I hadn’t noticed this the first few times I’d watched the movie, but John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate both begins and ends with a discussion about the Medal of Honor. (Technically, the first mention happens after the prologue and the credits sequence.) This groundbreaking Cold War conspiracy thriller, originally released right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was described by Pauline Kael as “[perhaps] the most sophisticated political satire ever made in Hollywood,” and its reputation hasn’t waned much since. Still, while any exposé on the nexus between power and corruption will inspire its share of cynicism, there’s a feeling of solemnity and respect in this film that keeps it from being as dark as it could have, at least in hindsight. In voiceover, a stern narrator reverently explains the rarity of the highest honor given to a member of the armed forces, then introduces its newest recipient, Raymond Shaw. Soon thereafter, we learn that this award was a sham, and the film tumbles down the rabbit hole of conspiracy, mind control, and assassinations. But in the very last scene, the film returns to the subject of the medal. Shaw’s commanding officer, Bennett Marco, eulogizes the tortured figure by suggesting he managed to earn the award after receiving it. So, while the ending is scarred by death, and the last word spoken is an agonized “Hell,” it’s still inarguable that wrongs have been made right, a crisis decisively averted. The feeling of exhausted but still living hope is, I think, quite intentional.
One of the first pieces of criticism I remember reading about a movie, before I had begun reading things beyond my immediate reach, was a short review in the Evangelical WORLD Magazine that compared Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate to the original. The comparison was not flattering to the newer film, which appealed to my amorphous traditionalism at the time. The review asserted that the 1962 film took the brilliant and even-handed approach of portraying both ends of the political spectrum as dangerous. In other words, the political right was mistaken for tolerating McCarthyism, but correct about the insidious threat of Soviet espionage, while the left was essentially the inverse. Roger Ebert likewise said that the film’s satirical target was politics in general, not one faction or another. These observations hold up well. Certain arguments in this film can be made to match up with either a liberal or a conservative philosophy. That isn’t to say the movie’s inconsistent, just that it attacks more universal evils.
The Manchurian Candidate smoothly incorporates the paranoia of the time in which it was made. In the Cold War, the Capitalist and Communist worlds were each busy inventing newer and better weapons against each other, and the feeling in America up until at least the early 1960s was that the other side was winning. So, in this movie, while the American army in Korea was fighting the same old battles with bullets and bombs, Soviet agents were using drugs and light to brainwash some of those soldiers into becoming secret assassins for them. This is what happened to Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey). His company, led by Captain Marco (Frank Sinatra), is also brainwashed to repeat the phony story that will earn Shaw a Medal of Honor. As a result, he will become a prominent and beloved figure, all the better to subvert and finally destroy the U.S. government. The scenario is exaggerated, of course, but it’s never intended as a spoof. We are meant to take the possibility of a foreign government installing a puppet president seriously.
The film reserves its strongest bile for the not-even-thinly-veiled Sen. Joseph McCarthy stand-in, John Iselin (James Gregory). His story is a version of Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth (Eleanor Iselin, played by Angela Lansbury) is the only ambitious schemer in the marriage. The senator has the camera-ready personality, but it seems that not even he really believes his outlandish claims about Communist infiltration. His arrogance is limitless, his home filled with images of Abraham Lincoln, who is less a role model for Iselin than a symbol for the summit of political prominence. It’s Mrs. Iselin who, by word and gesture, seems to be the force behind her husband’s political ascendancy. She is also Raymond Shaw’s mother, and, on top of that, a Soviet spy. She’s charged with passing along all the horrific marching orders to Raymond via hypnotic suggestion. This travesty of the nuclear family only becomes more psychologically mangled as the film goes along. The macrocosmic struggles of superpowers are ultimately boiled down to one woman’s desire for revenge and her son’s maelstrom of topsy-turvy feelings about her.
While the film is undeniably shrewd about its political questions — one observation about the way that blustering lies can guide public discussion feels especially pertinent right now — it may work even better as a psychological thriller. In keeping with the emphasis on the Medal of Honor, The Manchurian Candidate is an exploration of war trauma that hasn’t lost its intensity over the years. Even if the specifics of the brainwashing are fanciful, the idea of veterans suppressing their trauma, and that trauma releasing itself through nightmares, is familiar. Sinatra’s performance is fantastic in this regard, showing how these buried pressures can roil inside a person, only occasionally bursting forth like steam. Raymond’s tears after committing two murders against his will, though inconsistent with the way the Soviet conditioning was supposed to work, say everything about a man whose body and mind have betrayed him.
In the end, the veterans heal themselves to some extent and perform the action that finally prevents a catastrophe. The politicians who stir up fear and hysteria are defeated, and so are the foreign meddlers. By the time the movie comes back around to the exceptional valor celebrated by the Medal of Honor, it’s hard not to see it as a patriotic piece of work. But this isn’t blind, uncritical patriotism (which is no patriotism at all). The Manchurian Candidate exposes fault lines and blind spots so that they might be overcome. It isn’t quite as ruthless on this score as it could have been, but it finds ways to make the dangers of the world funny, strange, and terrifying in equal measure. A man like Raymond Shaw may be too broken to save, but he didn’t fight in vain.