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Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate

Some time ago, after watching awful remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and Charade, I went on a rant against Hollywood remaking films that were excellent in the original. What was the point, I asked? How could the remakes not come out looking worse than the originals?

Calming down from that exhilarating bout of righteous indignation, I wondered if I may have been too overwrought and overestimated the quality of the original Manchurian Candidate. After all, I must have been in my early teens when I first saw it and I have often had the experience of revisiting books and films that I enjoyed when younger to find them disappointing the second time around. I had no such qualms about Charade, having seen it several times, most recently a few years ago. It is a certifiable classic, a must-see for anyone who loves films.

So I checked the original Manchurian Candidate out again to see if my memories were reliable. I can report that the original is still excellent and far superior to the remake. But it was interesting to me that my appreciation of it was very different this time around.

The first time, I saw it as a straightforward thriller and enjoyed it as such. This time around, I was much more taken by the political elements that it portrayed. This change in sensibility is understandable, given that in my teens I was not as interested in politics as I am now.

The politics were satirized by having the main political characters be somewhat over-the-top. The Communist brainwashers were portrayed as cold-blooded villains who had no sense of decency at all and killed without compunction, laughing while doing so. In one scene, the Communist brainwashers want to test the effectiveness of their brainwashing by having the brainwashed person kill someone. The Chinese person asks the Russian head of the spy program in America to have one of his agents killed in the test. The Russian head refuses, not because he is horrified at the thought of sacrificing one of his own people, but because he is already currently understaffed and doesn’t know if he can get a replacement!

The complexities of the cold war are also brushed over by having the Russians, Chinese, and Korean Communists portrayed as one big happy family engaged in evil against the US, ignoring the ideological tensions that existed between those countries at the time.

Meanwhile, on the American side, one of the evildoers was a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy, portraying him as more of a buffoon and less sinister and malevolent than the senator who went on the witch hunt.

I had forgotten how good Laurence Harvey was in the original, giving depth and complexity and even sympathy to his character in a way that the sequel did not. Harvey was often criticized as a somewhat cold and wooden actor, but here he managed to turn that to his advantage and actually eke some good comedic moments from that persona.

What I mainly liked about the original was that all the gaping plot holes in the sequel that made it absurd were explained away by a few lines of dialogue here and there in the original. I hate it when films don’t take the trouble to make the plotlines coherent and believable, and assume that audiences won’t notice when things don’t make any sense.

The only area in which the sequel was superior was in the motivation of the character (played by Janet Leigh in the original) who was the love interest to the Sinatra/Washington character. In both films, the initial meeting of the two was mysterious and seemed to hint at some secret motive for the woman to force her attentions on the man. But in the original that storyline was abandoned and not developed the way that the sequel did.

So after examining the replay, my original verdict stands: Remaking The Manchurian Candidate was a colossal mistake.

POST SCRIPT: Putting the terrorist threat into perspective

Glenn Greenwald over at Unclaimed Territory has another good post supporting my contention (see here and here) that we need to look at the terrorist threat rationally, and not be swayed by the irrational hysteria that is being pumped up.. Greenwald says “The cause of this irrationality, this inability to view the terrorism threat with any perspective, is not a mystery. Terrorists like Al Qaeda deliberately stage attacks which are designed to instill fear in the population far beyond what is warranted by the actual threat-level posed by the terrorists. That’s the defining tactic and objective of terrorists. Fortunately for the terrorists, in the United States, Al Qaeda has a powerful ally in this goal: the Bush Administration, which for four years has, along with Al Qeada, worked ceaselessly to instill in Americans an overarching and excessive fear of terrorism.”

He quotes historian Joseph J. Ellis who in a New York Times op-ed says: “My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic…Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.”

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