Trumping The Manchurian Candidate. Again.

By Beverly Gray | July 13, 2018


Editor’s note: Given this afternoon’s front page news that 12 Russian intelligence officers were charged with illegally interfering with the 2016 US presidential campaign—just days before President Trump’s scheduled first face-to-face meeting with Russian leader (and former intelligence officer) Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16—we thought it timely to re-publish this June, 2017 commentary about US presidential politics, foreign interference, and the 1962 movie, The Manchurian Candidate. After all, it is not every day that one sees a front page article in The New York Times headlined “Trump Invited the Russians to Hack Clinton. Were They Listening?

Today is Friday the 13th. Coincidence—or conspiracy?

Google the words “Trump” and “Manchurian Candidate” and a whole slew of results pops up.

The New York Times ran a story on January 13, 2017 titled “Donald Trump: A Modern Manchurian Candidate?” in which it questioned Trump’s unholy affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin—and that was several months before evidence came out that President Trump’s own son-in-law had back-door ties with Russia, and that his national security adviser and his campaign manager had been playing footsie with the Russians. (And these are not the nice, progressive Russians that had come to our shores in the era right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, seeking to learn how to build democratic institutions in their homeland. Instead, these are oligarchs, little green men, election hackers, and spies, with a former KGB strongman as their head.) Nor was the Times alone: The phrase “Manchurian Candidate” has also appeared in publications such as Vanity Fair, the New York Daily News, Salon, The Hill, and the Washington Post, to name just a few.

It’s easy to see why contemporary political writers would be drawn to the phrase. Think of what has happened recently in real life: a US presidential election in which one candidate employs a slew of campaign aides with questionable financial ties to Russia, who openly invites Russian computer hackers to break into the files of his opponent, and upon becoming president of the United States fires the FBI head who was looking into whether there was any KGB blackmail involved (what jaded Russian citizens call kompromat)—followed by tweets and hints from the president’s friends that the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia may be fired as well. If those events had come from a Hollywood movie script, few would have found them believable: A man in the White House whose ability to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United State is seriously questionable because of strong foreign influence.

Except that a movie based on precisely such a scenario exists. Most of us are aware that the words “Manchurian Candidate”—like the phrases “gaslighting” or “Catch-22”—come from the movies, in this case from a 54-year-old Cold War movie with some kind of mysterious, sinister, shadowy aura. But what, exactly, was The Manchurian Candidate movie about? And does the movie hold any warnings for the real world of today?

A dark, cynical view. The 1962 award-winning movie The Manchurian Candidate was based upon the 1959 Richard Condon novel of the same name. Campy and pulp, with an eye for Cold War intrigue, the book contained dark, cynical (but prescient?) lines such as “The psychotic group known as paranoiacs had always provided us with the great leaders of the world, and always would.”

The book was given wildly divergent reviews. Time magazine put the book on its list of the year’s Ten Best Bad Novels that year, while a 1962 New Yorker article called The Manchurian Candidate “wild and exhilarating satire.” Condon himself was quoted in a later, 2003 New Yorker article as saying that he became a writer because “the only thing I knew how to do was spell.” But later events proved that his self-deprecation was misplaced. Condon went on to write several other novels, including Prizzi’s Honor—and his adaptation of the latter for the subsequent John Huston movie earned Condon an Academy Award nomination in 1986.

In any case, the book seemed to strike a chord with the public, which was awash with Cold War hysteria, and the phrase Manchurian Candidate became widely accepted—even if the film turned out to be a financial flop. (“Perhaps it was too hard to follow,” wrote Travis Andrews, reassessing it for the Washington Post at the beginning of 2017.)

Both novel and film focus on brainwashing and its potential for skewing US politics. (Brainwashing back then was a new term in English, a literal translation of a Chinese phrase.) In both novel and film, scientists from the Soviet Union collude with their Red Chinese counterparts to turn an American soldier, Sgt. Raymond Shaw, into a killing machine, one whose ultimate job will be to assassinate the American president.

But the number one villain of the piece is Shaw’s own mother, indelibly played in the 1962 film version by Angela Lansbury—for which she was named one of the top 25 cinema villains in Time. It is she, as the “American operative” working hand-in-glove with Communist masterminds, who will direct the mission intended to hand the reins of national power to her new husband, the buffoonish vice-presidential candidate. (She chillingly sums up the plot’s goal as “rallying a nation of viewers to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.”) Though her stated political views are conservative and overtly anti-Communist, she is in fact ruled by a pragmatic determination to serve herself, even at her country’s expense. The derailing of her plot by the end of the story means we don’t know just how far she was prepared to go, but her steadfast exaltation of self above the public’s interests suggests a clear and present danger to the people of the world.

Sound familiar?

One overall message of The Manchurian Candidate is that Russia and its allies are not to be trusted. Nor should we trust those who make nice with the Russians for their own personal gain. The striking thing about Lansbury’s character, Mrs. John Yerkes Iselin, is the way she plays both sides of the street. As the ambitious wife of a lackluster politician (in an era when a woman could only aspire to be the power behind the throne), she has carefully molded her spouse into a populist, a chap whose amiable mediocrity is attractive to the common man. Then she plays the anti-Communism card: Soon Senator Iselin is grabbing headlines with sweeping McCarthy-esque allegations about the number of Reds in the State Department. Underneath it all, though, Mrs. Iselin is using covert Soviet tools to undermine an American presidential election. The fact that her own son, Sgt. Shaw, is to be the assassin is something she accepts with equanimity.

What drives Mrs. Iselin? Surely it’s the paranoiac streak that Condon mentions in his novel, combined with a perverse sexuality. The novel (though not the film) makes clear that Mrs. Iselin, as a girl, was in sexual thrall to her wealthy father. And a crucial moment in the story builds to the hint of an incestuous liaison with her son. But both Condon’s novel and Lansbury’s portrayal make clear that she’s a cunning leader, and a hugely dangerous one. Her leadership abilities make her turn to others even more powerful than herself to grab what she wants. It’s not hard at all to imagine her cozying up to a Vladimir Putin as a way to solidify her own power base.

More than one way to be duped. Obviously, the convoluted twists and turns of Condon’s story don’t match precisely with what’s going on in today’s Washington. Incest and sexual perversity don’t seem to be a major feature of the current administration, despite our president’s past boasts about “pussy grabs” and his bizarre suggestion that he’d like to date his eldest daughter.

In any case, The Manchurian Candidate, set during the Korean War, begins with an elaborate scheme to kidnap a US Army platoon and brainwash its members. Some of the film’s most vivid moments involve soldiers wholly convinced they’re at a meeting of a ladies’ garden club, when in fact they’re on stage at a Manchurian military hospital, being directed by their Chinese and Russian captors to kill their platoon-mates in cold blood. There’s little sense, thank goodness, that our current administration is made up of murderous stooges whose brains are addled (or, in Condon’s term, “dry-cleaned”) to this degree. Rather, the Trumpians who hold the reins of power seem to feel that they’re clear-eyed patriots mandated to shake up a moribund system by inventing rules of conduct as they go along. In their own minds, they’re independent thinkers. Still, it’s entirely possible they can be tripped up or compromised by forces much too subtle to reveal their true intentions. After all, there’s more than one way to be duped—or to dupe oneself.

The original film version of The Manchurian Candidate, scripted by George Axelrod and directed by John Frankenheimer, starred Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey along with Lansbury, who was considered a supporting player. Released on October 24, 1962, The Manchurian Candidate was soon widely discussed by movie fans, even if it did not generate big ticket sales. (Producer Howard W. Koch has revealed that distributor United Artists “didn’t know what the hell to do with it. The word-of-mouth was good but unfortunately not strong enough … That picture took 15 years to get into profit!”) By spring of 1963, The Manchurian Candidate was racking up significant awards attention, culminating in Oscar nominations for film editing and for Lansbury’s performance.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 sparked the erroneous rumor that the film was removed from circulation by Sinatra because it had helped inspire Lee Harvey Oswald to target the president. (According to John Loken in his 2000 study, Oswald’s Trigger Films, it’s likely that Oswald saw the movie during its two-month Dallas run in 1962, but there’s no concrete evidence to verify this point.) The so-called suppression of The Manchurian Candidate in the United States after Kennedy’s death is wholly untrue, but the film was indeed banned in many Iron Curtain countries, not to be made available for public viewing until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993. In 2004, Jonathan Demme directed an updated Manchurian Candidate, with the brainwashing episode set during the Persian Gulf War and a US corporation called “Manchuria Global” replacing the Soviet Union as the force behind the conspiracy. Meryl Streep took on Angela Lansbury’s role as the devious mother-figure, but this new version created little discussion. To a large extent, it lacked the contemporary urgency that made the original feel so vital. After all, in the early days of the new millennium there seemed to be no world power fully capable of subverting the American system. Since then, how far we’ve come.

Although The Manchurian Candidate is by no means an exact prediction of what is happening today, book and film are starting to look extremely prescient. In the course of the story, the mechanism used to control the actions of the brainwashed Sgt. Shaw is the Queen of Diamonds in an ordinary deck of playing cards. Whenever Shaw (Laurence Harvey in the film) threatens to exert his own independence, a voice on the phone suggests that he pass the time with a little game of Solitaire. As soon as he turns up the Queen, he’s under the thumb of whomever issues a firm command. Right now the Queen of Diamonds seems to be running rampant in Washington, DC. And basic democratic principles are being trumped by the man with the loudest voice.

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