The Cold War was a time of heightened fear in the United States because there was the looming threat of a Communist takeover. People lived in a constant state of paranoia because anyone could have been a Communist, from their neighbor to their doctor, no one knew. One of the ways Americans believed Communism made its way into the United States was through brainwashing. The concept of brainwashing threatened the idea that each individual American has agency and is making decisions under his own control. At its root, brainwashing took away a right that Americans prided themselves on, liberty.
The Manchurian Candidate is a political thriller released during the height of the Cold War. The film follows Korean War veteran who returns to the United States as a brainwashed political assassin for the Communist Party and his commander who attempts to figure out the conspiracy surrounding him. The Manchurian Candidate illustrates how brainwashing snatches the agency of its victims through its depictions of soldiers that have been brainwashed. The robbery of agency begins with one of the first scenes in the film in which Captain Bennett Marco, who recently returned home Korea, is having a nightmare.
The scene begins with a pan across Bennett’s room showing books scattered across his room. Some of the books shown in his room have titles such as “Enemy of the State” and “The Trial”. The mise-en-scene shows that since his return home Marco has struggled to keep an organized lifestyle and is researching quite a bit in search of answers to something. The lack of organization indicates that Marco is having a hard time adjusting to a life where he is not brainwashed because he was so used to having his decisions made by his captors. The scene then pans to Marco, who is tossing side to side in bed, while shivering and sweating.
In the background there is a non-diegetic soundtrack being played which increases in intensity as the scene dissolves into Marco’s nightmare. The increase in intensity of the soundtrack is used to create suspense for the audience. Marco’s nightmare sequence begins as a 360 degree turn around a ladies’ garden club where Marco and his fellow soldiers, including Raymond Shaw, are also present. When the camera completes its 360 degree turn, there is now a bald Oriental man named Yen Lo in place of the woman in charge of the garden club meeting and the scene has now shifted from taking place in a garden club to what seems like a Communist meeting.
Throughout the scene, cuts are made to make it seem like at some points the nightmare occurs in a Communist meeting, while in others it takes place in a garden club. Yen Lo then calls Raymond to the center of the stage in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of his brainwashing methods. In her article, Susan Carruthers states, “The Chinese communists interest in indoctrination also helped to reinforce certain notions about totalitarianism, namely that its essence was remodeling of society from the inside out by taking inner control of each individual citizen,” (Carruthers 79).
Yen Lo is depicted as Oriental so his brainwashing methods focused on first shaping how his victims think and then using them to do his bidding. In fact, his Chinese and Russian captors used Pavlovian techniques in order to brainwash him. (Carruthers 77) The Pavlovian techniques are evident because Raymond is programmed to listen to Yen Lo after playing solitaire and seeing his trigger, the red queen. In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the brainwashing, Yen Lo instructs him to strangle Ed Mavole to death with a white scarf.
The camera pans across the room as other soldiers move out of the way, without any resistance, so that Raymond could make his way to Mavole. The other soldiers have lost their physical agency, illustrated by them moving when told to move, and they have lost their emotional agency because they feel no need to stop Raymond from killing one of their fellow soldiers. The camera zooms in as Raymond strangles Mavole and then quickly cuts to a reaction shot of Marco yawning. Marco’s reaction shows a loss of emotional agency because he finds the death of a fellow soldier to be boring, as compared to a “normal” reaction of shock, sadness, or anger.
The loss of agency due to brainwashing is most clearly illustrated when Raymond kills Mavole; Raymond does not express any sort of emotion while walking over or killing him, nor does he question why he is killing him. Marco’s nightmare sequence is a clear indicator of the power of brainwashing as it removes agency from a person and can make him commit terrible deeds. No longer does the individual person have agency over any part of their thought process. Marco is not the only member of his platoon to have nightmares as Al Melvin had been having similar dreams since returning from war.
Melvin’s dream sequence picks up where Marco’s left off with the murder of Mavole. In contrast to Marco’s scene, all the women in the garden club are elderly black women, but in both cases the cuts are made to shift between the garden club and the Communist meeting. Yen Lo continues his demonstration on the effectiveness of his brainwashing techniques by asking Marco to hand his pistol over to Raymond, which he does so without objection. The lack of dialogue between Raymond and Marco speaks volumes to how effective Yen Lo’s brainwashing methods are.
In a normal situation, there would be no chance that Marco would give his gun to Raymond after what he had just witnessed. This is not a normal situation for the reason that Marco has been brainwashed and the brainwashing has taken away his agency to think logically and to simply do what he is told to do. Yen Lo then instructs Raymond to shoot Bobby, the youngest member of the platoon, through the forehead. Once Yen Lo gives the instruction, a medium close-up reaction shot of Raymond is shown and he has a blank look on his face.
The brainwashing has removed any emotional attachment that Raymond had with Bobby and because of it, he feels no guilt in murdering an innocent looking kid. The camera then turns into a point of view angle of Raymond pointing the pistol at Bobby. It is interesting to note that Raymond’s hand is not shaking when holding the pistol, which shows he is not nervous about the treacherous act he is about to commit. Right before Raymond is about to shoot, a reaction shot of Bobby is shown and he is happy and smiling at Raymond. Bobby’s irrational reaction to a gun being pointed at him can only be explained as an effect of brainwashing.
The brainwashing seems to have convinced him that dying serves a purpose for Communism and he should be happy to die for such a noble cause. During the early 1950s, many Americans found it unthinkable to for any American to fall for Communist ideals or help the enemy unless subject to an unnatural force. (Carruthers 80) The unnatural force in The Manchurian Candidate is Yen Lo’s brainwashing methods which are so effective that they purge each soldier of their individual ability to make their own decisions. One of the final scenes in the film is Marco’s deprogramming of Raymond Shaw.
In the scene, Marco goes to confront Raymond and asks him to play solitaire with a deck full of red queens, knowing that the red queen is the trigger for brainwashing. Using the red queen Marco brainwashes Raymond about what happened when they were captured and everything he had done since returning to America. Throughout the interrogation process, close up shots of Raymond are shown to convey the effect of brainwashing. At the beginning of the interrogation Raymond, when he was still brainwashed, he has a blank look on his face, but by the end of the process Raymond is “deprogrammed” and he has a shocked expression on his face.
Raymond had lost his emotional agency for so long that once Marco deprogrammed him, he suddenly realized everything he had done while being brainwashed. Raymond sums up his experience while being brainwashed when he says, “They can make me do anything, Ben, can’t they? Anything. ” Due to his brainwashing by Communists, Raymond had lost all agency. He had no control over what he was thinking or what he was doing, and thus he could not resist the brainwashing. The idea of not being able to resist against the Communist influence was a very relevant idea during early 1950s.
In 1952 and 1953, twenty-one Americans refused repatriation to the United States after being prisoners of war. It seemed unusual that these soldiers decided to live in a “dreadfully impoverished country, supposedly out of preference for its way of life” instead of the United States, which had the highest standard of living of any country in the world. (Carruthers 80) Through Raymond’s actions and reactions once he was deprogrammed, it became very clear just how much the brainwashing took over his decision making.
The Manchurian Candidate brought to life the fear that many Americans had during the Cold War, especially during the early 1950s, that Communists could be anywhere and anyone. Through its depiction of soldiers while brainwashed, the film revealed how much agency brainwashing can take from a person. In the film, everyone from Captain Marco Bennett to the youngest soldier, Billy, fell for Yen Lo’s brainwashing methods. For this reason, Americans were right to fear a Communist takeover, due to brainwashing, because there is no person that is completely immune to brainwashing.