The Manchurian Candidate is a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia and pro-American propaganda, visually stunning and chilling. It was talked about a lot these past four years, since during the Trump presidency people were experiencing increased Russophobia and witnessing Eastern European scandals and intrigue. However, given the film’s message about patriotism and military force, I don’t think it’s the safest comparison to modern events. Centering around the struggles of two soldiers, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) after being kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists, the film mainly concerns the American military and political handling of The Red Scare, taking an inherently critically flawed and culturally problematic viewpoint. That being said, it has an amazing handle on the psychological power of editing and features wonderful performances by everyone involved.
The film opens with the company of Marco and Shaw at the Chinese/Korean border during the Korean War. They are a gang of rough and tough men, the typical everymen of the 1960s, cutting loose during wartime: drinking, gambling, and objectifying and exotifying the local women. However, their leader, Shaw, is a wet blanket. He is a cold and prim rich boy who thinks they’re all lowly trash. Of course, his fellow soldiers find him intolerable. During a mission they are deceived and captured by a group of sinister Communist scientists who intensely brainwash them. Without revealing too much of the plot’s twist and turns, I’ll say that they are returned home suddenly with warm feelings for Raymond Shaw. Marco gains a high-up position in the military and Shaw works for a newspaper relishing in writing smear pieces against his simpleton presidential-hopeful Conservative stepfather (James Gregory), who is merely a pawn for the domineering Mrs. Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury). Marco is tasked with deprogramming Shaw, who lives a sad and lonely life haunted by his mother’s overbearing shadow. Eventually, we realize that his mommy issues are the key.
One of the most effective scenes in the film is the demonstration of brainwashing by the Communist scientist. It cuts back and forth from what the soldiers see (a boring talk from a ladies’ garden club) to the panel of red leaders from all of the world in an amphitheater decorated with huge portraits of Stalin and Moa in the background, in case you forgot what side this sinister cabal was on. There’s a jarring effect created by the juxtaposition of the mundane droning on of the women’s club and the scientific enthusiasm and twisted plotting. The clash of the mundane and “the evil” is a chilling way to set us up for constant doubt and paranoia for the rest of the film.
Now, let me get to my real issue with this movie: it reeks of misogyny. The mother is set up to be the ultimate villain. The idea that an ambitious woman is more dangerous than world powers that have extreme scientific advances in the realm of psychology is, quite frankly, sickening. I have no sympathy for Mrs. Iselin. Angela Lansbury delivers a performance that renders the character utterly reprehensible and unforgivable. That said, the whole idea of a mother’s failures being the downfall of the country is a special kind of good old fashioned American woman-hating. It’s really drilled home with the idea that the only way any of this is uncovered is through a team of highly trained military personnel. It just feels a little overkill. But there is only one thing that pro-military rhetoric in the USA wants to kill, torture, and demean more than a Communist: a powerful woman Communist. There’s enough analysis of the treatment of women during these wars and missions “to spread democracy” to inspire entire dissertations so I’ll leave that to more skilled folks than I. Suffice to say, there are serious consequences to this line of thinking. The only sympathetic women in the film are those who stay on the sidelines being supportive and nurturing. This includes one whom gets killed off, in an example of an ambitious woman trampling a traditional, attractive feminine figure. A true 1960s man’s nightmare and the nightmare of many contemporary men as well.
In a political vacuum, I’d say that this is a spectacularly made film, a real classic. It is technically wonderful, with extremely talented performances. But we are not in a vacuum. As a country, if this is the narrative we turn to again and again, we will probably never get over gender disparity. The Manchurian Candidate is a chilling piece of paranoid propaganda. It upholds the rhetoric of the status quo: xenophobia, misogyny, and a hyperbolic love and trust of the troops. It’s an entertaining and effective film, but culturally we need better narrative touchstones.