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The Manchurian Candidate: A Movie that Captures its Time
When Senator John McCain was running for president in 2008 some people referred to him as a “Manchurian Candidate”[i]. The reference is to the 1962[ii] movie “The Manchurian Candidate”. The movie reflects what happened in the decade before its release. During the Korean War the Communists had some American Prisoners of War (POW) confess to all manner of war crimes. Seeing American troops betraying their country shocked the American public. After the ceasefire some American POWs elected to stay in North Korea. The term “brainwashing” came into vogue. It seemed the only way to explain how American troops could say such things about their country. The United States military developed the Code of Conduct[iii] because of the Korean War experience.
In the 1950s Republican Senator Joe McCarthy made numerous accusations that communists had infiltrated U.S. government and other institutions. On February 9, 1950 in a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia he held up a piece of paper claiming it was a list of known communists working at the state department. The speech wasn’t recorded and there is disagreement as to whether he claimed there were “205” or “57” people on the list.
During the 1950s and early 60s there were rumors the communists were putting drugs in all manner of items. The rumors went this was how the communists planned to destroy America from within.
“The Manchurian Candidate” put communism and anti-communism together. The result is a Cold War Era thriller that is a time capsule and timeless. This article contains spoilers.
[i] Here are some online pages that make such claims:
http://rense.com/general80/manchur.htm, last accessed 2/7/18.
http://www.jimmarrs.com/news_events/news/john-mccain-the-manchurian-candidate-connection/, last accessed 2/7/18.
http://vetstribute.com/manchurian/, last accessed 2/7/18.
Disclaimer: These sources are sited as proof such accusations were made not as proof of the accusations themselves.
[ii] There is a 2004 remake.
[iii] It was later renamed “The U.S. Fighting Force Code”.
The Manchurian Candidate
The initial setting is the Korean War. A squad of U.S. Army Soldiers led by Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), and a Korean interpreter, Chun Jin (Henry Silva), go on a patrol. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is the squad’s sergeant[i]. A Soviet airborne unit makes quick work of capturing the squad and loading them onto a helicopter.
Raymond Shaw, a Medal of Honor recipient, returns home to a hero’s welcome. Raymond’s mother, Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansburg), and his step father Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory) arranged the welcome. Raymond detests that they arranged the reception. When a general (Harry Holcombe) asks Raymond how he feels Raymond answers; “Like Captain Idiot in Astounding Science comics.”[ii]
It’s after the war and Captain Marco is now a Major. He has a recurring dream where there are a bunch of middle aged women talking about hypnosis. The women change into communist VIPs. Chinese Communist Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) is the speaker. He explains the belief a person would not do something under hypnosis which is repellent to their moral nature is wrong. Dr. Yen Lo mentions the cigarettes the Americans are smoking have a “tobacco substitute”. Raymond Shaw murders two soldiers in his squad.
This dream disturbs Major Marco and he is moved from his intelligence job to a public relations job. He is with the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) when Senator Iselin comes into the briefing room claiming he has a paper with a list of names of 207 people the Secretary knows who are members of the Communist Party. Senator Iselin is forced out of the room and Major Marco follows him. Marco asks him several times how many communists are on the list and Senator Iselin gives a different answer each time.
Former corporal Melvin (James Edwards) has a similar dream. Melvin is African-American and so are the women in his dream.[iii] Melvin wakes up disturbed about the dream he describes Raymond as the most loveable and wonderful man he ever knew. Melvin’s spouse (Mimi Dillard) suggested he contact Raymond.
The communists want to make sure they can still control Raymond so they have him kill someone. They select a victim whose death will further the communists’ aims. They send Chun Jin to keep an eye on Raymond. Raymond gives him a job as a domestic.
Marco is given leave so he could work out the problems he is having with his recurring dream. He takes a train to visit Raymond. Marco meets Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh) on the train. When he meets Raymond Marco learns Melvin was also having similar dreams. Marco finds Chun Jin in Raymond’s apartment. They have one of the fist martial arts fights on film. The fight lacks the style and of the Bruce Lee type fights. This makes the fight more realistic. These are not two men who are professional fighters but two men who have had some martial arts instruction. Marco was trying to beat some information out of Chun Jin and Chun Jin was trying to fend off Marco. Marco ends up in jail and asks Eugenie Rose to bail him out. She lets him stay with her and Marco uses her as a sounding board.
Raymond commits a double murder to further the ends of his handler. Marco, with the help of a Psychiatrist (Joe Adams),[iv] figures out it is some form of hypnotic suggestion trigged by the queen of diamonds. Marco uses a trick card deck that had only the queen of diamonds and a game of solitaire to get Raymond to tell what he did under hypnosis. Marco then uses the deck to tell Raymond he is not to follow hypnotic suggestions any longer. Dr. Yen Lo and Raymond’s handler gave specific instructions. Marco used slang terms such as “the fuse is blown”.[v] Did Marco’s hypnotic suggestion that Raymond should ignore other hypnotic suggestions work?
[i] He is referred to as Staff Sergeant Harvey but his stripes were of a Sergeant First Class. The Staff Sergeant rank did not exist during the Korean War.
[ii] This is a plot hole since later in the movie he makes a similar type of joke then claims he never made a joke before. The ease of both jokes would indicate he was adept at making such witticisms.
[iii] According to the U.S. Movie Database (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056218/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv) James Edwards’ dream sequence initially had a white actor in the background who appeared ready to wait on the African-American women. They removed that particular shot because of the racial attitudes at the time,.
[iv] According to U.S. Movie Database (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056218/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv) this was the first time a black actor was cast in a part not specified as a black character.
[v] This is reminiscent of the way Frank Sinatra changed song lyrics when he was singing.
Raymond’s mother is his handler. She lays out the plan and gives her motivation. She was a loyal communist operative. To achieve the communists’ aims she needed an obedient killer. When they made her son that killer she became the communists’ worst enemy. Her plan is for her son to shoot the Republican presidential candidate at a precise moment during the acceptance speech. Then her husband, now the vice-presidential nominee, would take the microphone and make a stirring speech that will catapult him into the White House. He will have a vengeful populace behind him.
The film ends with the anti-communists defeated but the communists still have at their disposal the ability to turn people into murders through hypnotic suggestion.
For Those Who Saw The Manchurian Candidate When it Was First Released.
What did you think of the kiss Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin gave to her son?
Thoughts and Observations
Much is made of how Eleanor kissed her son and what it implies. The book is explicit about the relationship. It seems people who saw the movie in 1962, who didn’t have any knowledge of what is in the book, would not have thought anything of the kiss.
Marco’s relationship with Eugenie Rose shows nothing explicit. An adult watching the movie when it was released could read in more to the relationship. Their relationship also shows a certain innocence. Eugenie Rose appears an intelligent, level headed, woman. A man she hardly knows gets arrested for assault. She bails him out and takes him in. Would such a sequence of events work today?