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Brainwashing Just Ain’t What It Used to Be: From The Manchurian Candidate (1959, 1962) to The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

by Massimo Introvigne

imgThe 1959 book and 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate largely defined brainwashing for a large segment of the international public. The 2004 movie The Manchurian Candidate, directed by Jonathan Demme, will probably not have the same impact as far as brainwashing controversies are concerned. Let’s review how it all started.
There are interesting stories concerning Richard Thomas Condon (1915-1996), the author of The Manchurian Candidate (the novel), published in 1959.[1] The book has frequently been hailed as a disquieting literary foreshadowing of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s (1917-1963) assassination. The author reports so faithfully the so called CIA brainwashing theory, devised by the American intelligent as a weapon of anti-communist propaganda during the Cold War (and later applied to “cults”), that some were led to believe that he was somehow «instructed» by the Agency. When, years later, Condon had a second success with the Prizzi cycle (starting with Prizzi’s Honor, 1982), he was suspected of having contacts with both the Mafia and the police. He was nevertheless a leftist, and his book is also a biting satire of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957) and his «witch hunt» against Communist sympathizers in the Administration.
In the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate directed by John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) and based on the novel, the protagonist, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (interpreted by Laurence Harvey, 1928-1973), and his unit under the command of Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra, 1915-1998) are captured by the Koreans. A Korean interpreter betrays them. Shaw is taken to a tent where the sinister Dr. Yen Lo drugs the whole American patrol unit and subjects them to hypnosis. He then organizes a demonstration of his results before Soviet KGB top men. In the scene, Dr. Yen Lo’s opening speech brilliantly recaps the ideas on brainwashing that the CIA had helped disseminate. The Korean doctor reconstructs the development of brainwashing from its alleged beginnings with Russian psychologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1939) through the American scientists who continued his work. Strangely, Yen Lo also quotes from Seduction of the Innocent,[2] a well-known writing by the American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (1895-1981) as proof that brainwashing is indeed possible and is being applied on a vast scale in the U.S.A. through comic books that depict violent action and horror stories. According to the Wertham, these books induce a sort of «negative conditioning» in America’s youth (Wertham’s book and his testimony before Congress led to the signing in 1954 of the Comics Code that included a ban on representing horror themes and characters such as vampires, werewolves and serial killers in English-language comic books-up to then very popular). Echoing the standard CIA brainwashing theory (and going further, since in the novel physical pain is not mandatory and drugs are used only briefly in the initial stage), Yen Lo stated: «I am sure that all of you have heard that old wives’ tale […] which is concerned with the belief that no hypnotized subject may be forced to do that which is repellent to his moral nature, whatever that is, or to his own best interests. That is nonsense, of course.»[3] On the contrary, according to Yen Lo, given sufficiently advanced techniques, hypnosis could create criminals. En passant, Yen Lo pays homage to the psychoanalytic theories that see Western bourgeois education as playing a role in facilitating brainwashing.
The Korean doctor chooses Raymond Shaw because he is dominated by «resentment»: he hates his mother for deserting his father (who went on to commit suicide) and marrying Johnny Iselin, a corrupt senator (who reminds us of McCarthy) that she controls totally. However, even though Raymond is the best candidate because of his feelings of resentment, Yen Lo’s brainwashing is successful on everyone. Actually, even though during Yen Lo’s demonstration Raymond is persuaded to strangle a fellow soldier and shoot another for the sole purpose of demonstrating the effectiveness of brainwashing, the whole troop is emptied of memories and urged to believe that Raymond performed extraordinary acts of heroism to save them (except, of course, for the two men he killed) from overwhelming enemy forces. It is important to note that the American soldiers are neither beaten nor mistreated: after a brief introductory phase in which they are drugged, they are hypnotized three times a day by means of a «deep mental massage.»[4] The whole process is accomplished quickly: captured on the night of July 8, 1951, they are freed and left to be picked up by American forces in the afternoon of July 12, 1951. From that moment on, the members of Raymond’s patrol, now brainwashed by Yen Lo, believe that Raymond was the hero who saved them. For this deed, Raymond receives the Medal of Honor from the President’s hands in a Washington ceremony.
Raymond is also manipulated by his insidious mother (played by Angela Lansbury, who was later to interpret the successful television series Murder, She Wrote) who wants to further her husband’s political aims. But Yen Lo has set more ambitious and dangerous goals for Raymond. Every time a Soviet-paid American «operative» invites him to pick up a deck of cards for a solitaire, Raymond reacts immediately as a result of his post-hypnotic state (which is permanent and irreversible): as soon as he sees the Queen of Diamonds he again falls into a hypnotic trance, ready to follow murderous instructions and then immediately forget his misdeeds.[5] In this way, through the mysterious American «operative» (who remains in the shadows), the Soviet KGB instructs Raymond to commit several murders.
In the end though, things do not work out for the Soviets. While working as a successful reporter, Raymond meets his former commander, Major (later Colonel) Ben Marco on whom brainwashing (in keeping with a Sinatra role) had devastating effects. With assistance from the FBI, military counter-espionage and the CIA, Marco reconstructs the true sequence of events. Now that they know the truth, even the best American experts cannot overturn Yen Lo’s brainwashing effects: they are irreversible. Nor do they know all the details of the Communist plan, since they are unaware of a major element (the reader discovers it only in the last pages): the Soviet-paid «operative» is none other than Raymond’s mother. Her ultimate goal is to have Senator Iselin, her corrupt husband, win the vice-presidential nomination, then have Raymond murder the presidential candidate thus ushering Iselin into the White House.
To tell the truth, the diabolical Mrs. Iselin also plans to trick the Russians once she is installed as First Lady. The KGB, however, has factored this possibility into the equation. The plot precipitates when Raymond's mother instructs him to murder the father of the girl he is in love with (who had married a liberal senator hostile to Iselin). Caught by the girl’s mother, he kills her also. Thanks to the successful brainwashing, he forgets the murders. Marco, however, tells him the truth, throwing Raymond in a state of utter despair. Nevertheless, using the solitaire and the Queen of Diamonds trick, Raymond’s mother instructs him to ambush and kill the presidential candidate during the party convention. Marco, however, has understood the mechanics of the plot, and tries to thwart it. In the end Raymond, an excellent sharpshooter, fires on the convention stage, but instead of targeting the presidential nominee he kills his stepfather and his mother. Then, following Marco’s orders (who has substituted himself to the Communists), he shoots again, killing himself. «No electric chair for a Medal of Honor Man,» are Marco’s final words,[6] apparently convinced that a defense based on brainwashing would not have saved Raymond from an American jury trial.
While Frankenheimer’s movie was substantially true to the novel, this is not the case for the 2004 production. It is a corrupted transnational corporation called Manchurian, rather than the Russians, that conducts secret brainwashing experiments during the first Gulf War. And Raymond’s mother (Meryl Streep, made to strikingly resemble Hillary Clinton) gives them his son Raymond (Live Schreider) to be brainwashed in order to become vice-president. In the process, Raymond kills both his former girlfriend and her senator father (rather than her mother, as in the novel). And it is Marco (Denzel Washington) who is supposed by the villains to have been brainwashed enough to kill the newly elected president (thus leading vice-president Raymond to the White House), but fools the plot and instead kills Raymond and his mother, while they are dancing at the victory party.
What is important for brainwashing controversies is the high-tech dimension of the plot. X-Files style implants of microchips (but one is also remembered of Spike’s chip in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) rather than mere hypnosis do the trick. And when Marco removes the chips, he is free. Unless somebody can prove that “cults” implant microchips in the brain or under the skins of their members, this latter-day version of The Manchurian Candidate would not be easily applicable to them.

[1] See Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate, McGraw-Hill, New York 1959.

[2] See Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, Rinehart & Co., New York - Toronto 1954.

[3] R. Condon, op. cit., p. 40. The hypnotic coercion theory rejected by Yen Lo reappears, in a humoristic key, in Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), a film that deals precisely with this topic.

[4] R. Condon, op. cit., p. 34.

[5] A variant on this subject is explored in Walter Wager's Telefon (Macmillan, New York 1975), the other famous novel on Communist brainwashing from which the 1977 film with the same title was made, starring Donald Pleasance e Charles Bronson. In it, the Soviets program «sleeper agents» who are activated by a telephone call (in which they listen to a poem) to immediately become criminals in the United States and then commit suicide.

[6] R. Condon, op. cit., p. 311. Frankenheimer's film here differs slightly from the novel.

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