War is a popular cinematic theme because it amplifies the moral and ethical dilemmas we face in our daily lives. Instead of wondering whether to cut in line at Starbucks or leave a note after you ding the adjacent car in the parking lot, soldiers are forced to make life and death decisions every day. Kill or be killed, and in a battle there’s no time to parlay and discuss your family or apologize. Then there’s boot camp, a process that has evolved over hundreds of years to eliminate conscious thought from the grunts, to prepare them to act, to do, regardless of the command and regardless of the situation.
But as we’ve learned in the last half century, soldiers don’t walk away from war without scars both mental and physical. There’s the scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder but there are many more subtle scars that mar the psyche of the men and women who find themselves in harms way, sometimes through no fault of their own. And no war of the last hundred years has been more ignored and less understood than the Korean War, and soldiers coming back from those battles weren’t honored as the heroes of WWII were and there was no contemporary protest about extricating the United States from the war as would happen a decade later with the Vietnam War.They were just ignored.
Indeed, it’s safe to say that Korean war vets were a forgotten generation of soldiers, left to wrestle with their PTSD, their injuries and their attempts to rebuild their lives alone.
Built around this ignorance of the Korean War and its warriors, The Manchurian Candidate stands up as one of the most chilling films ever made about the subtle effects and consequences of warfare. Confidently directed by John Frankenheimer, it focuses on Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Korean War POW who has been brainwashed and trained to be an assassin for the Chinese and Russians without having the slightest clue. In fact, he comes home after the war and is awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Korea, much to his surprise.
His only chance of redemption is Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), a fellow POW who is plagued by inexplicable nightmares that offer strange, inexplicable clues about what happened while they were imprisoned in North Korea. When Marco learns that a third man from his platoon, Corporal Melvin (James Edwards) also has the exact same nightmares, the story begins in earnest: How can all three of them have the same terrifying dreams, dreams about Shaw killing his platoon mates, even as Marco and Melvin answer any question about Shaw by robotically stating that “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life”?
Adding an additional layer to the early 60’s drama is Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), a McCarthy-esque gasbag constantly accusing the military and other government agencies of harboring known communists and commie sympathizers, even as his accusations are clearly not credible. The connection? He’s married to Shaw’s mother, the hard, manipulative Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury). More than even the Chinese brainwashing specialist Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), it’s Lansbury’s character that is the focus of all the evil, all that’s wrong and dangerous in the post-war vet’s world.
Shaw has returned and been honored as a hero of the war, but fundamentally he’s a lost, lonely man who has very little passion about the future or his own life. When he’s activated by the Chinese and Russians, he has no idea what he’s doing and no memory of his acts afterwards. But his mother? She might just know quite a bit about the situation and be ready to exploit it if that means she can get what she wants once she’s used up her meek, easily controlled husband. It’s Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish) who highlights what a horrible, controlling woman Lansbury portrays when Jordan and Raymond fall in love over one idyllic summer, even sharing their dreams of marriage and life together. Until mother decides her family isn’t good enough and blackmails Raymond into dropping her like a stone, breaking his heart and spirit.
Major Marco’s love interest in the film is the lovely Eugenia Rose “Rosy” Chaney (Janet Leigh), who falls hard for him while they share a train ride to New York City, even though Marco is clearly having a hard time with his nerves and comes across as a dangerously unstable man. Seemingly without reason, she becomes a major character in the story, helping convince Marco that there’s something to his nightmares and that he should talk with the Army and find out whether there’s some explanation for what’s haunting him.
From the first scene through the last, The Manchurian Candidate is a master class in cinema, with chilling scenes, brilliant, tight editing, powerful performances by everyone in the cast, and a provocative storyline that can come across as slightly racist for 2016 (particularly the casting of non-Asian Henry Silva as Asian interpreter and handyman Chunjin) but still delivers an engaging, thrilling, superb film that keeps you guessing until the very end.
Notes: The 1962 version of the film was pulled from distribution for many years after President Kennedy was assassinated in late 1963 because the hysteria about brainwashing by the Russians seemed to hit too close to home with assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and his unexplained trips to Russia prior to the assassination. The Manchurian Candidate was also remade in 2004 with Denzel Washington in the role of Major Marco. It’s an inferior remake and you’ll do fine skipping in in favor of the original 1962 classic.