The Manchurian Candidate (1962): Director John Frankenheimer’s chilling film-noir Cold War thriller was remade in 2004 and updated with a Gulf War theme but the original, which opens in 1952 Korea, is the masterpiece. It has a complex plot but the gist of it is that an American platoon was captured and sent to Manchuria where they were subsequently brainwashed before being released back to their units under a phony story and unaware of their ordeal. After the war it is gradually revealed that Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has been trained to be an unwitting assassin – to be activated by his own domineering mother (Angela Lansbury) who is also a communist agent.
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Shaw’s bombastic stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), is a politician on the rise – and also a communist agent – who is a part of a plot that will take him all the way to the White House. At a crucial moment Shaw is to be activated by his mother to kill her husband’s rival, thereby initiating a series of chaotic events that will ultimately install the “Manchurian Candidate” into power.
But all along another former platoon member, Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), suffers recurring flashbacks and dreams about the time they all spent as prisoners in Manchuria and comes to suspect that he and the others were in fact brainwashed. Eventually he uncovers the plot, finds Shaw, and discovers just how far it goes. Shaw, clueless throughout, is a tragic figure as he comes to realize his condition and moves to act accordingly.
Released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Manchurian Candidate is not a true Korean War movie per se. The target of its satire is really Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare of the mid-1950s. Sen. Iselin’s thinly veiled caricature of the Wisconsin Senator provides a chilling commentary on the intoxication of political power and the gullibility of the American people. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of a nation at the height of tensions in a Cold War many alive today never knew and thus cannot understand.
It should also serve as a warning for us today — that Americans should never invest their “Hope” for “Change” in a candidate about whom they know so little, yet are willing to turn over so much power.
I can imagine yet another remake, this time perhaps featuring a little known Senator from Illinois whose ability to read a teleprompter and bring fawning crowds to ethereal rapture belies his baser motivations.
But that’s for another article.