If Your Mommy Is A Commie, Turn Her In-Frank Sinatra’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962)- A Film Review
By Sam Lowell
The Manchurian Candidate, starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, 1962
There must be a certain irony that the film under review, the Cold War political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, was released right around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis a big moment in that Cold War which if a couple of factors had turned out differently could have led to a very hot war, very hot indeed. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed but as later evidence came out to the light when much of the information around that event was declassified there were more than enough anti-communist saber-rattlers in high governmental and military circles who were willing to go to the brink to stop the big red scare world-wide communist menace. That fact dovetails very nicely into the underlying plot of this film where both sides were trying for their own political reasons to undermine the other. No holds barred. Thus this film’s theme dovetailed with some very common anti-communist notions about “reds under the bed” and the headline caption about turning in even your mother if she was a red that we who came of age in the early 1960s took as gospel.
Some political thrillers, heck, some plain old ordinary thrillers like the late Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho have not lost their capacity shock even after fifty plus years and with knowledge of what was to come around the next scene. The Manchurian Candidate fits right into that well-crafted company. Here is how it played out. During the Korean War of the early 1950s, a period when the Cold War turned hot, conventional weapons hot, and a period when Cold War tensions after the Chinese Revolution had been at a high point, the Soviets had captured a platoon of American soldiers (and as it turned out not just any platoon) and taken them to an isolated spot in Manchuria, part of their then ally China. The purpose of the trip was to “brainwash” the bunch for a greater political purpose.
This platoon was led by Captain Marco (later Major), played by Frank Sinatra, and Sergeant Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey, who after their indoctrination were sent back to Korea. Part of the ruse upon their return entailed a fabricated story where Shaw had saved his platoon and thus was put in by Marco for a Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honor which he received to the usual Washington fanfare. Later back in the States though Marco started having nightmares about what happened under interrogation (two members of the platoon had been murdered by Shaw with no compunction as an exercise in the success of the brainwashing technique). So didn’t another member of the platoon, an enlisted man. Still the Army stonewalled Marco until both Marco and that enlisted man identified the same photos separately.
Then things started to heat up. Shaw, who in reality nobody in the platoon liked, had been worked on especially since his family were prominent right-wing yahoos yelling at the top of their lungs about commies coming out of the woodwork (a la the very real Senator Joseph McCarthy). This family also was positioned very well since Shaw’s step-father, Senator Iselin, was trying to ride the anti-communist wave into the White House. Pushed there by his lovely wife, Mrs. Iselin, played by Angela Lansbury in a very sinister role as it turned out. See somebody was using Shaw as assassin, carrying out murders along the way that would help position Senator Iselin toward the White House without putting the spotlight on what was going on, or why. The operative would use the Queen of Hearts as the trigger to get Shaw unconsciously to do that agent’s bidding.
This is what Major Marco was up against, had to neutralize, as he finally realized that Shaw was up to something nefarious even if he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. At various times he confronted Shaw until he was finally able have some effect on his behavior although that was a dicey thing. Dicey because the operative who was calling the tune was none other than Shaw’s mother who was using the right-wing yahoo guise as a cover for her own communist agency. The big play was for Shaw to, at the right-wing party’s convention, kill the presidential nominee once Mrs. Iselin had maneuvered her half-witted husband into the vice presidential nomination. Thus assuring that if Iselin became President the rotten commies would control that high office. Nice, right. Remember I said no holds barred. Funny thing in the end Shaw did what he had to do. Watch this film to see what he did, and did not do. Remember this though in those days when somebody spouted forth that if your Mommy was a commie you had better turn her in that was no laughing matter.