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Mix Tape: "We'll Meet Again" in Dr. Strangelove

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, to talk about one of the most infamously ironic song choices out there. And spoiler alert -- if you care about such things for 47 year old movies -- it's all about the ending.

As Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb reaches its bleakly absurd denouement, everyone is plotting for an imagined future. The Soviet ambassador is snapping photos of the "Big Board," the hawkish General Turgidson is predicting a post-apocalyptic "mineshaft gap," and even the title character, an eccentric ex-Nazi, is rising from his wheelchair and crying out, "Sir! I have a plan!" before adding, "Mein Führer! I can walk!" All of their paranoid schemes are self-evidently ridiculous, and ultimately futile, because that's right when the world ends.

But it doesn't end with a whimper, or with a bang: it ends with British songstress Vera Lynn singing her WWII-era hit "We'll Meet Again" over a minute-and-a-half-long montage of mushroom clouds. In a single blow, Kubrick and editor Anthony Harvey (reputedly working from a suggestion by British comedy legend Spike Milligan) render all of the film's frantic negotiations pointless and greet Armageddon with a smile. It's about the most superficially cheery response to annihilation this side of Life of Brian's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," and like that song, it hides bitterness in its whimsy.

The power of this satirical finale lies in the song's historical roots...

In its original context, it referred to British soldiers heading off to fight the Nazis, engaging in traditional warfare, and expecting their homes to be intact when they returned. The world might get a little shaken up— hence "Don't know where, don't know when..."—but the song presumes that there will be another sunny day. It makes the ending feel like a going-away party instead of the end of the world, and highlights the disconnect nuclear war and the rest of military history.

Dr. Strangelove's characters, from the quaintly British Lionel Mandrake to the jingoistic Turgidson, are mentally stuck in the past, with their belief that the war can be won through superior strategy, firepower, and gung ho spirit. Even though they're major players in the fate of the free world, they don't fully grasp the ramifications of Mutually Assured Destruction. They've orchestrated the apocalypse without understanding it. They're like the elderly couple in the depressing animated film When the Wind Blows (1986), viewing the Cold War as a reprise of World War II rather than as a whole new animal, and one that might end life as we know it.

By pairing such an innocently optimistic song with a visual reiteration that "some sunny day" is never going to come, Dr. Strangelove skewers its characters' ignorant, regressive mindsets as they all go up in smoke. It's a brutal farewell for an unmerciful movie. Moving beyond the song's subtextual irony, I love the way the mushroom cloud montage is composed. It begins with a string of very brief shots synched up with the first few notes of "We'll Meet Again," followed by some more languorous footage of nuclear testing. It's a graceful, pretty representation of unbelievable man-made destruction.

In fact, watching a full minute and a half of mushroom clouds set to Vera Lynn's blandly pleasant singing has a desensitizing effect, much like Andy Warhol's repetitive "Death and Disaster" paintings. The mushroom clouds feel less like the results of catastrophic explosions, and more like fireworks or cloud formations; this sequence could be outtake from Koyaanisqatsi. Kubrick presents an apocalypse with all the overt menace sucked out of it, and makes it disturbingly plausible that our leaders could lurch head-first into obliteration in the name of America's best interests. Obviously, we'll never meet again. The problem is that no one realizes it until after it's too late.

Related Post: "Distant Relatives: Dr Strangelove and In the Loop"

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Reader Comments (1)

Great piece, but I'm not sure I completely agree about the effect being one of desensitization. Yes, at first the combination of the footage and such a cheery song is funny, but as the sequence goes on and on it starts to dawn on you that all life on the planet is in fact being wiped out. I always found it rather sobering.

I also really like how you talked about the historical context of the song. Originally of course it refers to the hope that soldiers going off to war would meet their families again after the fighting had finished, but in the context of DR STRANGELOVE I always read it as "we'll meet the next life"

May 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Clift
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