‘Nor would I ask of any fellow American in defence of his freedom anything which I would not gladly give myself- my life over my liberty’. As the Republican nominee for President completes his peroration, a rousing call to his audience for the preservation of American liberties, two gunshots ring around the packed convention hall in New York. One strikes the nominee for Vice-President, Senator John Iselin, whilst the other prostrates his wife, Eleanor Shaw. In a small light room at the back of the hall, as pandemonium reigns downstairs, the gunman takes a moment, ties the medal of honour around his neck, and turns the gun on himself. He had ‘freed himself at last, and in the end, heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country’.
Thus concludes the dénouement of John Frankenheimer’s magnum opus The Manchurian Candidate. Released in 1962, the film is above all a magnificent piece of drama, that expertly builds tension until its explosion in that New York City convention hall. However, Frankenheimer also juggles complex themes which come together to form a film which is as intellectually rewarding as it is entertaining.
Most obviously, The Manchurian Candidate comprises a satire of the McCarthyite movement which dominated American politics in the late 1940s and 1950s. Propagated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes, the movement exploited growing fears of the communist menace in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia in order to exclude from public life those with socialist leanings. Government employees were vetted and purged, whilst major cultural institutions such as Hollywood were subjected to a blacklist which prevented many left-wing actors, directors, and writers from finding work.
The role of McCarthy is occupied by Senator John Iselin, played by James Gregory, who claims to possess a list of communists working within the Defence Department, an obvious reference to McCarthy’s own claim in 1950 to possess a list of communists within the State Department. Often drunk and always witless, Iselin’s presentation as a buffoon is mockery obviously directed towards McCarthy and other politicians who propagated the Red Scare. The frequent comparison of Iselin to Abraham Lincoln is a particularly delicious piece of comic satire.
In one scene, we see Iselin stare up at a picture of Lincoln, his face reflected back in the glass, whilst in another Iselin goes so far as to dress as Lincoln to a fancy-dress party. For Iselin, this is clearly meant to foreshadow political greatness, whereas, in reality, it only foreshadows his assassination, a cruel mockery of his ambition.
In the end, we discover that Iselin and his manipulative wife Eleanor Shaw, played by the remarkable Angela Lansbury, are in fact Soviet agents. They plan to ride the wave of the Red Scare all the way to the White House, where they can then become puppets of Moscow. At once ridiculing Iselin as a comic figure, Frankenheimer brings gravity to the plot of the movie by casting him and his wife as the ultimate enemies of America, ironic considering their public professions of patriotism.
The Manchurian Candidate does not only criticise the McCarthyite movement itself but also the methods by which its message was communicated. It is a film which, above all else, targets the media and its role in manipulating perceptions of reality.
Take the scene where Iselin confronts the Secretary of Defence at a Senate hearing regarding communists working in the Defence Department. Rather than focusing on the exchange itself, panning between Iselin and the Secretary to capture each man’s response and reaction, Frankenheimer instead draws back the camera, leaving it to linger on a television set which is broadcasting the exchange. What is important is not necessarily the truth or untruth of what Iselin is saying, but rather the way in which he, or more accurately his wife, is capitalizing upon the media, in this case television, to forge her own reality which she can then use for her own political advantage.
Following this, Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) and a gaggle of journalists follow Iselin into the cloakroom. Here, in response to questions regarding the exact number of communists in the Defence Department, Iselin gives a series of contradictory answers. When he complains of this to Eleanor at dinner, her response is telling: ‘Who are they writing about all over this country and what are they saying? Are they saying, “Are there any communists in the defence department?”. Of course not, they’re saying “How many Communists are there in the Defence Department?”’. The media, be it newsprint or television, are thus being used by Eleanor and her husband to manipulate public perceptions. The truth of the communist threat has been replaced by perceptions of it. Reality has been replaced by its simulacrum.
The crescendo of this manipulation was to be the Republican National Convention in New York, with which we opened. Raymond Shaw, the gunman in the light room, was meant to shoot the Presidential nominee. Then, Iselin was meant to have picked up his body, empurpled with blood, and, like Mark Antony before the Romans, deliver a rousing oration which would have catapulted him to the White House on a wave of fear and indignation. The result of eight years of meticulous planning, it was to be an immaculate piece of theatrical orchestration, manipulating the perceptions of those watching in person and on television.
America, it may be said, is, therefore, the subject of an experiment in mass brainwashing, exercised through the media. In this sense, Raymond Shaw, Eleanor Shaw’s son, may be seen as a personification of the American people more broadly. Both returned from Korea proclaimed as heroes who had liberated its southern peoples and stopped the advance of communism, despite the fact, implies Frankenheimer, neither deserved such an accolade. Both are also being manipulated by ulterior forces, Raymond via communist brainwashing having been captured in the Korean War, and the American people via the media.
The American people must also overcome their manipulation, perhaps not violently but at least through their own internal resolution. Only then can America recognise and live up to its vision of itself as hero and liberator
The end of the film, with which we started, thus serves as a call to action. Raymond overcame his brainwashing and shot Iselin and his mother, thereby saving his country. The American people must also overcome their manipulation, perhaps not violently but at least through their own internal resolution. Only then can America recognise and live up to its vision of itself as hero and liberator, just as for Raymond it was only following his final act of redemption that he could bear to wear his medal of honour.
These themes, regarding the media-led manipulation of reality and the distance between America’s perception of itself and its reality, continue to outlive The Manchurian Candidate. The Vietnam War was to turn into a bloodbath, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would further lay bare the gap between American self-image and reality, whilst the rise of social media has only brought greater attention to the role of the media in shaping the reality which people see. A work of great art, and still of great relevance, The Manchurian Candidate not only enraptures its audience in the story of its own world, but encourages them to cast a critical gaze upon the real one.