by Rick Bretz
Two movies, one bomb. The movies Fail Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) will always be linked together for the year they were released and the different take that each had on the same idea of nuclear proliferation. One really isn’t better than the other movie. Each approach the idea of nuclear war during the Cold War in different ways.
There’s nothing like a discussion about Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and movies that speak to the topic. With all of this talk about Rocket Man, North Korea’s testing program and nuclear build up and proliferation, I think it is time to revisit two movies which came out at the same time that addressed the idea of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The two movies are Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. They are both classic movies and meet the idea of a doomsday scenario with fear and dismay.
One was a serious look at how mankind could be destroyed if weapon use, policies and procedures were not well thought out. The other was a brilliant movie about the absurdity of it all and the personalities that could bring to fruition such a chain of events.
Both featured military officers who lost their composure due to personal issues. At the same time, these officers were also with people who provided a reasonable voice during the madness. Strangelove, memorably, also featured Peter Sellers playing three roles. In one of my favorite characters of all time, Sterling Hayden gives us General Jack D. Ripper, a general who doesn’t have all of his chess pieces.
In the interest of full disclosure, I consider Dr. Strangelove one of the best satire movies of all time. Just about every line in the script is brilliant. The idea that man would destroy itself is a concept to horrifying to contemplate for an extended time. Therefore, the only real course of action is to just ridicule and laugh at the thought.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fail Safe, directed by the equally legendary Sydney Lumet, is a serious study of policy, procedure and the decision making process required to save mankind. Spoiler alert here…. Henry Fonda portrayed the President of the United States with a likable quality in a situation where he had to make decisions no one would want to make, namely taking out an American city to save the world. The movie had the unfortunate luck of being released after Dr. Strangelove thanks to Kubrick employing the court system after he found out the serious movie Fail Safe was being produced. He knew the first one to be released would be the most successful. Strangelove was released first and did well while Fail Safe didn’t not sell well. Time has elevated both movies to cult status. Fail Safe is considered a well thought out, intelligent perspective on nuclear warfare while Dr. Strangelove is considered a classic satire with several quotable lines in the dialogue.
Lines from Dr. Strangelove
General Jack D. Ripper: But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
President Merkin Muffley: Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.
General Jack D. Ripper: Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.
Major T. J. “King” Kong: Goldie, how many times have I told you guys that I don’t want no horsing around on the airplane?
General Jack D. Ripper: For God’s sake, Mandrake! In the name of Her Majesty and the continental congress, get over here and feed me this belt.
Major T. J. “King” Kong: Well, I’ve been to one World Fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard come over a set of earphones.
Lines from Fail Safe
The President: How did you get to be a translator, Buck? You don’t seem the academic type.
Buck: I guess I have a talent for languages, sir. I hear a language once I pick it right up. I don’t even know how. They found out about it in the Army.
Gordon Knapp: We’ve told them how to blow up our air-to-air missiles, and with them our planes.
Professor Groeteschele: They know we might have a doomsday system, missiles that would go into action days, even weeks after a war is over and destroy an enemy even after that enemy has already destroyed us.
Gordon Knapp: The more complex an electronic system gets, the more accident prone it is. Sooner or later it breaks
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)- is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender (see pre-emptive nuclear strike and second strike). It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.
Game theory is the analysis of how decision makers interact in decision making to take into account reactions and choices of the other decision makers. International conflict and other phenomena in international relations occur as a result of decisions made by people