celebrated, but much more bizarre, is the cut narrator, implied to be an extraterrestrial documenting the destruction of Earth over what the script calls “WEIRD, EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, ELECTRONIC SOUNDS”. Perhaps Kubrick’s cut of what are identifiably B-movie sci-fi tropes would be a step forward to the serious nature of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but its original inclusion in the script notes a celestial approach to the horror of the picture. Seeing the destruction of the world is terrifying, but its simple documentation by another creature appropriates the film to a tale of insignificance, of being labeled a statistic of destruction to god-like beings over whom we have no control.

H.P. LovecraftThose familiar with the tales of Lovecraft may begin to see the connection between the alien narrator and the Cthulhu mythos’s inclusion of extra-dimensional beings. “The Call of Cthulhu” introduces the cult worship surrounding a being to announce the arrival of ultimate doom, the namesake Cthulhu,  whose summoning spawns the coming of the Elder Gods to destroy the universe. Much of the horror of these creatures comes through Lovecraft’s description of them, or perhaps more accurately, the lack of description. The horror of looking upon creatures larger than most buildings and containing enough power to casually wipe out the human race petrifies and destroys the mind of any that try. It may sound as if Lovecraft is trying to pass his creatures off with a  “Believe me, they’re scary” bromide, but the sense of mystery and cosmic horror present in his words provoked other writers to take his worlds and expound upon them, inviting a tradition of latching onto unexplainable yet very present horror.

Though Kubrick may have been familiar with Lovecraft’s work, Dr. Strangelove is certainly not a continuation of the mythos. Despite this need to point out the marriage between them, the differences between the interests and scopes covered by the two scholars are plenty. Whereas Lovecraft’s keen interest in science led him to contemplate what horror could extend past our scientific tools, Kubrick uses what we know from science as a fear in and of itself. For Kubrick, the scale and insignificance of us to the remaining universe takes prominence over Lovecraft’s extended mystery, curiosity of newly-termed extra dimensions, and invocation of gods and other religious themes. While both sense fear in the destruction of the world being out of our hands, Kubrick dreads the incompetence of humans rather than uncovering a mystery that science cannot relate to or elucidate.

What remains past Strangelove‘s humor or Lovecraft’s witchcraft, is the cosmic relation between destruction and insignificance. Kubrick touches upon it with the narration in his first draft, Lovecraft through the immaculate size and power of his. Both present their works after times of war and during times of international fear and crisis. Their words and images translate this fear into works of identifiable genre structure and entertainment, yet the dread seeps through the background, omnipresent, as a living relic of their places in history and  the soul-wrenching mirror to war.

Dr. Strangelove - Peter Sellers

To be perfectly clear, there is no Cthulhu in Dr. Strangelove. Even the weak connection of the alien narrator was stricken from the final product, likely for the sake of tonal consistency: over-the-top but not explicitly eccentric. Yet the influence of Lovecraft’s mythos, of the urge of describing the indescribable through the common language of fear: that is what we find at the base of the War Room and at the end of Kong’s atomic thrill ride. Its ability to speak of the remnants of war is present in Sellers’s Strangelove’s Nazi salute. It’s one of the funniest parts of the film, but is also a note that history has never truly left — it informs what we do and how we behave whether faced with an Elder God or nuclear winter. Kubrick may have not included Cthulhu in the end result of Dr. Strangelove, but he definitely included Lovecraft.

— Zach Lewis