The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Rated R Our content rating: V-5; L-3; S/N-2.

The wicked plots against the righteous,
and gnashes his teeth at him;
but the LORD laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.
The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows,
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those who walk uprightly;
their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.
Psalm 37:12-15

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

For a remake, especially showing during this electioneering season, Jonathan Demme’s film is pretty good. It has been so long since I saw the original, that I was delighted to find that our local library just bought the original, recently reissued on VHS tape. One of the pleasures of watching and comparing a good remake—and this one is—with the original is to see how each film reflects its different time (as I did in the July 2000 issue in comparing the excellent cable film Nuremburg with the much older Judgment at Nuremburg—although the former was not a remake, it covered similar ground.)

The three script writers, George Axelrod, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, have updated the original, which was based on the novel by Richard Condon. The time and location have been changed from the 1950 Korean War to Kuwait during the early 1990s Gulf War. How to work Manchuria into the film, the fimmakers not wanting to give up the familiar title with its built-in advantage of public recognition? Make the name of the new villainous threat, a global conglomerate, Manchurian Global. Thus in today’s brave new world the threat to democratic freedom from big business replaces that of the Communist Soviet Union, Red China and North Korea in the early 1960s.

The film opens with Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), an Army major, giving a speech eulogizing a man once under his command, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). During the Gulf War Shaw, Marco tells his audience of high school students, had saved his squad from death at great peril to himself, thus winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. At night, however, Marco seems to remember a different story in his nightmares, one involving a very panicky Shaw and captivity on an island where the soldiers had been subjected to a strange experiment. When Raymond Shaw emerges on the national political scene, capitalizing on his Medal of Honor in a campaign to win the nomination for Vice President, Marco begins to try to find out what really happened years earlier.

The Major had rebuffed an earlier attempt of a fellow soldier to talk with him, that now unkempt veteran reporting a dream very similar to Marco’s. Marco then had discovered an implant in his own body, but before he could get an electronic wizard friend to examine it, he had lost it down the drain when Rosie (Kimberly Elise), a woman whom he had recently met, had knocked on the door of the bathroom. Marco manages to visit with candidate Shaw, but the latter denies having any dreams about their combat experience. When Marco attacks him, the security men rush in and pull the two apart, but Marc, by biting Shaw’s back, manages to extract a tiny implant similar to his lost one. Now regarded by his superiors as a dangerous loose canon, Marco is relieved of duty and ordered to stay away from Shaw. When he tries to contact the veteran who had come to him earlier, Marco finds that he has died mysteriously.

There is more, much more, to the plot—a not so subtle insinuation of incest between Shaw and his mother Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep, a real scene stealer in her scenes!). Note here the difference in the times of the two versions—in 1962 Eleanor, played by Angela Lansbury, is the wife of a U.S. Senator, but in obvious control of the man who is stepfather to her boy. Also, in the earlier version, Shaw fights far more against his mother than the mamma’s boy does in the current film—and his mother’s last, lingering full mouth kiss was far more shocking than today’s. Raymond Shaw is again attracted to Jocelyn Jordan (Vera Farmiga), a former flame warded off by his mother, and she is still the daughter of the liberal Senator Jordan (Jon Voight)—the result of their relationship is the same, though the means is different. The current version is not nearly so chilling as the original, but it still works as a conspiracy thriller—and raises some issues worth discussing.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) How do you feel after watching this film? Toward politics? Toward Big Business?

2) What do you think of the filmmaker’s replacing as villain the Red Menace with a global corporation? In the light of happenings at Enron and Halliburton, does this seem fair, or unfair?

3) What are some other films in which a corporation (or its leader) is depicted as the villain? See I, Robot and Network. In the case of the latter, play the famous boardroom scene in which Robert Duvall’s CEO lays down the law and explains to the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” the realities of global corporations and governments.

4) How is Marco, as well as Shaw, tainted by what happened in Kuwait? What do you think Marco means when he pleads with Shaw, telling him that “there’s a part deep inside of us that they can’t get”? What might this be—and do you believe it?

5) How is the Psalmist’s assertion concerning the fate of the wicked borne out in the film?

6) What meaning do you see in Marco’s last act? What meaning does water have for Christians, and do you think it applies here? (For further comparisons and reflection, read the review of the original film below.)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Not Rated Our content rating: V-3; L-1; S/N-2.

For over 25 years John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller/satire was the most talked about film that could no longer be seen, even after the advent of video films. The beloved film of conspiracy theorists, who tied it in with the Kennedy assassination, added a new term to the vocabulary—a “Manchurian candidate” being a brain-washed person programmed to be an assassin. The film created a stir almost equal to that of 1962 when it finally was released on video in the late 1980s, then faded again into the background, and becoming “out of release” until it’s current re-issue in both VHS and DVD. Both forms include a conversation among star Frank Sinatra, director John Frankenheimer and scriptwriter George Axelrod. None of them dispel the myths that the long period when the film was unavailable was due to forces preventing its distribution because of its theory of political manipulation by a brainwashed assassin, or that star Sinatra who owned a large portion of the film, was remorseful because so many viewers linked it to President Kennedy’s killer. The real reason is less romantic or intriguing: it was due to Frank Sinatra’s dispute with the studio over its “creative bookkeeping” that claimed the film had not made a profit, despite its popularity.

The plot of the Jonathan Demme version follows John Frankenheimer’s film fairly closely, except for the scenes depicting what happened to the then Capt. Marco, Sgt. Shaw, and their hapless men. The original is far more adroitly staged, with the brainwashed Americans depicted as attending a suburban garden club at which a pompous matron is expounding upon the care and feeding of a particular flower—thus they have been hypnotized into believing. The camera cuts back and forth, the woman and other attendees becoming respectively a harsh Communist Commissar and then high-ranking Korean and Chinese officers. The dialogue switches back and forth between the worlds of horticulture and Communist ideology, the Commissar explaining his brainwashing technique to the assembled Party leaders. When his brainwashing claim is challenged, he orders Shaw kill two of their fellow soldiers, the hypnotized man cold-bloodedly complying.

Back in the U.S. Marco, played by Frank Sinatra, has his nightmares, while Shaw, portrayed by Laurence Harvey, quarrels frequently with the father-in-law and mother whom he despises. Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory) is modeled after the anti-Communist witch hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy. Filmmaker Frankenheimer loathed McCarthy and the infamous blacklist which had destroyed or disrupted the careers of so many in Hollywood. He shows Sen. Iselin declare numerous times, as McCarthy did, that there are known Communists in the State Department, each time the number being different. When the press tries to pin him down, he pleads with his wife to come up with a creditable figure, and then decides himself. They are eating together, and, gauchely pouring Heinz ketchup on his gourmet steak, he decides upon “57, after “Heniz’s 57 Varieties” ad slogan.

Iselin is opposed by the liberal Sen. Thomas Jordan (John McGiver), who sees Iselin’s phoney anti-Communist campaign as a threat to democracy. Jordan’s daughter Jocie (Leslie Parrish) had been in love with Raymond Shaw, but their romance was broken up by his jealous mother, who claimed she was not good enough for him.

Orders to kill the successful Presidential candidate have been embedded deeply into Shaw’s mind. The trigger to act upon is the appearance of the Queen of Hearts in the deck of cards which Shaw often takes out to while away the time in a game of Solitairre. The elaborate assassination plan moves into high gear when the persuasive Eleanor maneuvers behind the scenes of the republican National Convention to have her husband nominated as Vice President.

In the picture also is Rosie, played by Janet Leigh, who is attracted to the strange acting Marco when she meets him on a train. In his review of the original critic Roger Ebert suggests that Rosie might not have been just an innocent character drawn to Marco. Get the tape and play the surreal scene of their train meeting in which, after Marco is unable to light a cigarette because of his shaking hand, Rosie joins him on the platform between cars, lights his cigarette, and says, “Maryland’s a beautiful state.” “This is Delaware,” Sinatra replies, “I know,” she responds, “ I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.” What the heck is this about, and why does she break off her engagement to another man even before she goes out on a date with Marco?

Roger Ebert’s suggestion that Rosie also might be involved in the assassination plot, perhaps as Marco’s handler, is intriguing, borne out by some other strange things she says. If so, this was either not developed further, or it was deleted in the final editing to keep the length as close to two hours as possible (the film is 126 minutes, a bit long for those times). I wish that in the conversation among three of the principals of the film (Sinatra, Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod), included in both the DVD and the new VHS versions, that one of them had commented upon Rosie and her role.

Acclaimed by such critics as Pauline Kael as the greatest political satire ever made in Hollywood, The Manchurian Candidate in its original form is as chilling and intriguing as ever. Exerting an enormous influence upon the conspiracy theorists who study the Kennedy Assasination as providing an explanation for why such a non-entity as Lee Harvey Oswald had the means and motive to kill the President, the film makes us who are not convinced of such speculation nonetheless wary of accepting the words and actions of politicians at their face value. Viewed simply as a thriller the film is equally satisfying, the climatic scene at the Convention in which Shaw prepares to carry out his order being as suspenseful as they come. If you go to the remake, you owe it to yourself to watch the original as well.