The Manchurian Candidate and the Gender of the Cold War

By Jackson, Tony | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Manchurian Candidate and the Gender of the Cold War


Jackson, Tony, Literature/Film Quarterly


The Manchurian Candidate ( 1962) is one of the greatest of US Cold War films but has been discussed surprisingly little. Of the discussions we do have, perhaps the best have been provided by three fine Cold War scholars-Michael Paul Rogin, Stephen Whitfield, and Margot Henriksen-in their various books on US Cold War culture (Rogin 252-254, Whitfield 211-213, Henriksen 264-268). 1 Rogin and Whitfield both relate the film to one of the most revealing of Cold War psychocultural necessities: the requirement that no normal American citizen be shown "going over" to Communism because of actual social conditions in the US. In other words, no normal person could be shown making a dispassionate and informed comparison of the two systems-capitalism and communism=and then deciding to take up with communism because it possibly offered the more just organization of society. There always had to be some other explanation for failure of this kind. So, as Stephen Whitfield writes, "the appeal of Communism could not be attributed to larger social conditions" (138). Given this ideological necessity, any successful appeal of Communism had to arise from some abnormality in the individual involved, which is to say it "had to be psychologized" (Whitfield 138). In a similar vein, Rogin, in his look at communism and motherhood in Cold War films, writes that "[p]sychological explanations for Communism" actually served the further ideological purpose of "divert[ing] attention from social injustice" (Rogin 252). The necessity to psychologize any Communist successes inevitably, especially in the post-Freudian, post-Dr. Spock era, focused on the family as the source of failure. And since the culture was patriarchal and the Cold War itself a most thoroughly masculine affair, the anxious cultural imagination regularly specified the source of failure in the family as "the loving mother" and her relationship to her son (Rogin 252). All this was of course quite ironic, as both Rogin and Whitfield show. It was a cultural given, an essential part of the nation's sense of itself, that precisely "the American family would triumph over Communism" (Rogin 253). Rogin and Whitfield both interpret The Manchurian Candidate in light of these basic premises.

Both scholars make an illuminating comparison between The Manchurian Candidate and a much earlier Cold War film of family failure, My Son John (1952). Rogin finds the later film to be much more sophisticated ("the most sophisticated film of the Cold War" [252]) and to have made the family relations of the earlier film "demonologically explicit." But Rogin tends to be overly ideological in his turn, and so sloughs off The Manchurian Candidate's strong anti-right-wing message in order to claim that the film sets out to "reawaken a lethargic nation to the Communist menace" (252). To Whitfield, however, Rogin's interpretation is "dubious" (212). Where My Son John was straight-ahead Cold War ideology, The Manchurian Candidate registers "a change in the temperature of the Cold War" (Whitfield 211). The country has learned from McCarthyism, for "the film is unsparing in its demonstration that, while Communism is fiendish and still dangerous, the far right is hypocritical and foolish" (213). Henriksen, who argues the film is a black-humor "expose of the brainwashed Cold War mentality" in the US, tends to agree with Whitfield about the film as a whole. She concludes that in "the end the film collapsed all distinctions between anticommunism and communism: both systems emerged as examples of political repression" (268). She, too, discusses both sex and politics, but focuses on the satiric qualities of the film, concluding that The Manchurian Candidate "comedically exploded the easy myths and bizarre sexuality" of earlier, more conventional representations of the family in the Cold War (268). So all three critics are aware of the film's mix of family sexual dynamics with cold-war political ideology. Despite the insights of these readings, though, I would argue that all three writers only begin to unearth the significance of sexuality in this film, in part because none of them really go into the film in enough detail to reveal its complexities.

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