Friday, April 28, 2017

General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove

 (This blog post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon 2017 hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings)

It was almost as soon as World War II ended that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began. The stakes in the Cold War were raised considerably when on August 29 1949 the U.S.S.R. detonated its first atomic bomb. With both of the world's superpowers of the time at odds with each other and with both of the world's superpowers in possession of nuclear weapons, fears of nuclear annihilation were widespread from the Fifties well into the Eighties. In the United States various organisations and even individuals built fallout shelters. Schools and other institutions regularly held civil defence drills so that people would know what to do in case of a nuclear attack. Fears of a nuclear apocalypse may well have reached their peak during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded from October 16 to 28 1962.

Given how rampant fears regarding nuclear war were in the Sixties and given how these fears became even more pronounced during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in retrospect it seems strange that a comedy capitalising on those fears would be released only a little over a year after the Crisis had taken place. In Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)  a deranged Air Force General (Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. The President of the United States (one of three roles played by Peter Sellers) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff must then scramble to recall the bombers before they can reach their assigned targets in the Soviet Union. While the plot of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb sounds like a thriller, it was very much played as a political satire and a comedy, although a very black comedy.

If Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb can be said to have a villain at all, that villain would be Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Like many people at the time, General Ripper has an extreme distrust of the Soviet Union. And like many people at the time General Ripper believes that the Soviet Union will stoop to any level to destroy the United States. Unlike many people at the time, General Ripper also believes that the U.S.S.R. is seeking to destroy the U.S through the fluoridation of American water supplies. General Ripper believes that the fluoridation of water is a Communist plot to poison Americans' "precious bodily fluids". What is more he believes that there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, and ice cream as well. It is in an effort to save the United States from this Communist conspiracy perceived by the crazed General Ripper that he orders the nuclear first strike on the U.S.S.R.

Today General Ripper's conspiracy theories sound so off the wall that people could be forgiven if they thought they were invented for the movie. Surprisingly enough, General Ripper's conspiracy theories were drawn from real-life conspiracy theories that had actually been held by a few individuals in the Fifties. Studies in the early 20th Century had indicated that a small amount of fluoride in water prevented tooth decay. To this end it was on January 25 1945 that the water supply of Grand Rapids, Michigan was fluoridated as part of a controlled experiment. The results were published in 1950 and indicated a sharp decline in tooth decay. It was then in 1951 that water fluoridation became an official policy of the U.S. Public Health Service. As the Fifties progressed, more and more cities, towns, and communities began fluoridating their water supplies.

Of course, there was a good deal of opposition to the fluoridation of water. Some of this opposition came from individuals who thought fluoridating water supplies had no real advantage over other means of preventing cavities in teeth. Others opposed the fluoridation of water because they thought it violated the rights of the individual as to what to put in his or her body. A distinct minority of those who opposed the fluoridation of water honestly believed that it was a Communist plot. The idea that fluoridation was part of a Communist conspiracy may go back to 1939, when Oliver Kenneth Goff testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that Communist Party leaders had discussed fluoridation as a means of keeping "...the general public docile during a steady encroachment of Communism.” Charles Bett, an Ohio dentist, may well have been the foremost proponent of the idea that water fluoridation was part of a Communist plot. Dr. Bett claimed that fluoridation was "...better than using the atom bomb because the atom bomb has to be made, had to be transported to the place it is to be set off while poisonous fluorine has been placed right beside the water supplies by the Americans themselves ready to be dumped into the water mains whenever a Communist desires."  Among other things, the conspiracy theorists of the Fifties believed that fluoridation weakened the mental capacities of individuals, making them more susceptible to brainwashing, and that it could even result in cancers that would kill off a large number of Americans, making a military takeover by the Communists easier.

The idea that fluoridation was part of a Communist conspiracy was never widespread and by the early Sixties it had declined from what little popularity it had ever had. General Ripper then likely sounded as demented to audiences in 1964 as he does to audiences today. That having been said, General Ripper's whole-hearted embrace of the idea that fluoridation is a Communist plot is part of what makes him such a good villain. General Ripper is not ordering a nuclear strike for his own gain. He is not doing so to seek glory for himself. He is doing so because he honestly believes that he is right. He honestly thinks that the U.S.S.R. is poisoning the water supply of the United States and, what is more, he thinks he has the means to stop it once and for all. I rather suspect most people would think General Ripper is evil, but General Ripper would certainly insist he is not. To him he is a patriot seeking to defend his country as best as he can.

This places General Ripper in an entirely different category from villains such as Bond's archenemy Blofeld or Superman's archenemy Lex Luthor, who realise that what they are doing is wrong--they simply reject conventional morality or perhaps they simply don't care that what they are doing is wrong. It also makes General Ripper much more dangerous. After all, if General Ripper thinks a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union is the best way to stop what he perceives as a Communist plot to poison Americans en masse, what more might he be capable of?

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of the funniest movies ever made. It is also one of the greatest comedies ever made. In many respects, it is also a very terrifying movie. It is not only because it portrays the possibility of nuclear war, but because it features man with a good deal of power who simply is not in his right mind. Quite simply, when nuclear weapons are combined with a man like General Ripper, the end result might well be the unthinkable.


Caftan Woman said...

Oh, how we laugh at the movie in the sure and certain belief that it could never happen. Oh, the good old days.

Silver Screenings said...

Whoa! I had no idea that General Ripper's beliefs were based on actual conspiracy theories back in the day.

I love that Kubrick went all out for satire with this film. It was a stroke of genius that made for a timeless message.

Thanks for sharing your research with us. I think I need to see this film again, with all this new knowledge in mind!

Also, thanks for joining the blogathon with the iconic Jack D. Ripper. :)