Whether or not MKULTRA — the CIA’s mind control program that was shut down in the late 1960s and later revived as “enhanced interrogation” by the Bush administration after 9/11 – was developed as a response to the “brainwashing” of American prisoners of war in North Korea is largely an academic debate. Torture and mind control are as old as the Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition. How and when Americans found out their government used drugs, sleep deprivation, electric shock, hypnosis and solitary confinement on unwilling and often unwitting subjects is another, and more interesting question. My guess is that few Americans have heard about MKULTRA. That’s no accident. Richard Helms, the Director of the CIA, had most of the records destroyed in 1973. We know about the tip of the iceberg. We fill in the gaps through fiction, speculation, and conspiracy theory.
The Manchurian Candidate is clever right-wing propaganda with an even more clever surprise ending that appears to flip the script over to the left. It is also – whether or not its director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod were working for the CIA – a controlled dump of information about MKULTRA. By 1975, when the Church Committee launched its investigation, and began to uncover some of the truth about the “deep state.” most Americans had already been conditioned to associate “brainwashing” with Communist China. Having been written as “sophisticated” Cold War Propaganda, parts of The Manchuria Candidate have aged badly. You can drive a truck through some of the plot holes and gaps in logic. The Chinese and Russian villains are so over the top they work mainly as high camp. Nevertheless, in 2016, after the Republican Party has thrown up twisted, pathetic, and flat out weird candidates like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, The Manchurian Candidate now reads like an acid, and dead on satire of the far right.
The Manchurian Candidate opens in Korea at the end of the Korean War. Major Bennett Marco, Frank Sinatra, and Sergeant Raymond Shaw, Laurence Harvey, are leading a patrol that is betrayed by their translator Chunjin and captured by the Communist Chinese. In the next scene, Raymond Shaw is getting off a plane in the United States where we learn that he’s not only a member of a prominent right-wing Republican family but that he’s been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. What happened? Did Shaw, Marco and their patrol manage to escape the Chinese? We will have to wait to find out. First we get to meet Raymond Shaw’s mother, “Mrs. Iselin,” a domineering political matriarch in the style of Barbara Bush, and his stepfather, Senator Johnny Iselin, a red-baiting buffoon who’s so clearly meant to evoke Joseph McCarthy they should have just called him Joseph McCarthy. For anyone watching the Manchurian Candidate in 2016, Raymond Shaw will immediately evoke a combination of Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio. That the tall Anglo Lithuanian actor Laurence Harvey has nothing even remotely resembling an American accent is never remarked upon, but it’s quite appropriate for his character. There’s something foreign and downright weird about Raymond Shaw. A 6’4” boy man with a cold, almost robotic manner, falls into a lump of ineffectual jelly at the sound of his mother’s voice. Even before he had been captured by the Communist Chinese and reprogrammed into an easily manipulated puppet, almost everybody he knew thought he was a young man without much of a soul or a personality.
While we already have our suspicions about what the Communists have planned for Raymond Shaw – a psychologically disturbed son of a United States Senator was obviously a valuable prize for his Chinese captors – we only find out what went on in North Korea, then Manchuria, when the film switches over to Bennett Marco. Marco, a career army office played by Frank Sinatra, and a far more human, down to earth character than Shaw, has been having nightmares. Marco’s nightmares become our window into the CIA’s MKULTRA program. To be honest, Marco’s dream almost tempts me to go the full Alex Jones route and imagine some kind of government conspiracy behind the making of the film itself. Not only are are clearly witnessing a fictionalized dramatization of a MKULTRA brainwashing session, but if The Manchurian Candidate is in fact a CIA production to gradually — frog in slowly boiling water style — accustom us to the idea of government torture and brainwashing, the script almost seems to be letting us in on the joke. Raymond Shaw and Bennett Marco are brainwashed by a group of Chinese and Russian communists but that’s not the way they remember it. While we the film’s viewers see see a Russian officer named Berezovo and a Chinese scientist named Dr. Yen Lo, Marco and Shaw imagine a group of old woman in New Jersey, a ladies home and garden club. We know that Marco and Shaw are having an illusion, but what if the film is playing a joke on us. What if it’s convinced us that we’re watching cartoonish Chinese and Russian villains instead of the kind of WASP preppies who founded the CIA? It’s something to think about, and it would be downright unimaginative to watch The Manchurian Candidate without at least considering how it might be just another level of a consciously manipulated hallucination.
In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate was startlingly new, the template for the paranoid conspiracy film genre that would reach its height in the 1970s with movies like The Parallax View. In 2016 the whole concept feels played out. Why Jonathan Demme decided to do a remake is anybody’s guess. I won’t “spoil” the movie by telling you who Raymond Shaw’s “American Handler” is. I’m sure you’ll see it coming from a mile away anyway, but watch the movie not only for its surreal, revealing dream sequences, but also for its two great villains, and for their ability to enslave the mind of the upper-class American boy man. They are the heart and soul of a film that sees deeply into the rot of the American political system.