The Manchurian Candidate: a layered and intense film on the abuse of power

John Frankenheimer, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

At some point during the Korean War in 1952, a platoon of American soldiers is betrayed by their Korean interpreter who delivers them to their Communist enemy. The enemy sends the soldiers to Manchuria where the Yanks are subjected to various mind control experiments and treatments by unknown scientists. After several months, they are exhibited before an audience of sceptical Soviet and Chinese bureaucrats. One man, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is shown off by his doctor (Khigh Dhiegh) who demonstrates his victim’s absolute submission by forcing him to kill two of his comrades. The other men in the unit which includes one Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) are all heavily drugged and can only stare at Shaw as he calmly executes their companions.

This is the horrifying introduction – told in a series of fragmented flashbacks – to the plot of “The Manchurian Candidate”, a gripping and intelligent thriller exploring psychological and political manipulation, the misuse of power and the repression of individuals within institutions of society. Superficially an anti-Communist film, “The Manchurian Candidate” probes and questions the nature of loyalty and patriotism and of political power itself.

Some years after their training, Shaw returns to the US to a hero’s welcome and is delivered back to his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and his step-father (James Gregory), an ambitious Presidential candidate. The other men in the platoon also return safely but two of them, Marco included, suffer recurring nightmares in which a garden party attended by elderly women is mixed in with that chilling demonstration. Marco overcomes the effects of his manipulation with the help of his commanding officer and a military psychologist and, through a series of peculiar incidents involving himself and Shaw, begins to suspect that Shaw is still under mind control and has been tasked with carrying out an important political assassination.

The intense and highly absorbing plot moves surely but not too quickly and depends heavily on the cast to carry off the story which at the time of the film’s release must have seemed fantastic to its audiences. Happily the cast rises to the occasion: Angela Lansbury is formidable as the bullying, stridently anti-Communist Eleanor who dominates both her son and her husband; Frank Sinatra performs capably as a nervy Marco, hesitant at times but determined to confront his fears and nightmares; and Laurence Harvey as Shaw cuts a complex and piteous figure at the mercy of competing forces in his mother and his controllers. Some complex relationships are revealed in the portrayals of Shaw and Eleanor and their interactions: incest is hinted at, Eleanor may be a frustrated puppet-master of sorts and her motivations in planning a false flag event (the assassination of a US Presidential candidate) so that her ineffectual husband may assume power and create a dictatorship in the US to fight the Soviets are deep and, while initially contradictory, actually make some sense of a crazed sort. The minor characters perform their roles capably though a sub-plot involving Marco and a new girlfriend Rosie (Janet Leigh) dissipates quickly and Leigh’s talent goes begging. The sub-plot hinted that Rosie may also be Marco’s controller and might have a connection with the young woman Shaw marries and his father-in-law, a Senator who opposes Iselin and who is a deeply ethical and principled man. A parallel between Marco and Shaw in their relationships with women is hinted at but is not developed.

Cinematography is excellent with some unusual points of view used in a few scenes. The film’s major highlights are the scenes of the demonstration in which Shaw kills two of his men as dreamt by Marco and another man in the platoon who happens to be black: in Marco’s dream, the women attending the hydrangea party are all white and in his companion’s dream, the women are all black – this surely demonstrates how their controllers cleverly drew upon the men’s past memories of garden parties and moulded them to fit their plans!

Skilfully written so as to push both action and character development constantly, the script manages to layer its story with enough contemporary political and social issues of its time and Freudian psychology to boot that even over fifty years after its making, the film still appears fresh and relevant to modern audiences. Eleanor’s character may strike a chord with women who are still frustrated with the slow advance of women’s rights to the level where a woman may run for the highest political position in the land on her own merit alone. Political science students will marvel at how prescient the film is in suggesting that future presidential and vice-presidential candidates may become the puppets of unseen power-brokers and even foreign intelligence agencies. There is a suggestion in the film that Shaw’s controllers may be using Communist governments to advance their own interests and agendas in accumulating power for themselves. Philosophers and psychologists may see in Shaw a symbol of the individual’s never-ending struggle in achieving free will and becoming his/her own person, gaining insight into his/her mind and mental processes, and breaking free from the social conditioning that would otherwise keep him/her an automaton. There is also an insinuation that with Shaw’s killing of his wife and father-in-law, both of whom represent innocence and integrity respectively, the US is losing its own political innocence and soundness.

The film’s rather wobbly and watery conclusion contains some rich irony in that by taking charge of his destiny, Shaw becomes a hero and a real human.

 

 

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