This July, Establishing Shot presents It’s Revived!, a miniseries celebrating some of our favorite (or at least some of the more fascinating) movie remakes out there in anticipation of IU Cinema’s fall film series Re:Made. Today, Noni Ford compares John Frankenheimer and Jonathan Demme’s adaptations of a chilling political thriller that brilliantly investigates the atrocities of war, capitalism, and much more.
When I initially set out to watch the 1962 and 2004 versions of The Manchurian Candidate, a political thriller about mind control and subterfuge, I had a few hypotheses. My first was that the 2004 version would of course show or contain highly elaborate technological aspects enabling mind control, and my second was that the films would be somewhat patriotic but in different ways. I would say that I hit the nail on the head with my first assertion, but the ways in which patriotism and the government were showcased in both were depictions I hadn’t foreseen. On its face, this story is about espionage and American politics, but the political sphere of the 1960s was so drastically different from the post-9/11 world of 2004 that it would have been almost impossible to truly create a shot-for-shot remake of the earlier film that would have been believable. While the films have contrasting ways of tackling novelist Richard Condon’s source material there are some overarching themes/ideas that are key components of the story.
Authority, both assumed and concrete, is shown in various forms throughout the films. Military authority and chain of command are the first that we see as both films contain an initial scene in an active warzone; then we see the inner workings of the government and politics as we begin to unravel the true story of what happened to an army unit; and finally, we see the power shifts and control within a family. This authority has the capacity at times to crush and uplift the main characters of our story, Major Ben Marco and Sergeant Raymond Shaw. As Marco, once trusted and followed by his squadron in war, becomes powerless against the governmental agencies that eventually push him out of its ranks, Shaw uses his new image as a hero to forge his own path and try to begin a new life separate from that of his devious mother’s. Of course, a common thread that cannot be ignored in this story is the control and authority that the cabal of foreign powers and nefarious corporations have over both of our main characters: the brainwashing Shaw and Marco have endured forces them to complete any command given once a trigger word or symbol is presented.
The scariest part of the story could easily be the idea that this technology has turned these soldiers into robots and trained weapons, but I think the final reveal is more horrifying: Raymond’s mother Eleanor is in league with the people who brainwashed her son and his platoon, and she is the one directing him to carry out assassinations. In both film versions, Eleanor is a domineering figure from her very first scene to her last. She sets up situations so that her family and her son can get as much press as possible and every move she makes is due to her political agenda. In the 1962 John Frankenheimer film, she is a married woman who is the power behind her second husband, an obnoxiously anti-communist senator who is on the rise. She deftly gives him notes and talking points and he blindly leads her, without even a moment of hesitation. Meanwhile, she uses Raymond’s status as a Medal of Honor war hero to boost the family’s political status. In the 2004 Jonathan Demme film, Eleanor is a senator herself who uses strongarm tactics to get her son picked as a vice presidential nominee.
The relationship between mother and son is toxic, and while it seems that her complicity in the plans to topple the political system helps her amplify her son’s status in society, the power she grants him still ultimately comes back to her. It becomes clear quite early on that she doesn’t see Raymond as his own person, but rather just another reflection of herself. In Frankenheimer’s version, she is viperous and jealous of Raymond’s true love, Jocelyn, and she manipulates him to keep them apart. In some part this jealousy seems to be because she can feel his reliance on her slipping away when he falls in love with Jocelyn; a different perspective could be that she is angry about the fact that she didn’t choose Jocelyn for him and so his love for her shows he’s learning to think more on his own. I saw Eleanor as also jealous of Raymond because she would’ve liked to be him, to wield the power he had as a man and a decorated soldier. Demme’s version leans more towards an incestuously emotional connection between the two; in his film she hasn’t remarried so there’s more emphasis on the way she replaces her husband with her son. There’s also a scene where, as Eleanor is triggering Raymond’s brainwashed mind, she kisses him and then hesitates before almost kissing him a second time. The look that passes on her face would make any viewer uneasy; she doesn’t seem to have any boundaries with her son and after she orders him to kill a political rival and his long-lost love, she makes him wholly emotionally dependent on her.
The character of Raymond Shaw is the linchpin of the entire story. The fact that he is such an introverted and ineffectual person in his private life makes both films more interesting. While his mother is terrible to him and we see him browbeaten throughout their interactions, he always seems to go along with her directives. Even though he is entirely in love with Jocelyn, he allows his mother to ruin their relationship. The Raymond of Demme’s film is much more driven, though, than Frankenheimer’s: he seems to enjoy politics, and while he later laments his position in life, he does little to change the trajectory of it. The brainwashing he undergoes is relatively new when we meet him after the war, but in one way or another he has been conditioned his whole life to appeal to his mother’s whims. At times he is very unlikable, particularly contrasted against Ben Marco, who while rash is doing all he can to save America. Marco more classically fits in the mold of a hero and Shaw into that of a victim. Shaw is uncomfortable with his status as a Medal of Honor awardee, and it is later revealed that the decision to give him one was part of the villains’ plans to give him credence as an honorable man on his return to America. He lives through most of the film not really feeling that he deserves it, but by the denouement he more than earns it as he finally goes against his mother and saves the political future of America.
Both filmmakers of The Manchurian Candidate address the treatment and understanding of PTSD and the effects of war on soldiers. The inciting incident that allows Marco to begin to dig deeper into what happened to him and his men is recurring dreams that frighten him to his core. Another member of the regiment also experiences these nightmares and tries to contact Shaw to share his recollection of the dream’s events. The soldier is disregarded and in Demme’s film this leads him to spiral before eventually committing suicide. Marco initially disbelieves him as well and offers him psychological help, clearly thinking he’s become undone. Once Marco himself starts having problems coping with the dreams, Demme and Frankenheimer show the way pills are pushed on him as the army ignores his pleas to look into his story. Demme goes a step further with Marco repeatedly discounted due to his past psychological traumas. His mental health is used as a tool to make his statements illegitimate, and people begin to distance themselves from him. When he tries to get ahold of several of the soldiers he led, he finds out that nearly all of them are dead, which raises a red flag for no one besides him.
The circumstances of the film are of course extraordinary but hidden behind the more dramatic elements is another message about how we treat soldiers who return from war. Raymond may look like the classic, upstanding soldier who came back with a medal and ambitions, but he himself feels a sense of emptiness in everything. Marco is put into several auxiliary governmental roles providing security; on the outside it looks like he’s right where he belongs, but he’s struggling to find his place in the world after combat. Throw out the brainwashing plot and so much of this story is about the difficulty of transitioning back to civilian life. In Demme’s version, Marco travels with the FBI to the island where he was initially brainwashed and, while they look among the wreckage, he puts remnants of his time in the army into the sea. Standing by the water, remembering the script the doctor who brainwashed them had rehearsed with him, he delivers the line, “There’s always casualties in war, sir.” Not all of his men died here, but they are as much a casualty of the war as the men who died in active combat. In the end they were all pawns, all weapons that were useful until they weren’t. The story may have its revisions — for example, the change from communist leaders to corporate American businessmen — but this part remains true across time. No one knows who they will come back as after war.
The 1962 adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate was previously screened at IU Cinema in 2011.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories.