6th 02 - 2017 | 6 comments »

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Director: John Frankenheimer

Almost since the day it was released, The Manchurian Candidate has known an aura of perceptiveness bordering on the prophetic. This quality extends from its alarming anticipations of the spate of assassinations of high-profile American political figures in the 1960s, to the dogging accusations of conspiracy and corrupting influence of Russia behind Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, which sent political journalists scurrying to use the film’s title for an appropriate likeness. This, if nothing else, proved that The Manchurian Candidate remains a touchstone, in spite of the fact that John Frankenheimer’s fourth and greatest film is hardly a cool, analytical, realistic take on the exalted spheres of power and policy at the height of the Cold War. It is, rather, a wild, perverse, near-surreal study in personal and political horror, a look into a point in the modern psyche where all opposites blur together and evolve far faster than our ability to comprehend them. Perhaps, indeed, only such a film could really hope to encompass the schizoid extremes of the age. Cinematically and generically, the film is just as unique. The Manchurian Candidate plays out one level as straightforward and gripping tale, and indeed could well be the first truly modern political thriller, replete with the usual paraphernalia of the style–conspiracy by cabals within government, the lurking sniper, and the relentless, almost outmatched lone hero. Generations of such films, from Alan Pakula’s tense 1970s conspiracy dramas to the Bourne series, owe it something. But on another level, it’s a madcap fever dream that captures the tone of the most hysterical conspiracy theory, and on yet another, a bleak and epic revision of the Greek tragic mode for a malign epoch, one where the entities on high playing infinitely cruel games with people’s fates are no longer gods, but nations and ideologies, with the fixtures of identity that hold us to fate remaining unchanged.

Like many of his generation’s talents, Frankenheimer emerged not from the studio system or direct from the stage as before, but from television in the late 1950s, ranks that also included the likes of Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Franklin J. Schaffner, Martin Ritt, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer had learned how to deal with the straitened productions and how to put across the intimate, often socially conscious vicissitudes of early television drama. He gained particular credit for shooting a Rod Serling script for The Comedian, which established Frankenheimer’s interest in tales about difficult and obnoxious characters, whilst his first two films, The Young Stranger (1957) and The Young Savages (1961), both wore their civic ethics on their sleeves and boasted titles concerned with teen misfits whose resentments and short fuses put them at the mercy of hypocritical power or leave them stranded between communities and afflicted by alienation and troubled states of mind. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) was a portrait of dogged humanism persisting in a man totally removed, for good reason, from humanity. Such straightforward studies set Frankenheimer neatly amidst the likes of Mann and Ritt as a maker of solid, adult, if rather middlebrow dramas. But his third film, All Fall Down (1962), whilst still revolving around a young man’s attempts to make sense of the world and people around him, signalled a shift into more complex and pensive dramatic concerns, and also made him acquainted with the potential of Angela Lansbury, largely untapped in her time as an ingénue in Hollywood. With The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer was handed a doozy of a script by George Axelrod, adapted from Richard Condon’s novel, which took as its starting point an eerie and widespread legend thrown up in the early years of the Korean War that captured GIs and allied soldiers were being subjected to “brainwashing” techniques of intense indoctrination induced under stress to make them mouthpieces for propaganda. Condon’s concept went several steps further in proposing that some might well have been programmed as unwitting sleeper agents waiting to be pressed into some covert action.

The Manchurian Candidate’s antihero, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is glimpsed at the outset as a barking martinet, rounding up his unit for a night patrol to their sneering contempt and dutiful obedience, as he’s forcing them to abandon their off-duty boozing and whoring to go hump around enemy territory in the dark. But the squad, under the command of Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), is lured quickly into the hands of a waiting Communist outfit by their double-agent guide Chunjin (Henry Silva). The enemy leap out of the dark, successfully knock out the entire squad, and take them to waiting helicopters to be spirited away. The opening credits set the seal on this brief and creepy opening (in a way, not so coincidentally, reminiscent of the prologue commercial break as used in TV), and when the film recommences, Raymond is being met on his return home by saluting senior officers and wildly enthusiastic crowds celebrating his homecoming as a hero and Medal of Honor recipient. The return of Raymond and his fellow soldiers sees all apparently easily reabsorbed into everyday life. Even Raymond, who lives under the thumb of his archly political and vicious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Lansbury), uses his new status to get a job working for a political journalist, Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), and break out on his own. But a gruelling, terrifying, recurring dream begins to afflict the former squad members, including Marco and Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards), in which they remember their time in captivity. Russian and Chinese military leaders and scientists have gathered to listen to Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who boasts of the effectiveness of his new hypnotic controls over them, and even demonstrates this control by having Raymond murder two of his squad mates. The terrible immediacy of these dreams is enough to have Marco and Melvin awakening in the night in blind terror and muck sweats. Ironically, only Raymond seems not to be afflicted by such dreams, but this proves to be because he’s the special object of these machinations, deeply implanted with a series of controls and commands, chosen specifically as a programmed weapon that can be switched on and off on cue, and destined for an ultimate goal that will shake the world.

It’s easy to imagine that if The Manchurian Candidate had been made today (not discounting Jonathan Demme’s solid remake from 2004) it would have hinged much more on the question of whether Marco’s obsessive dream-memories are real or imagined. Frankenheimer’s opening offers outright depiction of the unit’s entrapment and capture, giving the game away right off the bat. But it’s actually a very clever move, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s similar ploy in Vertigo (1958), one that stops the audience from wasting energy asking if all this is real to watch instead to see what’s going to give the game away, thus building tension and dread about what will happen when the veils drop. The missing time during which the squad was in Communist hands is slowly revealed in two dream sequences replete with virtuoso cinema work and brazen wit. Frankenheimer’s camera pivots in long, deadpan revolutions that see the apparently anodyne surrounds of a hotel lobby filled with lady flower fanciers turn into a technocratic amphitheatre where Soviet and Chinese bigwigs listen whilst the hypnotised soldiers lounge in various states of attention and boredom, and the chirpy chairlady of the flower fanciers (Maye Henderson) transforms into Yen Lo explaining he’s given the soldiers the suggestion they’re being forced to wait out a rainy day in New Jersey in their company; African-American Melvin sees the women as black. “Always a little humour,” is Yen Lo’s motto, and Frankenheimer’s, too: the funny aspect to all this both introduces the film’s key motif of bottomless evil wearing an everyday face and also mediates the slow pivot from humorous disbelief and strangeness to a horrifying understanding of what is actually happening. Intimate displays of violence result, as Raymond shoots the squad’s young “mascot” member through the head, his brain matter spurting with iconographic precision across a giant poster of Stalin’s face.

The creed of the surrealists is made manifest with uncanny cleverness in The Manchurian Candidate as dreams point the way to reality, knitting connections that would seem otherwise ridiculous or tendentious with startling alacrity. It’s true both within the story and in contemplating how the film’s ideas work. At its heart, though, is a simple observation, that the so-called extremists of modern life need their opposites to gain definition, to provide meaning, feeding off them and gaining strength, even finding common ground of outlook in the desire to shatter the status quo. In this regard there’s nothing fantastical about The Manchurian Candidate: it simply exacerbates and provides a thrillingly strange metaphor to illustrate this point. Undoubtedly, in 1962, the aspect of Condon’s satire that would have seemed most timely was its biting portrayal of McCarthyism: Tailgunner Joe is transmuted into Raymond’s stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (a pearl of a comedic performance from James Gregory), who breaks into the press conferences of the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) and gives fiery speeches on the Senate floor denouncing Communist infiltration. Iselin is quickly revealed as an alcoholic twit whose gift for theatrical display is manipulated and pushed along by Eleanor. One of the film’s broader (if still very funny) gags comes when Iselin, frustrated by trying to remember the number of communists that are supposed to be in the State Department, begs Eleanor to give him one that’s easy to remember: Frankenheimer cuts from her staring at the bottle of Heinz steak sauce he’s shaking to him announcing to the U.S. Senate that 57 Commies infect the department  (indeed, given the recent outbreak of “alternative facts,” this also feels weirdly timely again). The droll depiction of Iselin as stooge and feckless puppet of the imperious and ruthless Eleanor, again like the dream sequences, soon shades a comic element into something much more foreboding and terrible, as Eleanor soon proves to be connected with the plot that has turned Raymond into an unwitting puppet himself.

Whilst the plot takes the paranoid essence of the fear of Communism to a reductio ad absurdum–they really are trying to take over our minds–central to The Manchurian Candidate’s impudent take on Cold War politics is its exploitation of the suspicion that the far wings of both sides of politics at the time, and perhaps in any time, are essentially the same, with motivations that seem completely opposed but often hide mirroring wants. This note is sounded both comically here, as Yen Lo takes the chance to go to Macy’s when in New York whilst the manager of the local cover operation takes pride in turning a profit, and with daunting seriousness, as Eleanor plots a scheme wherein she uses the Communists to stage a coup that give Iselin, and thus her, powers that will “make martial law look like anarchy” as prelude to a savage and possibly cataclysmic war of revenge. The essence of the Marxist view of history, that it is driven by impersonal forces, is embodied in Raymond’s loss of identity and control, and sublimated into greater causes; but so, too, is the faith in the individualistic and the entrepreneurial in American capitalism, as Eleanor carefully crafts her ascent to absolute power, complete with studious brand-building. Another biting observation here is the way republics fosters a peculiar but extremely potent aristocracy, to which Eleanor and Raymond belong–Raymond’s horror for sentimentality and other common pursuits (“Twelve days of Christmas  one day of Christmas is loathsome enough”) stem both from his schooling in such snobbery and his attempts to rebel against the precepts of slogans and officially prescribed feelings.

Not mentioned in the film is a telling touch from the novel, in which some of Eleanor’s monstrosity is revealed to be the product of sexual abuse by her own father, a deeply buried mandragora root of evil based in the desire, like that of the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, to keep power entirely within a gene line through incest: this last aspect, constantly lurking under the dense Freudian-mythical matter at the heart of the human drama, does come out when Eleanor, with her son seemingly under perfect slavish control, kisses him in definite erotic prelude. There’s scarcely a taboo untouched in The Manchurian Candidate, befitting a film about the utter perversion of contemporary communal life by forces within it and working upon it. Thanks in part to Harvey’s dynamic if, unavoidably, often unpleasantly phlegmatic performance, “lovable Sergeant Shaw” is one of the great cinematic characters, so uncommon in his barely suppressed fury layered over a very deeply repressed sexuality, his stringent honesty and astringent snobbery, his detachment from and contempt for the usual signifiers of healthy all-American identity, as well as his mother’s relentless perversion of the bodies both politic and familial. He has much in common with the tortured young heroes of Frankenheimer’s early films, with his feelings of exclusion from the run of everyday life, his bitterness towards his parents, and his status as puppet being manipulated for other people’s ends. Sometimes he seems like the barely human cyborg he’s been programmed to be, except that a constant undercurrent of virulent trauma and raw feeling sometimes slips his façade, as when he drunkenly narrates to Marco the story of his one busted romance, with Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the good-natured daughter of her mother’s political enemy, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).

Raymond is privileged a flashback that seems initially much less gruelling than Marco and Melvin’s dreams, a recollection of romantic happiness in which he met the energetic and outgoing Jocelyn and her upright liberal father, only for Eleanor’s swift action in killing the romance to present a spectacle of coercion and emotional violence that makes being captured and brainwashed seem almost preferable. Slowly but surely, the deep humanity of Raymond emerges, even as his helplessness before his programmed state constantly asserts itself when he’s triggered into his mesmeric state, marching out with calm, detached demeanour to kill. Raymond is pushed to kill both of the positive father figures he gains in the course of the film, his mentor Gaines and then Senator Jordan, whilst his actual father is a ghost supplanted by the grotesque Iselin. His only connections are with Marco, who grudgingly becomes something like a friend with the underlying understanding that Marco’s path to salvation is probably Raymond’s way to hell, and Jocelyn, who, after marrying Raymond when she’s reunited with him thanks to a contrived but backfired attempt by Eleanor to make an ally of her father, convinces Marco she can help repair him, inspiring a moment of sentiment that has utterly hideous results. Eleanor, heading off the new danger such an improvement in Raymond’s life portends as well as his own anger, suddenly takes control of him and sends him back to his new family, shooting down Jordan and then Jocelyn when she tries to intervene, just as he’s been ordered to. There are few scenes as heartbreaking in cinema, particularly in Harvey’s use of body language, his languid heavy limbs and attitude of a sleepwalker as he leaves the scene, reminiscent of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, another misbegotten son.

Moments like this point to the paradox at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate’s almost sui generis status. As rich with ideas and as clever in its machinery as it is, it’s the film’s strong grasp on the human level that makes it so powerful, the urgency with which it telegraphs the way its characters experience life and the torturous travails they’re subjected to, with the added irony that the qualities of the inhuman are seen as politically valuable. Only Eleanor seems excepted from the normal roundelay of suffering and confusion everyone else knows, and even she’s trapped to a certain extent, her carefully cultivated plots and ties having been turned around on her by the deliberate use of her son rather than some anonymous patsy as the perfect killer she wanted. Eleanor’s psychic twin in American cinema is Psycho’s Mrs. Bates (never actually seen, but also a monster who manages to infest her son’s body and mind), and her ancestor Livia, the relentless force of imperial tree pruning in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, from which Condon might have taken possibly a little too much licence. Lansbury’s bravura performance communicates the degree to which Eleanor is the nonartificial version of the thing her son has become, a series of guises and gestures, clasping, wheedling, crassly self-promoting, all hiding a will to power that would make Stalin wince.

Although the science fiction element in it is only very slight, nonetheless the film constantly nudges more psychologically into the genre with the feeling that it is depicting the birth of a bastardised race of mutants (interestingly, Frankenheimer would tackle that theme more directly decades later on the debacle The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996). Paul Frees’ voiceover near the film’s beginning signals the latent connection with George Pal’s scifi, posthuman myths like The War of the Worlds (1953). Yet the film’s structural influence is ancient, borrowing motifs from Greek myth and theatre and dressing them in such contemporary drag. “It’s like listening to Orestes gripe about Clytemnestra,” Marco quips to Raymond during a bout of drinking and maudlin reflection, as the latter explains his hatred for Eleanor. It’s a knowing line that underlines the already-percolating atmosphere of something primeval lurking below the surface of all the atom-age angst, as well as nodding towards the narrative’s sarcastic approach to that vital populariser of Greek myth, Freud. Has humanity changed at all in the intervening millennia since Sophocles and Euripides? Are even the new theatre of mass media and the arts of mind control still subject to principles laid out in the infancy of rational contemplation? It is ancient, it is the future, and everything flows to and from the great Oedipal swamp. Frankenheimer’s image-play leads into the epic climactic scene in which Marco tries to tap Raymond’s programming and a false card deck of queens of diamonds, their faces bleeding sweat, glowing-eyed in states of extraordinary awareness, Marco finally emerging as conjure master and Raymond’s buried alternate identity plumbed. The vital aspect lacked by Frankenheimer’s otherwise superlative follow-up, Seven Days in May (1964), was this edge of the fantastic, the super-theatrical, of taking the theme of malfeasance in power and placing it into the nightmare realm where it proves endlessly metamorphic.

The Manchurian Candidate is deeply involved with the new age not just of politics and technology, but also of mass media. Frankenheimer’s background in television both equipped him with technical smarts so that he was able to startle many when he was able to use TV pictures on film and also a deep awareness of the medium’s new role in civic discourse and the creation of shared reality. During a scene in which Iselin makes a ruckus during the Defense Secretary’s press conference, which Marco haplessly tries to orchestrate, Frankenheimer makes a show of the duel of faces as seen through television screens, elucidating the new arena of battle. The mantra programmed into Marco and the rest of the squad attesting that Raymond Shaw is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I ever met in my life,” feels comically reminiscent of both smile-and-be-damned political endorsement and advertising spin, a ready-made catchphrase coined all the better to sell Raymond as the perfect American hero. Again, a joke mediates the deepening of the theme, as Raymond quips after Jocelyn turns on a TV that the world is split into those who turn them on and those who turn them off. The war of iconography glimpsed throughout the film stretches out onto a more classical field of combat as Raymond’s programming is switched on by playing cards, in particular the queen of diamonds, perfect avatar for the brittle and glittering empress Eleanor but also, in a brilliantly visualised twist, leading him back to Jocelyn, who turns up at a fancy dress party dressed as that oh-so-totemic suit. Frankenheimer makes a constant motif of Lincoln’s image throughout as the inverse of meaning but mirror of use in terms of political iconography as the Communist heroes blown up to titanic size. Iselin and people at the climactic political convention dress as him, busts of the president festoon Iselin’s house, and Honest Abe’s noble nose and beard seem to jutting everywhere in solemn, silent mockery of the republic’s stagger into the atomic age, constantly ripe for a slide into anarchy or authoritarianism.

Sinatra, although a producer, took the less showy role of Marco, and it served him well, as although Harvey and Lansbury dominate much of the film, he plays river guide on the trip up to Hades. Sinatra’s persona as the knight of cool purveyed as a singer almost always gave way in his mature screen career to far more thoughtful and ambivalent characters, perhaps as a way of mediating the intense discomfort that made him such an infamously dichotomous character. Either way, Marco as a role plays on his bulletproof aura to lend power to the spectacle of him as sweltering crack-up. Marco’s recovery and return to able and persistent hero cuts across the increasingly neurotic and fraying tone of the story. In an early scene, Marco is visited by an army pal, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), who surveys the great piles of unhealthily intellectual reading matter Marco’s been consuming in his insomniac hours, reading which, ironically, has equipped Marco, in the mould of the perfect Kennedy-Camelot-era hero, for a new frontier of struggle, one for control of the mind (one reason why in spite of its abyssal cynicism, I still often think of this as the exemplary Camelot-era film), and Marco listlessly explains his reading habits, giving himself away as a closet intellectual, not the muscular man of action the military needs. Sinatra’s punch-drunk performance sells the scene and invests the first half of the film in particular, with a sense of aching, fraying anxiety, one that begins to ease once he meets kind-hearted hipster Eugenie Rose ‘Rosie’ Chaney (Janet Leigh), who readily falls into an exchange of brittle punning and queasy humour to ease him out of his panic attack.

Once again there’s a mirroring aspect in the appearance of female saviours for the busted heroes–Jocelyn’s rescue of the snake-bitten Raymond in flashback rhymes with Marco’s freak-out on a train attracting the Rosie’s attention, except the two romances lead in gruellingly diverse directions. Parrish does a particularly good job inhabiting the role of knife through mouldy cheese, a force dispelling miasma (better than Leigh manages, frankly, one reason perhaps why many see ulterior motives in her, however unsupported by script or source); in the moments when she’s on screen and Raymond’s repression vanishes, replaced by a fervent if stunted romanticism, everything seems possible. The film’s purposefully dissonant tone is perhaps most strongly illustrated when Raymond is accidentally triggered into his dissociative state by a yammering barkeeper rattling off an anecdote about his brother-in-law, with the punch line, a suggestion to go jump in Central Park Lake, sending Raymond off to do just that, chased by a bewildered Marco, who deduces important details from the ridiculous incident. This scene is both driven by and resembles a barroom joke, whilst also elucidating an aspect of the film and all its fanciful paraphernalia, a tale of generations of men gone off to war and returning only to find themselves plunged back into again by casual jests and everyday moments. The Manchurian Candidate could be regarded as a study in what would eventually be called PTSD, with Raymond’s periodic shift into another persona and Marco and Melvin’s traumas the manifestation of broken psyches urgently trying to tell them something is wrong, something hidden by the official resumption of peace and the even flow of history.

The narrative’s roots in the Korean War, so often called the Forgotten War, gives this aspect particular piquancy: Raymond anointment as official hero carries with it symbolic power, a desire to find a perfect icon in the midst of a very imperfect situation, and for that reason has been willingly and calculatingly supplied. Also, like Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) (the best combat dramas set during the conflict; Edwards had been in both, embodying the new, smart, forthright black soldier in the desegregated army), the landscape of a new America is in play and in contention, with African-American characters, including Melvin and Marco’s major sounding board, a wry black army psychiatrist (Joe Adams), playing distinctive new roles. Even the Fu Manchu-esque quality to the theme of wicked Chinese brainwashers is purveyed with jabs of burlesque drollery, particularly in Yen Lo’s talkative, pleasant demeanour and his shots of weird humour, like quoting an advertising line (that connection again) when noting he has the captured Yankees smoking yak dung just for kicks, and the protests of a Russian delegate to his presentation over the necessity of sacrificing a whole imaginary company for the sake of Raymond’s heroic cover story. Chunjin turns up posing as a would-be lackey begging Raymond for a job, all the better to actually oversee his control, at least until Marco turns up seeking answers and, on first sight of the supposed minion, launches into a balls-and-all karate fight that sees them lay waste to Raymond’s apartment in a sequence that might well have inspired the tussles between Clouseau and Kato in the Pink Panther films.

Like many an eager young American director before him and after, Frankenheimer’s style was powerfully influenced by Orson Welles. The influence is obvious in Frankenheimer’s forced-perspective shots bristling with Hogarthian energy and looming faces, people turning into aspects of the landscape or relics of ages and objects turning faintly animate. Canted camera angles illustrate moments of nauseous disorientation, as when Marco confronts Rosie with a newspaper revealing the murder of Jocelyn and her father, and desperate action, during Marco’s final rush to try to head off the final act in the long and torturous plot. Hitchcock’s influence is also certainly in the mix, in the punch-at-the-camera shot that commences Marco’s fight with Chunjin, in the brutalist jump cuts conveying the sleep-rupturing power of the awful dreams taken from Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much’s (1934/56) imprint on the carefully orchestrated climax in a bustling forum. But there’s also the incipient influence of new wave and TV news techniques informing the creeping super-modernity of the story, handheld camerawork suddenly and vibrantly creeping into the lexicon of mainstream Hollywood during moments of furor in public places like the press conference and the political rally. Indeed, as prejudicial as it sounds, Frankenheimer’s use of handheld technique probably planted the seeds for the eventual evolution of the pseudo-realist habits that would later grip mainstream cinema. Certainly the most famous flourish Frankenheimer conjures, one he’d revisit in variations in later films, comes when Raymond shoots Senator Jordan, his bullet passing through the milk bottle he’s holding, the white liquid spitting out in sickly simulacrum of blood.

Just as Frankenheimer appropriates Hitchcockian gamesmanship and relocates Vertigo’s swooning sense of dissolving reality where, nonetheless, hidden facts scuttle into the light, in a political realm, he also drags the frames of reference of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) into the post-WWII world, one where the thwarted American aristocracy has sought new ways to control a metastasising body politic. That world’s saturnine scion is pulled into the game of representation called democracy by an apparatus far beyond the relatively straightforward and easy comeuppance Charles Foster Kane received: no singers in love nests can derail this train, and consent will be manufactured with Hollywood bravura. Jordan’s determination to resist Eleanor is easily dealt with by the simple expedience of having him killed, and the pompous, central-casting-delivered presidential nominee, Benjamin K. Arthur (Robert Riordan), is set up in the crosshairs to be a prop in a piece of political theatre that’s been crafted with all the exacting showmanship of any showbiz extravaganza. Marco’s attempt to return autonomy to Raymond is a dangerous act of faith that the machine can be smashed and that Raymond’s will is strong enough to withstand the truth.

The riveting finale, endlessly ripped off, is still charged with an ambiguity and a surprise pay-off that most imitations never think to offer, as Marco tries to track down Raymond amidst the clamour and excitement of a national convention where the frenetic excitement of American politics at a zenith rages on but the crosshairs of Raymond’s sniper scope zeroes in on the nominee, blending newsreel and staged footage. Raymond’s final gesture, gunning down not his assigned target but his mother and stepfather, is both a cracking good comeuppance and last-second twist, and also designated importantly not merely as personal revenge but Raymond’s ultimate act of self-liberation, a feat of self-sacrifice and faith in the thing he was supposed to destroy. The superfluous, but affecting epilogue underlines the symbolism of Raymond’s last act of pinning on his Medal of Honor before shooting himself: he had earned it at last. Surely Raymond’s act of faith will be lost, unprovable, in the swirl of conventional understanding, with only Marco left to bear witness. Raymond’s tragedy is everyone’s, every citizen brought up in our world where words of no worth feed us, and all of us do without knowing why. His triumph is that he needs no applause for standing up for himself and everyone else.


13th 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Vietnam, Long Time Coming (1998)

Directors: Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn

By Marilyn Ferdinand

A lot of notable events occurred in 2016, not many of them pleasant. Fortunately, one of them delighted me all year long. Kartemquin Films, the Chicago film collective that makes thought-provoking documentaries that “seek to foster a more engaged and empowered society,” celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Kartemquin offered a free film every week from its online archive and then finished the year with a month of all-access free streaming. The most popular film streamed during the year was Life Itself (2014), star Kartemquin filmmaker Steve James’ compassionate portrait of Roger Ebert during the last months of the critic’s life. I joined others in making Inquiring Nuns (1967) the Number 3 viewing choice. As two nuns asked random Chicagoans in various parts of the city the question “Are you happy?” I was struck by how many people mentioned the Vietnam War as a source—sometimes the only source—of unhappiness in their lives.

I was moved by the concern ordinary people out of the line of fire felt for the horrors facing Americans and Vietnamese at the center of the conflict, an empathy that seems much harder to come by these days. And that is the beauty and value of Kartemquin films: they take circumstances that are largely abstractions to many people and help us empathize by bearing witness to other people’s lives. Vietnam, Long Time Coming is a brilliant example of their particular kind of filmcraft.

The documentary deals with an historic event—the first postwar American-Vietnamese athletics event. A group of 45 able-bodied and disabled Americans, plus support crew, staff, and board members of World T.E.A.M. Sports, joined a group of 20 Vietnamese to complete a 1,200-mile bike trek from the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Veterans from both sides of what narrator Joe Mantegna sensitively refers to as the “Vietnam-American War” took part in the ride and form the core of the documentary. Framing the war this way helps American viewers with received notions about it enter a more nuanced space, one that the war veterans enter on their literal journey through their own past.

The film opens as the plane carrying the Americans begins its descent into Nội Bài International Airport. The veterans are visibly nervous, and older viewers may flash back to the helicopters, battles, and broken bodies they could view most every night on television. This was a shared national trauma as vivid as 9/11, and the directors know how to evoke memories that will help viewers face their own fears as well.

As the team members are introduced to each other and the paralyzed Vietnamese riders get used to their hand-pedaled bicycles, the struggles of the veterans start to reveal themselves. A 2-year-old Vietnamese girl runs over to Duane Wagner, a Marine sergeant from 1965 to 1968. He gives her a hug and then tells us he killed a girl just like her who emerged from her home carrying a couple of grenades. Tears form in his eyes as he rues “the fucked-up things I did.”

There are more tears when, as part of the team’s mission of medical and educational outreach, the group goes to Bạch Mai Hospital, which was bombed during the war. Bob Connors, who served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the U.S Air Force, muses that he could very well have dropped a bomb on Bạch Mai. “I want to go up to everyone here and apologize,” he says as his brave demeanor crumbles. Still, the mood lightens considerably when the announcement of a $200,000 check from World T.E.A.M. Sports to the hospital for a new, state-of-the-art orthotics unit has the interpreter do a double-take to see if she heard the amount right.

After a few too many shots of professional cyclist and Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, the directors drop their celebrity ogling and just get on with it. They turn the somewhat hackneyed device of a road picture into a meaningful metaphor for the rhythms of grieving and the slow return to life for the emotionally maimed, and improve upon many war documentaries and feature films by providing a 360-degree, balanced view from both sides of the complicated and emotionally charged conflict while maintaining a lively pace and narrative. The directors film a solemn rite at the Vietnamese Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with burning incense sticks seeming to represent the lives the war torched. They follow it later with a buoyant orgy of shopping in Huế’s colorful markets.

Liberal helpings of the bike ride, including crashes and flat tires, scored to bright music by Ben Sidran continue the forward progress as the participants and viewers return to some famous touchpoints—the demilitarized zone, China Beach, Da Nang, My Lai—that make us and the veterans pause and reflect. The directors get marvelous landscape shots and scenes of everyday life that reflect what one vet says late in the film: “Vietnam is not a war, it’s a country. A beautiful country with beautiful people.” Peacetime and the filmmakers’ discerning choices allow us to appreciate what fear, anger, and war coverage could not.

What I found most touching and valuable were the veterans’ memories and how they related to their surroundings. A Vietnamese rider in his 30s recalls being evacuated from his home in Hanoi and watching from a distance as the city was bombed repeatedly. Another spoke about the My Lai massacre that claimed 504 people, including 153 children, recalling that “Our hatred for the enemy boiled over” and transformed into campaigns of revenge.

To a person, the American vets suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. They talk with the team psychologist and among themselves as their trip south through rice paddies and Agent Orange-scorched fields that were once deadly traps for them unnerved them more and more. A bucolic afternoon at China Beach, where soldiers went for R&R with the war raging only a few kilometers away, gives way to a painful memory for Diane Carlson Evans, an Army nurse who founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., of another nurse who was killed nearby by a piece of shrapnel. The humor of the lifeguard at the beach waving long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad away from the rough surf transitions to a late-night rap session during which Carlson Evans reveals her abiding shame: “We feel we did something very bad.” A rainy day conjures memories of being soaked, trudging through mud, and then drying in the hot sun, only to be soaked again, this time with sweat, and covered with the biting red ants that were everywhere.

Nonetheless, struggle is sometimes its own reward. The climb up the steep Hải Vân Pass marks a turning point for some of the riders, as a policeman who discouraged the attempt comes to understand how much succeeding, particularly for the hand-pedal riders, means to them. Amputees Dan Jensen and Tran Van Son hit it off like gangbusters and give their artificial limbs a workout in an impromptu footrace; in the film’s postscript, Jensen brings Tran to his home in Sioux Falls, S.D., to get a proper artificial leg and run in a rematch.

All of the veterans found that the ride, the contact with Vietnam and the Vietnamese in a safe and comradely context helped them calm their demons. This seemingly happy ending, however, poses nagging questions to viewers by simultaneously offering a chilling indictment of the war and America in its aftermath. As the crowds cheer the riders as they enter Ho Chi Minh City, the American veterans contrast it with the brutal cold shoulder they received and continue to receive in the States. Jose Ramos, who developed drug and alcohol problems and made multiple suicide atempts after his return home, says “What America could not give me in 30 years, I have found in Vietnam in a matter of days.” Jerry Stadtmiller, disfigured and half-blinded, thought he would be defending freedom, but found out that “freedom had nothing to do with it.”

Directors Blumenthal, Gilbert, and Quinn made a record of a small, but successful attempt to bring peace to warring minds and hearts, and further understanding and friendship between former enemies. In the United States and in other restless countries, ideology has turned people against each other again in ugly, often violent ways. Vietnam, Long Time Coming has something to teach us in this crucible moment in time, if we choose to listen.

Watch this film for free at Snag Films.


27th 05 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Let There Be Light (1946)

Director: John Huston

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past October, I started my 2011 Chicago International Film Festival coverage with a review of a harrowing documentary called On the Bridge, in which director Olivier Morel documented the sufferings of Iraq War veterans afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the invisible wound that scars witnesses to war, and some individuals so afflicted die physically or psychologically from this traumatic wound through suicide, homicide, or incurable psychosis. In 2012, this disorder is recognized and understood in ways it never was before, which is making it possible for more traumatized men and women like those documented in On the Bridge to get the help they need. War-related PTSD, however, certainly is nothing new, and when the 20th century and its technological might ushered in massively brutal, worldwide conflicts that buried forever the “gentleman’s war,” it also upped the psychological pressures on combat troops.

Motion pictures, a beneficial technological marvel of the 20th century, have been used almost since their beginning to document the many aspects of war. The United States government, a major producer of documentaries, commissioned a number of films that look at soldiers returning from theaters of war to reintegrate into the society they left behind. Such films include The Reawakening (1919), which shows doughboys of World War I, many of them amputees, getting medical treatment, prosthetic limbs, and occupational therapy as they reacquaint themselves with life free of the discipline and danger of armed conflict. Perhaps the most famous documentary about returning soldiers is Let There Be Light, but its fame derives mainly from being kept in the dark for 35 years after it was made by a War Department uncomfortable with the notion that there is any lasting downside to war for the returning veteran. So uncomfortable was the War Department with this documentary that it had it remade as Shades of Gray, a propaganda docudrama based on Let There Be Light that not only eliminated African-American soldiers from the cast, but also suggested that only soldiers who were soft in the head before they went to war cracked up upon their return.

Now, thanks to a National Film Preservation Foundation grant for the donated services of Chace Audio by Deluxe, the National Archives and Records Administration has restored the badly damaged soundtrack to an improved print of Let There Be Light. To commemorate Memorial Day this year, the NFPF premiered the film on its website  May 24, and will run the film through the end of August through a generous donation of web hosting by Fandor. For those who took an interest in our recently completed blogathon to stream the Cutts/Hitchcock film The White Shadow, the online presentation of Let There Be Light is a preview of the high-quality streaming, expert research, and copious film notes we can expect when that silent film makes its debut. For Let There Be Light is an amazingly powerful experience, even on my laptop, and one that left me in tears by its conclusion.

The first line of the opening title card must have gotten this film into hot water with the Army brass right off the bat: “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” Along the side of a ship bringing the troops home, Huston shoots a deep shadow of men carrying a stretcher, a graphic depiction of the darkness attending the wounded in spirit in postwar America, as his father Walter Huston offers a sober narration to match. Ambulances back up to the admission department of Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York, as the “psychoneurotic” soldiers step out one by one and pass through intake. A group of 75 new arrivals will be the subjects of Huston’s film, taking them from the start of their treatment in a common room where they are told not to feel self-conscious about the cameras, to the hearings eight weeks later in which doctors will determine whether they can be discharged to home.

We see individual sessions in which a psychiatrist tries to get to know the soldiers and find out the circumstances that triggered the uncontrollable shakes, stuttering, leg paralysis, and amnesia of the more physically manifesting patients, as well as the severe anxiety of others who jump at loud noises or dart their eyes nervously, as though reliving some horror. Hollow-eyed men who can’t sleep or whose sleep is interrupted by terrifying dreams that replay some scene of war haunt the screen in between these sessions. We hear the men testify that they have lost the ability to feel happy and that they feel useless. One man in particular, the only survivor of the original group he went into the service with, wished to go back into battle to do something for someone, feeling not only survivor guilt, but also a lack of purpose. One African-American soldier breaks down into tears when he tries to tell the psychiatrist how much his sweetheart means to him because of the sense of self-worth she gave him. I’m only playing armchair shrink here, but it seems to me that these men understand that their hopes and dreams, lives and achievements mean absolutely nothing to the men sent to kill them, and perhaps even to those who sent them to face the enemy. Cannon fodder, in other words, less than human in a dehumanizing enterprise.

Then, however, are the apparent miracles. Hypnosis and sodium amytal, aka truth serum, is used on several patients to free psychological material in the unconscious and help the psychiatrist effect a talking cure. One solider with hysterical paralysis gets up on his feet and walks after one such session once his paralyzing impotence to help his ailing mother and financially strapped father is released. Another solider with a severe stutter repeats over and over again in relief and amazement “I can talk. Oh god, I can talk” when the moment his stutter started—men in his unit teased him for mispronouncing a word with the letter “s” in it—is connected with his fear of the “s” sound made by a German weapon. The film cautions that it takes more than one dose of amytal to cure these soldiers, and that they have only been freed to benefit from follow-up therapy.

Slowly, the men begin through occupational therapy and recreational sports to regain a sense of usefulness, a respite from their psychotic episodes, and a reengagement with the people and world around them. Family visits are fragile moments, and family members must be carefully prepped so as not to undo all the hard-won gains made so far. It feels good to see one patient play catch with his young son as his wife looks on, or the African-American soldier smiling with his sweetheart under the sun.

The last meeting of the men in group therapy focuses on what they want when they get out in the world. Most simply want employers and the people in their communities to give them a chance to show that they can be productive and good to be around. They don’t want to be different from everyone else, an understandable desire. In time, they may be treated the same as everyone else, but it’s certain they will never feel the same as others—they don’t even feel the same as the people they used to be before the war. No amount of therapy will erase the scar of war. The chance to understand the costs of war that live on long after the conflict is an encyclopedia entry is the value of this finely crafted, compassionate documentary from one of our most gifted directors. On this Memorial Day, reflect on these mangled souls, the miracle of therapeutic understanding, and the obscenity of the endlessly recurring war chants of those who will never see a day of combat in their life.


12th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

Prisoner of Her Past (2010)

Director: Gordon Quinn

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It has been a Kartemquin week for me. First, I saw No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010). Then, Kartemquin’s cofounder Gordon Quinn opened his film Prisoner of Her Past at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Both films are very personal—the first, a chance for director Steve James to learn more about his home town through the lens of what appeared to be a racial incident, the second, a son’s investigation into his mother’s tragic past. Both films range beyond the immediacy of these personal stories to explore their larger implications—that’s the Kartemquin way. Prisoner of Her Past raises awareness of a phenomenon that many thousands of people are or will suffer from during their lifetimes, thus offering hope that a correct diagnosis and follow-up treatment will help them.

During the night of February 15, 2001, a petite, elderly woman named Sonia Sys Reich bolted from her modest home in Skokie, Illinois (where I make my home), and went screaming down the streets that someone had threatened to put a bullet in her head. The police picked her up and brought her to a hospital emergency room, from which her son, Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich, retrieved her and eventually had her admitted to a nursing facility. Mrs. Reich’s delusions mixed her lifelong paranoia with strange rituals and thought fragments that seemed purposeful. For example, Mrs. Reich would take a loaf of pumpernickel bread Howard would bring to her each visit and divide it into exactly 10 baggies; she would keep half the baggies and give the other half to Howard. She also constantly complained that no one was going to turn her into a whore, and that books she was given to read had swastikas in them. What could these actions and thoughts mean?

It took about a year for Reich to receive a definitive diagnosis of what was afflicting his mother. Her psychiatrist, Dr. David Rosenberg, said Mrs. Reich was not suffering from dementia, that she was well aware of the world around her and could interact with it. Rosenberg, who has 40 years worth of experience with Holocaust survivors, said, “Your mother has late-onset PTSD with bells and whistles.” Posttraumatic stress disorder, of course. Both of Reich’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Reich put on his journalist’s cap to uncover exactly what had happened to his mother during World War II in hopes that the truth might help restore her to something of a normal life.

Because Reich’s parents had told them almost nothing about their wartime lives, all he had to go on was his mother’s mutterings, that is, until he opened a letter his mother had received from Irene Tannen, the aunt who had adopted her after the war. Irene had written a letter of concern when phone calls to Sonia’s home went unanswered. Reich barely knew of Irene’s existence. Reich, Quinn, and his crew traveled to New York to interview Irene, another survivor who remained tight-lipped, repeating what many survivors say, that there are no words to describe what they went through. She does, however, come through with a photo of Sonia and Sonia’s grandfather and cousin Leon.

Reich follows the trail to Poland, where he connects with Leon and Leon’s son Peter. They all travel to Dubno, formerly part of Poland but now in Ukraine, where Sonia’s childhood home, the old synagogue, and Leon’s old home are still standing. The people living in the homes are gracious; the pleasant owner of Leon’s home gives him a huge armful of Ukrainian apples, which Leon praises.

Of course, the return to Dubno reveals many of the horrors that Reich traveled to find. A woman takes Reich to a large field which she says holds two mass graves. She witnessed Ukrainian soldiers round up Jews and machine-gun them into pits. A soft snow falls like cold tears on this killing ground. Leon, Peter, and Howard go to a Dubno museum dedicated to the memory of the town’s Jews. Leon and Howard note the complete absence of bystanders in the dioramas showing how German troops rounded up the Jews.

Nonetheless, although Reich never finds out the particulars of his mother’s experience, he walks the streets where she walked, sees the window from which she and her brother escaped the ghetto into which Dubno’s 12,000 Jews were herded by the Germans, and learns a bit about the family from Leon. Sonia Sys’ home had been occupied by members of the Red Army when she was 8, and her family of four shoved into a back room. The Germans invaded when she was 10. Extrapolating from statements Sonia has made, she and her brother spent the next four years hiding and surviving as best they could, working on farms, carefully splitting whatever food they had. Was Sonia forced to prostitute herself? Reich probably will never know. When Leon makes the trek to Chicago to see Sonia, she refuses to speak with him, though both he and Howard believe she knows who he is. Her survival depends on maintaining her denial of the past, just as Dr. Rosenberg warned Howard and Leon to expect.

Quinn and Reich answered questions after the screening. Reich revealed that his mother is still in the nursing facility, and until a recent surgery weakened her, she spent every night sleeping fully clothed in a chair next to her bed. He said his sister discovered what might have triggered her PTSD—the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death. Reich said his father was outgoing, Sonia’s bridge to the world; he couldn’t point to a single friend his mother had made during her 40 years in Skokie. He said that his mother spent every night at the window in their front room, looking out into the street through a small opening between the drapes.

Interestingly, though Reich’s parents settled in the epicenter for Holocaust survivors—Skokie had as many as 8,000 survivor-residents at its height—it took a year for anyone to recognize what was wrong with his mother. Even in Israel, the disorder was not recognized; now, two large centers to help Holocaust survivors with PTSD have been opened. And Reich and Quinn traveled to New Orleans and filmed mental health workers interview girls who survived Hurricane Katrina, recognizing one girl with a flat affect as someone who might be vulnerable to delayed PTSD because she is distancing herself from her experience.

Prisoner of Her Past is under an hour long, and a number of the details revealed in this review I learned from the after-film discussion. While I admire the odyssey Reich undertook with Quinn in tow, the seven years spent on Sonia’s trail don’t come across as completely as they could on screen. I was confused about various relationships, particularly Irene’s. Reich wrote a long article about his mother for the Tribune and used the article as the basis for a book, and I filled in blanks with these two documents. Nonetheless, Prisoner of Her Past presents a touching portrait of Sonia Reich, horribly victimized and horribly haunted. It’s a great place to start learning about PTSD and the need for healing in all the scarred regions of the world.


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