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The Manchurian Candidates 1: Communists

Roger Ebert, in his review of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, writes, “To compare Demme’s version with Frankenheimer’s is sort of irrelevant.” This is a ridiculous statement. As J.W. Hastings pointed out when somebody asked him why on Earth he was comparing apples and oranges J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Howard, “I firmly believe that it is not only okay but a critic’s duty to compare apples and oranges.” Indeed. Of course, John Frankenheimer’s and Demme’s movies aren’t like apples and orange, they’re more like—oranges and grapefruits? At any rate, they’re both based on the same novel by Richard Condon, they have similar plots, they engage related political themes in very different political climates. What’s not to compare?

If Frankheimer’s Candidate has a flaw, it’s that it seems to want to criticize McCarthyism even as it validates McCarthyism’s worst nightmares of Communist infiltration. The movie conjures a paranoid fantasy of Cold War politics in which there don’t seem to be any genuinely Communist politicians in the U.S. government, but there is at least one who’s married to a Communist. Senator Johnny Iselin, a bold caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy, is a drunken buffoon easily controlled by his wife Eleanor, who is the American handler for a brainwashed Soviet sleeper agent planted in the United States. The sleeper happens to be Eleanor’s son Raymond Shaw. The plan: get Senator Iselin on the ballot as the vice-presidential candidate, then send Raymond to the convention to assassinate presidential candidate Ben Arthur, leaving Iselin to ride a wave of freedom-loving hysteria right into the Oval Office, where he will be controlled by the Communists through Eleanor. (Except that Eleanor, upon learning her own son is the assassin, vows to avenge her son and destroy her Communist allies who destroyed her son.) This ridiculous plan would have gone off smoothly if not for the intervention of Major Ben Marco, who was leader of Raymond’s platoon during the Korean War and who, when the platoon was captured and taken to Manchuria for brainwashing, was instructed to award Raymond the Congressional Medal of Honor (part of the plan to make Raymond’s stepfather Senator Iselin look like a good vice-presidential candidate). Ben, plagued by nightmares—a ladies’ gardening club meeting mixed surreally with a meeting of Russian and Chinese military leaders in which a Chinese doctor does Freudian brainwashing/hypnotism on Marco and his platoon—figures something must be wrong. At first he fails to convince his Army commanders anything but that he’s going insane, but he eventually convinces them he’s onto something and an investigation of Raymond begins. Ben tries to unhypnotize Raymond, thinks he must have failed when Raymond disappears on a mission with instructions from his evil mother—only to discover, to his relief and horror, that he had succeeded in breaking Raymond free, but that Raymond decided the only way to stop the Commie plot was to assassinate his mother and Johnny Iselin himself. He explains to Ben, “You couldn’t have stopped them, the army couldn’t have stopped them—so I had to.” Then he shoots himself. Not a happy ending, but at least a victory for the good guys, such as they are. The movie suggests that the United States is vulnerable to Communist infiltration—not least because hysterical fearmongers like McCarthy make it easier for infiltrators to manipulate the public—but that there are a few good people willing and able to stand up and fight back for America.

I said that if the movie has a flaw, it’s the simultaneous criticism and validation of McCarthyism. This isn’t quite a flaw, but it is a little weak. If the Commies had been capable of orchestrating and nearly carrying off such an intricate plot to seize control of the White House, Joe McCarthy would have had reason to be worried. On the other hand, the movie makes a good point that those who wish to take power unscrupulously could easily adopt McCarthyist tactics to cultivate public fear and manipulate political paranoia to their advantage.

The good guys win in the end, but there’s one worrying thread left untied at the end: Rosie, Ben’s weirdo girlfriend he meets on a train. The common theory to explain Rosie’s strange behavior is, maybe Ben has also been brainwashed to receive post-hypnotic instructions, and Rosie speaks to him in code to trigger instructions. The biggest problem with the theory is that, if it’s right, Ben’s hypnotic triggers are nothing at all like Raymond’s. Raymond always responds to a suggestion to play Solitaire, and the sight of the Queen of Diamonds (a symbol associated with his mother by way of a massive oedipal complex) puts him in a receiving state where he obeys any command he hears. Rosie’s dialogue with Ben is much more complex, and Ben never enters a trance state as does Raymond. There is one tenuous coincidence which seems to support the theory: The first thing Rosie says to Ben when they meet on the train is, “Maryland is a beautiful state.” Ben replies by pointing out that they’re in currently in Delaware—why would Rosie mention Maryland? Later in the movie, Raymond and his love Josie fly overnight from New York to Maryland to get married. Why go to Maryland? Ben is waiting to arrest Raymond when they return, and Josie informs Ben they’ve just returned from Maryland. Raymond ended up marrying Josie after years of estrangement only because his mother invited her to a party. Is this some absurdly convoluted subplot put in motion by Eleanor Iselin? Get Raymond and Josie married and then hypnotically command Ben to believe that the power of love may cure Raymond of his brainwashing? The idea is even more implausible than the rest of the movie, but it’s the sort of paranoid speculation the movie seems to encourage. Nevertheless, nothing more than paranoid speculation ever comes of it. Ben tells Rosie everything he plans to do—she could easily have prevented him from helping Raymond. Rosie may very well be Ben’s handler, but there’s no indication that Ben can be controlled as Raymond can.

Eleanor Iselin (and Johnny, unwittingly) are apparently the only Americans involved in the Communist conspiracy. If the conspiracy remains intact after their deaths, that fact remains buried deep in the movie’s subtext. More likely, this plot has been defeated. (But will there be more?)


  1. Marc says:

    Maryland used to have some of the least restrictive marriage laws on the East coast, and didn’t have a waiting period like other states - a lot of quickie weddings happened there, especially in Elkton (the last town before Delaware).

    Still, Rosie/Josie and Maryland… weird.

    — 23 August 2004 at 11:37 pm (Permalink)

  2. Steven says:

    That was Rose’s theory as to their flight to Maryland. Still, yeah, it’s a neat little connection.

    — 23 August 2004 at 11:51 pm (Permalink)

  3. Ken Lowery says:

    I believe Ebert’s meaning, as he’s said similar things in other reviews of remakes, is that to review one movie specifically on how it compares to its predecessor is not useful or helpful. It doesn’t give the new movie a fair shot. That’s all. He’s writing movie reviews, not comparative essays. Saying how one movie compares to one from 30 years ago doesn’t help a movie-goer decide if he’ll spend his $8 there that night.

    — 24 August 2004 at 4:23 am (Permalink)

  4. Steven says:

    That is presumably what he means. Of course, he then spends an entire paragraph of his review talking about the Rosie subplot in both movies—without comparing them in any interesting way, of course—which somehow doesn’t quite fit with his statement about the irrelevancy of comparing the movies. But I’m increasingly convinced that Ebert is going senile or something (he undermines his reviews by consistently misremembering important details of movies, and he drools creepily over certain actresses), so I don’t expect him to make much sense.

    A.O. Scott at the New York Times did a fine job of comparing the two movies and effectively reviewing the new movie specifically. But the Times reviewers usually get more analytical, which is not generally what Ebert’s reviews are about.

    — 24 August 2004 at 4:47 am (Permalink)

  5. Ken Lowery says:

    Hmm… After going back and rereading Ebert’s review, I have to say I still disagree with you. The Rosie paragraph was largely aimless, but I don’t think you took away the “sort of irrelevant” quote the way it was supposed to be taken. He follows up right after that with his reasoning:

    “What we can say is that Demme has taken a story we thought we knew and, while making its outlines mostly recognizable, rotated it into another dimension of conspiracy.”

    His basic belief is, as I read it, that the movies are two different beasts. The template is there, but enough changes are made that you’re not watching a shot-by-shot remake a la Psycho. In that context, I don’t consider it such a silly statement.

    — 24 August 2004 at 7:36 pm (Permalink)

  6. Steven says:

    Well… I dunno, I still disagree too. I mean, as per the thing J.W. Hastings said that I quoted, if the movies are different, I’d say that makes comparison more relevant, not less. I know Ebert has a policy of not comparing remakes or adaptations with the source material, but I got the sense he was talking about a more general sense of irrelevancy here. Such are the ambiguities of language.

    — 24 August 2004 at 11:38 pm (Permalink)

  7. J.W. Hastings says:


    I think that you get it slightly wrong when you write that the movie’s major weakness is its “simultaneous criticism and validation of McCarthyism.” The movie’s point is that McCarthy’s recklessness did far more to hurt the anti-Communist cause than anything the Communists could ever do. It suggests that the rabid anti-Communist tactics of a McCarthy actually hurt the anti-Communist cause. The movie itself is solidly anti-Communist and is one of the best expressions of Cold War Liberalism.


    — 31 August 2004 at 12:55 pm (Permalink)

  8. Steven says:

    I think you’re right. I changed my mind as I wrote this post and my second post, and I tried to get that across in both posts, probably not at all clearly. I decided to leave in my initial claim that the anti-Communist/anti-McCarthyist critique has a weakness because the posts are more an illustration of my thinking about them than an rigorous analysis. That decision, of course, resulted in some rather unrigorous analysis.

    — 31 August 2004 at 1:09 pm (Permalink)

  9. Dan says:

    I know that this is in response to an entry that was posted over a year ago, but if anyone reads this, the novel version of “The Manchurian Candidate” explains a lot of the discrepancies you note. It also expands significantly on the mother’s character and, while not making her sympathetic, makes her sort of funny at times, in a very cynical way. It’s a great read!

    — 6 September 2005 at 6:21 pm (Permalink)