When I first put on The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the old man I live with commented that I appeared to be on an “overthrow the government” kick. I replied to this false accusation by simply stating that I am watching what you all suggest. I am also aware that there is a 2004 remake of this film starring Denzel Washington. Going in to my viewing of the original, I was not entirely familiar with either version, though I understood them to have something to do with brainwashing and politics. A none too subtle suggestion, I suppose, but there you have it. Even though I had not seen them, there is always the assumption that the forerunner will be better. That is not always the case, but it seems to work that way most in cinema. In this case specifically, I cannot tell you if this holds true. I can barely tell you what went on with the 1962 one. There are communists, or extreme right-wing people disguised as communists, and the expected subliminal programming, and some other stuff. At one point, I had the impression that it was a movie written by an alien. Perhaps in reading the following you will see why?
Without any preamble, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) pulls up at a local Korean watering hole to gather his carousing men for a mission. It is 1952 and the Korean War is in full swing. Along with them is an apparent interpreter Chunjin (Henry Silva). They head out but are betrayed by Chunjin and captured by the Russians. One of the next things we see is Marco (and it soon became a contest between myself and the old man I live with as to who could say “Polo” faster whenever Sinatra’s character’s name was said) swaying back and forth between waking and a nightmare. With the magic of cinema, we are made privy to this “dream” state. At times Marco and his men are sitting in a well-to-do ladies’ society room, the kind of place where waspish women with fancy, flowery hats plot the year’s culture in some major American city. In other moments, the men are in an auditorium where a Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) explains to gathered Chinese and Russian communists the hypnosis/brainwashing techniques they have employed on the American soldiers. The shifting back-and-forth between the two settings suggests that this is not actually a dream, but something that really happened to them. The key person in these sequences is Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Just before they show this dream, Shaw is the first of the soldiers we know to arrive back in the United States. He is awarded the Medal of Honor for supposedly leading his squad out of danger. The dream suggests a different outcome. In it, he calmly and robotically murders two of his comrades at Dr. Lo’s command. Marco is not alone in having these nightmares as they are shared by Corporal Allen Melvin (James Edwards) . . . who is not heard from again for the rest of the film for some reason. . . . Anyway, Marco takes his worries to the army, who initially dismiss his concerns as mere delusions, the kinds of fevered thoughts brought on by coping with the stresses of battle and continuing his career in the military. Today we would call it post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but not so much in the 1950s, or 1962, or whatever. After a disastrous reassignment to the press corps, they basically tell Marco to take a vacation. In so doing, he decides to travel to New York to meet Shaw and find out whether or not he is having the same problems. Along the way, he meets Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh), Rosie to her friends, who apparently instantly falls in love with him, despite being shaky, panicky, and sweating. I guess he needed some place to stay in New York? This comes in handy because when Marco gets to Shaw’s place, he is greeted by Chunjin, who has become Shaw’s live-in servant, and they have a really strange, pseudo-karate fight. When the police arrive and Marco is arrested, Rosie bails him out. In following up with Shaw, Marco finds out there is, indeed, something peculiar going on with Shaw. Whatever it is, it is always triggered when somebody suggests that Shaw pass the time by playing a game of solitaire. Doing so turns Shaw into an automaton ready to do the bidding of whoever activated him. It is how he killed his comrades while they were captured, and Dr. Lo has had him do the same to others. Marco believes the Chinese and Russians are still behind this treachery, but as it turns out it is Shaw’s mother, Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), who is the real mastermind. She parades about as a true American patriot, with her husband, Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), being her mouthpiece in the government, spewing accusations of communists in every branch. This is the Cold War, after all. Marco guesses much of this and urges Shaw to turn himself into the authorities. Before he can, Shaw ends up being sent to assassinate Senator Iselin’s rival, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), and kills his daughter and briefly his wife, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), in the process. Marco tries one last tactic, using the solitaire trick on Shaw to order him no longer to follow the dictates of those controlling him. Yet, rather than turning himself in, he ends up shooting his mother and step-father while Senator Iselin is accepting the vice-presidential nomination, before Shaw turns the gun on himself.
Hence, not too happy of an ending to The Manchurian Candidate, but thankfully an ending. There is much that goes on in it that I did not fully grasp, which is why I said at the outset that it was written by an alien. Or maybe I am the alien? Last time I noticed, my blood is red and not green, so I have that going for me. While there is probably a logical explanation, I like to be creative with mine, especially with things I do not understand. Why do we stop seeing Melvin after the first half hour of the film? Where are the other survivors from that captured unit? Why do they not have the same triggers as Shaw? Why does this film think that two people will get married within the first fifteen minutes of meeting each other? This last happens with Marco and Shaw. With Shaw, his relationship with Jocelyn at least has a little more leg, if only barely. In a flashback, we see how they had a chance encounter before Shaw went into the military, though again there is a proposal within moments of this first meeting. Part of the reason this is told is to build up the context for why he would want to murder his mother. She had been the one who forced him to break it off Jocelyn before going to serve his country, and Mrs. Iselin later orders Shaw to murder Senator Jordan, which also results in Jocelyn’s death. Thus, when freed of the mind control, you can somewhat understand why he would want to shoot his mother, unfortunately. What is even more of a whirlwind is Marco and Rosie’s relationship. Their bumping into each other has already been discussed above, as well as how she gets him out of jail despite hardly knowing him. During their cab ride from the jail, she goes on to tell him that after she got home she broke it off with her fiancé. Huh? If this were real life and I were Marco, I would be a little wary of this woman.
I do not know what to say about The Manchurian Candidate from a faith perspective. Perhaps it is a shame that Shaw shoots his mother because of the reverence the Church has for Mary, the Mother of God? Still, that is not a good one given how horrible of a woman is Mrs. Iselin. Maybe the care that Marco displays for Shaw despite, as Shaw says, he is “unlovable?” That is a fair one because the Bible does tell us to work on loving those for whom it is difficult to do so. Outside of these, I have little else to say. Probably my viewing of it was dampened by my enjoyment of Seven Days in May (1964). They have the same director, but Seven Days in May made more sense, and was more cleverly shot. That is the one that should have had the remake, not The Manchurian Candidate.