Reflections on “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

Written by George Axelrod (based on the book by Richard Condon)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

“The Manchurian Candidate” takes place during the Cold War, a time when two political ideologies were pitted against one another and each tried to find effective and insidious ways of attempting to undermine or destabilise the other.

Set shortly after the Korean War, this is the story of Sergeant Raymond Shaw who is kidnapped, along with several of his comrades in arms, and transported to a communist base in Manchuria in 1952 where he is conditioned (or brainwashed) as an unknowing assassin to be activated in civilian life after the war whenever and wherever it pleases his communist masters. Raymond’s comrades are also conditioned to support him in his background story on his return to the American military by whom he is greeted as a hero for courageously saving his patrol and leading them back to safety.

As Raymond’s mother and step-father are actively involved in politics, indeed his step-father is a Senator with ambitions to run for even higher political office, Raymond will be well placed to have maximum impact on behalf of his communist handlers.

Doubtless inspired by reports of instances of dramatic changes of mind among those opposed to Chinese communism in the 1940s and ’50s, as well as self-critical statements made by American POWs during the Korean War, “The Manchurian Candidate” takes the concept of communist-inspired brainwashing to its logical conclusion if ambitions for it are ramped up to bring about the effective elimination of its opponents.

George Axelrod’s screenplay and John Frankenheimer’s direction ensure that this is not restricted to being a polished thriller, but incorporates political satire, the theme of parental influence and responsibility, the role of ego in exercising influence, and a quasi-science fiction foray into the realms of mind control. This is delivered through largely sympathetic or intriguing characters who appeal to our emotions and intellect, yet there are moments of self-awareness and humour.

Johnny Iselin, Raymond’s step-father, engages in shameless self-promotion at the expense of others. He makes baseless accusations of threats to American values and civilisation and twists responses of opponents to enflame situations, all to promote himself as the saviour of American society from a threat without clear foundation.

He accuses anyone who disagrees with him or who may offer opposition to his rise through the political ranks of being a communist and therefore a threat to the very fabric of American life. He may thereby have been modelled on Senator Joseph McCarthy whose fevered and bullish investigations into potential communist subversion in the 1950s destroyed many lives and careers, and which are now commonly viewed as having served principally to advance his own career.

Eleanor Iselin, Raymond’s mother, is a Lady Macbeth figure pulling Johnny Iselin’s strings and providing the words that come out of his mouth. She is a mistress of manipulation and an egomaniac who is willing to use her son’s military record and apparent valour in combat to advance her husband’s, and her own, political careers.

Eleanor is the hub around which all things turn. She is a communist agent willing to trade integrity for power. She does not believe in the communist cause but has chosen to ally herself with the communists to enable and support her plan to promote her husband’s political career. For their part, the communists are undoubtedly delighted to use her ego-driven plot to sow the seeds of political disharmony and discontent, while Eleanor believes herself capable of crushing the so-called communist enemy once they have served their purpose in fulfilling her ambitions.

An essential element and tool in the fulfilment of these ambitions is the brainwashing and effective reprogramming of her son. Apparently, he was chosen by Eleanor’s communist backers in an attempt to render her more compliant to their demands, but rather than displaying anger, guilt or despair at the destruction of her son’s life, she shows fury at the communist underestimation of her. She fails to consider or respect Raymond’s life except as a means of fulfilling her own ambitions and appears incapable of feeling any guilt for the role she has played in her son’s reduction to an instrument of her advancement.

Of course, Raymond’s brainwashing is the culmination of a lengthy process of manipulation and orchestration on his mother’s part. She appears to regard Raymond as her creation to be used for her own ends as she displays a complete disregard for him as an individual. There is even a hint at incest as she directs his life and engineers compliance by fostering guilt and dependence in him by putting forward persistent rationalised argument in which she is presented as the victim constantly let down by those around her while she works tirelessly for the benefit of others. This lifelong experience surely leaves Raymond open to suggestion and malleability and largely unable to assert himself or indeed show much initiative or challenge to authority. This may also go some way to explain his attitude toward his comrades, his “unlovability” and even his immediate and unreserved love for Jocelyn.

This also makes him the perfect subject for in-depth brainwashing and conditioning.

Incidentally, it has been suggested that Richard Condon, the author of the original book, modelled Eleanor on Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s self-promoting right-hand man and “fixer”.

Raymond’s conditioning allows for an ingenious method of infiltration and cleverly accomplishes Joseph McCarthy’s warning of the dangers of the “enemy within”. Here, the danger, or enemy, is within the nation, within a politically influential family and, of course, within the very mind of the enemy’s operative.

Lack of control, and particularly self-control is a terrifying prospect for most of us and the premise of “The Manchurian Candidate” carries it and its potential consequences to the extreme.

Hypnotism, conditioning and brainwashing are used to strip Raymond of his independence, willpower and sense of morality. In good part, this is the key to the fascination of the whole piece. If it is possible to hijack Raymond’s soul, there is the potential for any one of us to be transformed into an unquestioning, robotic device in the service of some unknown third party.

In the film, the concept and possible consequences of this transformation are introduced and developed in a playful, fascinating and shocking sequence wherein the communist instigators of the American troops’ brainwashing are perceived by the troops as harmless, elderly ladies prattling on about gardening. Raymond’s “rewiring” is put to the test and he calmly and politely does away with two of his own men, under precise, if casual, instruction from his new masters, all provoking no response whatsoever from his fellow soldiers.

This is a quirky, confusing, entertaining and horrifying sequence which reveals the effectiveness of the conditioning, the callousness and determination of the instigators and the potential depth of the problem facing the American establishment.

Having Raymond find love and allowing the normally aloof, unlovable and dispassionate Raymond suddenly laugh, enjoy life and display love and devotion to Jocelyn is a stroke of genius. Not only do we catch a glimpse of Raymond’s potential if left to his own devices, our emotions and sympathies are doubly engaged for this tragic character as, under orders from his American handler (his mother), he kills his father-in-law and his new wife as part of his mother’s plan to infiltrate the White House. Compassion and sympathy reign as Raymond’s subconscious clearly battles his conditioning to come to terms with his actions.

Major Ben Marco, Raymond’s Captain during the Korean conflict is also suffering subconscious attempts to reveal the truth of the situation. His inner conflict and consequent investigations provide the key to the unravelling of the plot, though success is far from guaranteed and tension, suspense and anxiety are built and maintained until the very end.

Ben is aided and supported by Eugenie Rose, a lady he meets on a train and who falls in love with him almost immediately after a very strange and confusing exchange of dialogue. Her role is developed both in the book and the remake, but here she appears to offer little more than sympathy and understanding, perhaps to contrast with Raymond’s mother.

John Frankenheimer’s directorial style always puts the story first, perhaps because of his background in television. He secures convincing, earnest and touching performances from his cast, but this is no star vehicle or hero-driven adventure. In this film, the storyline itself is the star and every scene builds knowledge, interest and suspense.

It is a unique presentation in that it is a psychological thriller combined with elements of satirical political chicanery, ego-driven familial conflict and application of scientific theory in the field of mind control. It is extreme, quirky and fantastic, yet it is feasible, logical and bizarrely realistic and even prophetic as it touches on characteristics, events and strategies which some have claimed to perceive in recent social and political history.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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