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The 1950s and early 1960s saw the rise of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. During this period, aggressive military action by the Soviet Union in Europe, coupled with several high-profile cases of espionage in America itself, led to a deep and fearful anti-communist sentiment throughout the US. In 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis; on October 22 of that year, President John F. Kennedy addressed a fearful nation regarding the stand-off between the two nuclear superpowers. Two days later came the release of a film which did little to ease these fears: The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer (1930-2002).

The film’s plot revolves around Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey), a misanthropic and unlovable American soldier who is kidnapped along with his platoon by Russians during the Korean War, and subsequently brainwashed by a Chinese scientist to be an unwitting assassin for communists inside the US. But it turns out that Shaw’s American handler is none other than his own mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) — a powerful political operator who dominates her son as much as she reigns over her dim-witted and populist husband, Senator John Yerkes Iselin. Her plan is to use Shaw to kill various political figures and propel the right-wing Senator Iselin into power by “rallying a nation of television viewers into hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.” The only person capable of foiling these plans is Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), who along with Shaw was brainwashed to forget the three days in Manchuria during which their platoon was experimented upon, but whose recurring nightmares about the event have enabled him to realise that a nefarious plot is afoot.

Accidentally discovering that the suggestion to play a game of solitaire followed by the displaying of the Queen of Diamonds is the trigger which makes Shaw primed for programming, Marco tries to unravel the plot and reprogram Shaw to resist his instructions to kill a prominent politician whose death would give the Iselins the power that they seek. Convinced that he has failed in this task when Shaw does not contact him at an appointed time, Marco rushes to intercept him at the political convention where the murder is to be carried out, only to witness Shaw assassinate his mother and Senator Iselin instead, before turning the gun upon himself.

US President Trump is often labelled a ‘Manchurian Candidate’, a phrase which originates from the eponymous film. But what does it really mean? A look at the film and what the filmmaker intended

The Manchurian Candidate is closely based upon the eponymous 1959 novel by Richard Condon. It satirises American politics much as the source novel did, notably in the character of Senator Iselin, a close rendition of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name is inextricably linked with the anti-communist ‘witch hunts’ of the 1950s.

But the film’s treatment of communists is less mocking. Apart from a scene in which the Chinese scientist Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) chastises a Russian agent for displaying capitalistic tendencies — shortly before going to a department store to shop for his wife — Iselin’s fantasies of communist conspiracy are shown to be serious and well-founded. Indeed, communist subversion as depicted in the film is even more insidious than that shown in the US Department of Defence’s own training film Red Nightmare, which was shown on American television in the same year.

Since the onset of the Korean War there had circulated numerous scare stories about American prisoners of war being brainwashed by communists using some new diabolical method, but there was certainly enough literature at the time debunking such myths. Examples of such material include Lawrence E. Hinkle, Jr. and Harold G. Wolff’s “The Methods of Interrogation and Indoctrination Used by the Communist State Police” (Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, September 1957) and Robert Jay Lifton’s book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China (W. W. Norton & Co., 1961; reprinted with a new introduction by University of North Carolina Press, 1989). The extensive research by the authors of such works established that Russian and Chinese interrogation methods did not involve new technologies capable of turning a man into an automaton, but were merely adaptations of techniques used since mediaeval times.

Other films of the period which discussed (usually obliquely) communist interrogation techniques and their consequences similarly tended to do so in more sober terms: The Prisoner (Peter Glenville, 1955), The Rack (Arnold Laven, 1956), Toward the Unknown (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956), and The Fearmakers (Jacques Tourneur, 1958), to name a few.

So why did Frankenheimer, who had read several books on the subject of brainwashing, and was thus aware that Condon’s scenario was fictional, nevertheless faithfully depict this aspect of the story and seemingly buttress the paranoia of the far right? It could hardly be because the director was a right-winger himself — the film did satirise McCarthy, after all, and just two years later Frankenheimer would direct Seven Days in May, which depicts senior figures of the US military attempting to overthrow the president because of a disarmament treaty he signs with the Soviet Union.

Another puzzling aspect of the film is the improbable plot: why would the anti-communist Eleanor Iselin partner with her ideological enemy? And why would the communists utilise her? To attain power by any means while simultaneously having a hold on the enemy? Perhaps; there are historical examples of the CIA and FBI infiltrating and supporting communist groups in order to be able to assert a measure of control over these organisations.

However, a more prosaic yet not unsubtle answer to these conundrums can be found in Gerald Pratley’s book The Cinema of John Frankenheimer (A. Zwemmer, 1969), in which Frankheimer is quoted as saying that he wanted to make a film that “[…] dealt with the McCarthy era, the whole idea of fanaticism, the far right and far left really being exactly the same thing, and the idiocy of it.”

The similarities of extreme ideologies regardless of their political origin have been made by a number of scholars over the years. The aforementioned book by Lifton noted that McCarthyism possessed a number of characteristics of ideological totalism: “the ‘big accusation’ accompanied by ‘small facts’ […]; the quick development of a relationship of guilt between the accused and his environment, along with ruthless exploitation of ostracism and shame; a cult of confession and repentance; a stress upon self-betrayal and a bond of betrayal between accusers and accused; the creation of a mythological doctrine […]; and the demand that victims take on a new identity in accordance with this myth.”

The point would be made again a few years later in Richard Hofstadter’s essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, which noted that “a fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is the imitation of the enemy. […] The John Birch Society emulates communist cells and quasi-secret operation through ‘front’ groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the communist enemy.” And, of course, Eric Hoffer dedicated an entire book to the subject in his The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. (Harper and Row, 1951).

An example of The Manchurian Candidate giving voice to these ideas occurs when a rival of Senator Iselin declares: “If John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he is doing now,” reminiscent of President Harry S. Truman’s statement “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.”

It seems, though, that Fran­ken­heimer’s suggestion that the far right and the far left are not only related but incestuous was apparently missed by many viewers: just as communist nations were prohibiting the film from being seen in their countries, the FBI was receiving letters from concerned citizens about the film’s pro-communist stance.

Another irony of this film is that at the time it was released and was making questionable conjectures about communist mind control, it was, in fact, the US government that was involved in such activities.

Another irony of this film is that at the time it was released and was making questionable conjectures about communist mind control, it was, in fact, the US government that was involved in such activities. Beginning in the 1950s, the CIA and other agencies began a series of programs and experiments to create a ‘Manchurian Candidate’.

Often violating the Nuremberg Code which it had helped formulate, the government spent millions of dollars carrying out chemical, biological and psychological tests of various kinds, often on unwitting subjects. What progress, if any, came from all of this is difficult to determine, since a great deal of official documentation was destroyed, and in some cases written records were not kept at all.

Revelations regarding these projects were not made public until the Senate investigations of the mid-1970s, so one cannot expect Frankenheimer or contemporary reviewers of the film to have discussed the matter. John Marks’ well-documented account of the CIA and mind control — The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate” (Times Books, 1979; reprinted with a new introduction by W. W. Norton & Company, 1991) — speculates that Condon may have had some inside sources who informed him regarding CIA discussions of a special zone in Manchuria where people passing through “[…] apparently had a blank period of disorientation [...],” but this suggestion is unsubstantiated. It is interesting to note, however, that the cynical Condon was inclined to believe the worst, as his approving foreword to Walter Bowart’s sensational book Operation Mind Control (first published by Fontana/Collins in 1978) indicates.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to find reviews of The Manchurian Candidate even mentioning these programs, never mind discussing in detail the feasibility of mind control. What few references there are to the subject are in passing, and these tend to dismiss the concept without proof — as articles by Roger Ebert and Stephen Paul Miller demonstrate. One of the few full-length books on the film: Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González’s What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) does not mention the subject at all.

The phrase ‘Manchurian Candidate’ is now a part of the American idiom, though it is often used imprecisely. In his testimony before the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, security analyst Clinton Watts used the phrase when referring to the possibility of secret Russian financing of American political candidates. And over the past year a slew of news articles have described Donald Trump as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’; most of these articles use the phrase in a simplified manner merely to suggest that the president is under Russian influence.

Opponents of Trump would do better to turn to the Condon novel, where one can find the following description of Senator Iselin: “He has bellowed out so many accusations about so many different people […] that no one can keep the records of these horrendous charges straight. Iselin is a man who shall forever stand guard at the door of the mind to protect the people of this great nation from facts.” But Condon goes on to note that attributes such as ignorance, repression, offensiveness and backwardness can be found in “any demagogue of any country on any planet” — a reminder that pitiful political leadership is not solely the prerogative of the Right.

The year 2004 saw the release of a remake of The Manchurian Candidate directed by Jonathan Demme, but this version, while engaging, lacks the controversy and power of Frankenheimer’s film, which had the ability to affect political behaviour. Jacobson and González cite the case of journalist and political advisor Jude Wanniski, who moved to the right partly as a result of watching The Manchurian Candidate. Susan L. Carruthers’ informative ‘‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962) and the Cold War Brainwashing Scare’ cites Joel Kovel’s Red Hunting in the Promised Land (Cassell, 1997) for the case of CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, whose viewing of the film apparently spurred him on to hunt for a Soviet mole within the Agency.

These narrow interpretations of the film are as instructive as the film itself, which remains percipient after more than half a century. The Cold War may be over, but demagoguery is ancient, and the scramble for power eternal. A unique development of the 20th century, however, is the technological enhancement of the desire to control people’s minds and regiment their lives in a way no previous era had conceived. “I think that our society is brainwashed by television commercials, by advertising, by politicians, by a censored press […],” said Frankenheimer. “More and more I think that our society is becoming manipulated and controlled.”

Thus, The Manchurian Candidate is a modern fable, but the film leaves one with a sense of pathos as ancient as storytelling itself. When in a drunken reverie Shaw confesses to Marco how he has never been able to escape from his mother’s machinations, Marco almost jokingly compares him to “Orestes griping about Clytemnestra”.

Like a character from ancient Greek tragedy, Shaw is merely a puppet of the gods. And whom the gods would destroy they first make mad: after being forced to assassinate his wife and father-in-law, Shaw goes on to commit an Oresteian act of matricide. Only by killing himself does he achieve freedom from the scientific puppetry that has claimed his mind and soul, and all that the mourning Marco can say in the end is “Hell ... hell... .”

The author is an antiquarian and freelance writer.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 27th, 2017

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