Morality & Ethics in Dark Comedy: Dr. Strangelove & Pulp Fiction
Comedies, while meant to be funny, are also thought provoking and often tackle important topics such as morals and ethics. This is especially apparent in dark comedies such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1964)and Pulp Fiction (directed by Quentin Tarantino, 1994).
These two movies have contrasting views on human morality and nihilism. Dr. Strangelove suggests that in the modern world technology has replaced morality and created a heartless world populace, while Pulp Fiction shows that morals can be found even in seemingly evil people and in the darkest of situations. However, these movies do share a common motive, which is to show that a change of ways and thinking is required if the human race is to thrive.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines nihilism as “a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths”. This idea plays an important role in both Dr. Strangelove and Pulp Fiction. Film critics commented on the “unblinking nihilism” and black humor of Dr. Strangelove (Henriksen 328). Pulp Fiction features a wide variety of characters and what ties the otherwise jumbled storyline of the movie together is the common theme of “American nihilism” (Conard). While Dr. Strangelove undeniably lacks moral values in all the represented characters, it can be contended that Pulp Fiction actually displays a high level of morality, particularly through the transformation of two characters, Jules Winnfield and Butch Coolidge (Davis).
Dr. Strangelove questions not only the moral but the ethical boundaries of a world where technology threatens the survival of the human race. Director Stanley Kubrick, who is known for the anti-militarism in his films, “attacked the historical legacy of the bomb…and acknowledged the dehumanization and the moral collapse of a system…” (Henriksen 309). Kubrick did this by showcasing an array of crude, self-centered characters. The immorality of these characters is blatantly put on display by their names, many of which have sexual or negative connotations. The most obvious example of this would be General Jack D. Ripper, whose name is a clear homage to the London serial killer, Jack the Ripper.
This is very relevant considering that it is because of General Ripper that the entire planet is destroyed, thus making him the most extreme serial killer in existence. Next we have Captain Mandrake, “mandrake” being a plant that acts as an aphrodisiac and promotes fertility. General Buck Turgidson represents male sexuality: “Buck” refers to a male animal, “turgid” means swollen and overflowing. Alternately, President Merkin Muffley is representative of female sexuality; both “merkin” and “muff” are slang for a woman’s genitalia. The President was named such because he is a timid, diminutive man who could be perceived as “womanly”. Other main characters include Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano (bat excrement), Soviet Dmitri Kissof (where “kiss-off” indicates the start of a disaster), Ambassador de Sadesky (after Marquis de Sade, a pervert and sadist from the 18th century), Major “King” Kong (primitive, wild lust), and Dr. Strangelove himself (perverted love) (Dirks).
Examining these characters further we see that General Buck Turgidson represents the military excess of the United States of America. On the surface Turgidson feints concern for the future of the planet but his true feelings show when he hears that one of the American planes has evaded the Soviet trackers. Rather than fearing that the plane would set off the doomsday device Turgidson is overwhelmed with joy that his boys have made it. He goes on to suggest that yet another nuclear attack is initiated against the Soviet defensive saying, “Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.” Turgidson’s thirst for blood and violence overruns any human decency that he has (Mast 334).
The movie’s namesake, Dr. Strangelove himself, may be the most immoral character of all. Kubrick does not hold back with this character and makes it quite clear that he is the epitome of an immoral man.
Dr. Strangelove appears incapable of love for anything but the deadly technological devices he himself so resembles; his stunted sense of morality and humanity is indicated by his past association with Nazism, traces of which are still evident in his present behavior and mentality. (Henriksen 320)
The wheelchair bound scientist does not fear the impending destruction of the earth. Rather, he is quite excited to share his survival plan, which involves creating a sub ground colony where the women greatly outnumber the men and must be “of a highly stimulating nature” (Mast 336). This plan is greeted with enthusiasm from Turgidson and the Russian Ambassador de Sadesky, who are enticed by “the most base and selfish of animal needs” (Gehring 29). Continuing with the sexual themes and innuendos in this film, the men are so enthralled with the idea of a plethora of sexual activity that all concern of the bomb and destruction of the world are pushed from their thoughts. From this the title of the movie can be derived: they have stopped worrying about the bomb and learned to love it because it will deliver them this colony of women for their pleasure (Burgess 10).
An Inhumane World
Dr. Strangelove uses humor to show that the world, and more specifically Americans, is growing increasingly inhumane as they become more obsessed with technology. Ironically it is this technology that will lead to their downfall. Although this movie was filmed in 1964 its message is still relevant today. As people become more drawn to technology they begin to lose touch with their basic human principles. This can be seen clearly in General Ripper, who refrains from sexual contact with women and instead focuses his love and attention on the nuclear holocaust (Henriksen 319).
It is not just the characters of the film itself that Dr. Strangelove targets, but humanity as a whole. “Dr. Strangelove mocks…all pretensions to moral judgment on the part of men (all of us)…and their decisions (the very stuff of morality) to gamesmen aspiring through amorality to Science” (Burgess 10). Homer Jack, a social activist and advocate for peace, had this to say about Dr. Strangelove:
Is there, then, any message to this picture? If there is a message – and as Time suggests, “the message never quells the madness” – the message may be that the dehumanization of man results in the death of man. War is only the end of the line, the final dehumanization. This is much more than an anti-war film. It is a satirical onslaught against modern civilization and technology, using the war theme. This film is a protest against the mechanization of man and society to a point where Dr. Strangelove himself, as a symbol of this mechanization, takes charge – and triumphs. The message is that modern man and modern society are both – all – crazy. (Henriksen 330)
Kubrick is using nuclear war as a means to show the worst way in which the morality of the public is tested, and that we must change if we want to survive. Jack goes on the say that, “Perhaps no moral, certainly no pat answer, is the best moral, the best answer. There is no obvious answer to the direction mankind is taking except to change direction.” (Henriksen 331). This film can be viewed as a warning to the people and leaders of the United States of America. If we continue going in the same direction we will lose all moral values and end in complete destruction.
Jules' Moral Epiphany
Unlike Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction shows that violence does not always weaken the system; it can actually lead to a much needed awakening. Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is one of the main characters in Pulp Fiction. Jules is arguably the most moral character in the film despite being a violent hit man. Several times throughout the movie Jules quotes the following (fictional) Bible verse:
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee. (Pulp Fiction)
Towards the end of the film Jules admits that he began saying this without considering its meaning: “I’ve been saying that s**t for years, and if you heard it – that meant your a**. I never gave much thought to what it meant – I just thought it was some cold blooded s**t to say to a motherf***er before I popped a cap in his a**.” (Conard).
After narrowly avoiding death, Jules feels that God has intervened and spared his life. This causes him to have an epiphany – that he is not living his life in a righteous way. Jules begins to reconsider his trademark Bible verse and mull over its true meaning. He realizes that he is one of the evil men that he has been preaching about. More importantly he sees that he wants to change his ways and become the shepherd of the weak. This insight comes during the middle of the restaurant robbery and Jules immediately has an opportunity to put his new beliefs to the test. He explains the bible quote to the robber, Ringo, by saying:
See, now I'm thinking: maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here... he's the shepherd protecting my righteous a** in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd. (Pulp Fiction)
Jules is willing to give Ringo $1,500 to leave the coffee shop without hurting anyone. Jules does not do this so much to spare Ringo, but more so that he does not have to commit another murder and cast yet another sin upon himself (Conard).
In an effort to become a true leader Jules sets out to help others, starting first with his companion Vincent, who is portrayed as a typical mobster. He is heavily involved in drug use and while escorting Mia, the wife of his boss Marsellus Wallace, for the evening he entertains thoughts of sleeping with her. What drives Vincent away from having sex with Mia is not respect for Marsellus but fear of the harm that he will do unto Vincent. He has no interest “to invest in any relationship or activity that fails to satisfy his own desires” (Davis). Vincent does not embrace Jules new spirituality and as was previously shown, Vincent is killed as a consequence.
Butch's Family Honor
Jules is not the only character in Pulp Fiction who shows a moral and ethical side. On the surface Butch Coolidge is a vicious boxer, he even kills his most recent opponent in the ring. However, Butch differs greatly from the murderous thugs in this film. He shows a softer side and honor towards his family. Butch’s most treasured possession is a watch that was once owned by his father and grandfather. In the rush to flee the apartment Butch’s girlfriend, Fabienne, forgets to take the watch. Butch’s first reaction is anger towards her, but he quickly regains his composure saying: “If you did leave it at the apartment, it’s not your fault. I had you bring a bunch of stuff. I reminded you about it, but I didn’t illustrate how personal the watch was to me. If all I gave a f**k about was my watch, I should’ve told you. You’re not a mind reader.” (Pulp Fiction). With that Butch shows how he cares for Fabienne and her feelings and takes responsibility for the mistake. Butch is then prepared to go back to his apartment and face his would-be assassins in order to retrieve the watch, proving his loyalty and respect for his family (Davis).
However, Butch’s compassion extends beyond his family. After Butch scams Marsellus Wallace out of a large amount of money by refusing to throw the boxing match, he finds himself being chased by Wallace’s hit men. Butch sets out to rid his self of the attackers and finish off Marsellus, but through a series of events Butch and Marsellus end up as prisoners together at the mercy of a gang of perverted hillbillies. Butch manages to free his self but instead of fleeing he returns to help Marsellus. In an interview with the American Film Institute director Quentin Tarantino says, “he (Butch) is still starting from a very bad place and he actually ends up prospering, you know, for it, but again he does make a moral choice that he doesn’t have to.” Also, in the screenplay for Pulp Fiction Tarantino wrote, “Butch decides for the life of him, he can’t leave anybody in a situation like that.” Despite the bad blood between himself and Marsellus, Butch does not want him, or anyone for that matter, to suffer a miserable death by Zed and Maynard (Davis).
Hope and Destruction
The moral decency of the characters indisputably plays an important role in both Dr. Strangelove and Pulp Fiction by helping to develop the plot and form an opinion of the represented population. Both films show that the immoral and selfish will perish while the conscientious prevail. In this way Pulp Fiction is the more hopeful of the two: it sends a message of hope for the human race and shows that at the end of even the darkest of tunnels there is a light.
Jules and Butch both undergo a radical change in thinking and it changes their lives for the better. The cast of Dr. Strangelove is not so lucky. The entire race of beings is destroyed because of a lack of human compassion and an obsession with war and technology. These two dark comedies try to show that by leading a moral life, acknowledging your mistakes, and having sympathy for your fellow man you will ultimately lead a more wholesome existence.
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Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979. Print.
Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. By Quentin Tarantino. Prod. Lawrence Bender. Perf. Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis. Miramax, 1994. DVD.
"Quentin Tarantino On The Moral Choices In PULP FICTION." YouTube. American Film Institute, 12 June 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DyDMS-Ag28>.