Reflections on a variety of films and topics - Seven Samurai, It's a Wonderful Life, Don Quixote, We're no angels, War for the planet of the apes, Dunkirk, The African Queen, Babette's Feast, Dances with Wolves, The Prisoner (1967), Inherit the wind, humour in drama, nature of regret, the influence of multimedia, memoirs of a teacher of French.
Please scroll down or find on the right links to articles, pages of reflections on films, books, TV series (including "The Outlaw Josey Wales", "Untouchable" (2011),"Unforgiven", "The Manchurian Candidate", "The Wild Bunch", "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", "Papillon" (1973), "Public Eye", "Existentialism in society today", "Seven Samurai", "It's a Wonderful Life", "Don Quixote", "We're No Angels", "The African Queen", "Babette's Feast", "War for the Planet of the Apes", "Dunkirk", “Dances With Wolves”, “Inherit The Wind” and “The Prisoner”), and occasional pieces of flash fiction. These are additions to similar pages which may be found at www.stuartfernie.org .
A link to my YouTube channel with video presentations of a number of my pages.
Having retired from teaching fairly recently, I thought I’d write my memoirs, “What have I done?”, and present them online. Please find links to the various chapters on the right, though chunks of the text (but perhaps not all) may also appear below. If you suffer from insomnia, this may help!
Click on the arrows to access links to 2016 and then December.
I can be contacted through the comments sections or at email@example.com
by Phil Kaufman and Sonia Chernus from the book by Forrest Carter
by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George and Sondra Locke
“The Outlaw Josey Wales”
is something of a revisionist western in two parts. The first part is a grim
and realistic representation of war and its horrifying, painful and unjust
Josey Wales is a simple
farmer going about his business when his wife and child are brutally violated
and murdered, and his property is destroyed by an unruly group of Unionist
soldiers known as “redlegs” under the command of a Captain Terrill. Josey
survives the attack and joins a group of rebel soldiers who have presumably
suffered similar fates and who seek to avenge themselves, leading to further
violence, death, destruction and undoubtedly further injustices.
Eventually, when the
rebel cause is all but extinguished, Josey’s compadres, exhausted and
demoralised, are persuaded to surrender to Unionist forces but they are
betrayed, mocked and massacred by ambitious and unprincipled officers and men,
including Captain Terrill, who will not be held accountable for their actions.
Josey manages to rescue a young but gravely wounded friend, Jamie.
Josey is declared an
outlaw by the complicit Unionist authorities in order to protect their
positions and to justify their actions. By manipulating facts, fabricating
stories and exaggerating rumour, they hope to incite the interest and greed of
bounty hunters and gunmen, but they also help create a figure of legend or myth
in the process.
After a series of
adventures in which our two heroes outwit their pursuers, imply criticism of
merchants whose sole objective is to make profit from both sides of the
conflict, and kill a couple of bounty hunters who reduce everything to the
financial value of their prey, young Jamie dies and Josey heads for Texas in
the full knowledge he will be pursued and he will have no recourse to reason,
justice or honour.
Under the auspices of
war, terrible crimes may be committed. One of the central and recurring themes
of the film is that those who do not respect rules of engagement or common
human decency on or off the battlefield cannot hide behind the uniform, cause
or legitimacy of their faction. Atrocities carry personal responsibility and
guilt and may incur personal enmity and a desire for retribution. War cannot be
viewed as giving free rein – one remains responsible for one’s conduct and the
consequences that may entail.
The second part of the
film starts with Josey’s encounter with an ageing native American played by
Chief Dan George. The rain, grime and melancholy of the war scenes gradually give
way to brightness, lightness of tone and no small amount of humour.
Although far from free
from his past, Josey does not dwell on it – it is there but he is able to focus
on the present. As he crosses Texas, he encounters and attracts a number of
“strays”, people whose lives have gone awry for a variety of reasons and whom
Josey is able to help or defend from profiteering or threat, giving him purpose
and a means of living with the past.
Josey appears unafraid.
He is willing to face and accept death as a consequence of his actions but he
will not shrink from defending those under threat. He has no fear of, or
automatic respect for those who claim authority. He has seen that policies, positions
and laws are all man-made and may be self-serving or open to interpretation,
abuse or corruption. He is ready and willing to defend himself and others if
such is the case.
The group he gathers
round him is disparate and diverse (long before this recent trend in Hollywood)
– culture, race, creed and age appear to be immaterial as they unite to combat
common enemies or help one another in a time of need or peril. They become a
family of sorts. They may bicker and disagree at times but they are willing to
overlook foibles, idiosyncrasies and the past as they pull together to help one
another build a new life and resolve problems.
As demonstrated in the discussions
between Josey and Ten Bears, an Indian chief who is equally willing to defend
himself and his followers, they seek to live in peace and harmony which, it is
suggested, appears possible if negotiations are left to ordinary men and women
as opposed to governments or figures driven by political ambition, commercial
enterprise or greed.
Society is what we make
of it or, alternatively, what we allow it to become. As reasonable and
peace-loving citizens, we must be willing to defend ourselves and those who
share common purpose against those willing to impose their will on us or
disrespect us. There is therefore a sense of satisfaction, completion and hope when
Captain Terrill gets his karmic comeuppance, allowing Josey to put the
injustices of the past to rest and focus on the present and the future.
This is something of a
deceptive film – I remember going to see it on its release, expecting an
entertaining Eastwood action film, and indeed there are several exciting action
set-pieces but it is also a film of surprising depth, texture and engagement.
Clint Eastwood clearly wanted to depict the horrors of war and the shattering
lasting effects it has on individuals, but he balances that with a tale of
stoicism, hope, positivity and society in the face of opposition and
difficulty, man-made or natural. This is undoubtedly a highlight in his
directing career. He retains the classic Eastwood elements of over-the-top
confrontation, audience complicity and focus on the taciturn hero’s
communication through long, meaningful looks, but these elements are
complemented by close attention to atmosphere, sympathetic secondary characters
and performances, the unlikely inclusion of humour and the appeal of an
underpinning “message” about war, trauma, justice and the importance of society,
which is accessible to us all.
My thanks for taking the
time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
François Cluzet and Omar Sy
memory of my friend, Alfie
A video presentation of this material is available here.
The opening scene encapsulates
the film’s dynamic and provides insight into the character and relationship of
the principal characters, plus their interaction with society.
Two men are driving in an
atmosphere of melancholy, even depression. Passenger Philippe is in low spirits
and driver Driss is concerned as they drive aimlessly through the Parisian
night, following the constraints of traffic and the highway code. They are dully
going nowhere and this reflects Philippe’s frame of mind and, as we shall
discover, his physical limitations. Suddenly, Driss breaks free from the
traffic and powers away, breaking speed limits and several other laws at the
same time, but supplying a sense of exhilaration, defiance and a taste of life.
Naturally, the police become involved very rapidly but Philippe (who is quadriplegic)
and Driss act together to manipulate the figures of authority so they gain
their sympathy and pity, thus not only avoiding punishment but gaining an
escort to a nearby hospital in the process. Philippe and Driss take great
satisfaction in this result as, together, they have managed to profit by
Philippe’s disabilities and limitations to outwit the system and society which
have conspired to write him off due to his condition, while seizing a few
moments’ escape from Philippe’s highly restricted existence.
Philippe is a very
wealthy quadriplegic who belongs to the economic and social elite. It appears
that he was so accustomed to what he regarded as life-numbing security that he
took risks to furnish thrills and excitement and so, as he went ever higher and
faster, he eventually took a risk too far and lost feeling below the neck as a
result. He also lost his beloved wife to illness. In such circumstances it
would be easy to slip into negativity and depression but, recognising the essential
value of life, Philippe has focused on cerebral or intellectual pursuits such
as art and music in his physically diminished life. Surrounded by a helpful and
devoted staff, he makes the best of things, though spiritually he may be doing
less well as his somewhat restricted daily life appears rather clinical,
uninspired and lacklustre.
In contrast, Driss and
his family lead a somewhat crowded chaotic hand to mouth existence, and may be
struggling both economically and emotionally. Driss is physical, spontaneous,
open, friendly, shows common sense and has principles, though we discover he
has a prison record (due, we imagine, to desperation to provide for his
family). He displays a caring attitude toward his sister and his mother, and he
is highly protective of his younger brother who is leaning toward joining a
gang. He also displays a natural effusiveness and dynamism which, combined with
his openness and frankness, could easily lead to conflict or discord.
When he presents himself
for interview as Philippe’s personal assistant, Driss is entirely open about
the fact he is required to apply for a number of jobs in order to qualify for financial
assistance from the state, and so all he needs from Philippe is a signature to
indicate he has gone through the motions of interviewing him. Driss makes no
attempt to ingratiate himself, shows no real consideration or understanding of
Philippe’s situation and responds to questions without guile or hope of gaining
the position, yet they engage in some banter and, despite being a less than
obvious choice, Philippe offers Driss the job on a trial basis - exactly
because Driss displayed spontaneity, frankness and a willingness to challenge
the perceptions and attitudes with which Philippe is surrounded. In other
words, he offered a spark of life and energy in what had become a dull and
For Driss, this position
offers stability, independence and security as well as a fruitful, insightful
and highly amusing introduction to modern art, classical music and opera. Driss
continues to share his incisive and challenging observations on Philippe’s
cultural pursuits, offering down-to-earth alternatives to Philippe’s abstract
and artistic interpretations, and a mighty slice of amusement and energy in the
process. He approaches his physical care of Philippe with the same openness,
innocence and spontaneity, potentially causing Philippe considerable injury but
at the same time injecting the process with life and energy, but also, most
importantly, without pity. Driss treats Philippe as an equal – he does not
affect compassion, tolerance or sympathy, and Philippe greatly appreciates this
quality. He is treated like a man and consequently he finds Driss’s company
stimulating and enjoyable.
Their status of
companionship evolves when Philippe struggles one night and is clearly pained
both physically and spiritually. Driss responds instinctively, asking what he
can do to help. The relationship they have built so far allows Philippe to
confide he needs air, or simply to get out. Driss then seizes Philippe and
takes him out in Paris in the middle of the night. They hold a relaxed and open
conversation in which they share events of the past and emotional responses, a
discussion which forms the basis of their future relationship. This is no
longer an employer-employee relationship. Personal interest, sharing and
emotional commitment raise their relationship to the status of friendship.
And so, they help one
another. Philippe gains physically, spiritually and emotionally. Apart from
movement, Philippe gains experience of different types of music, is immersed in
humour-laden discussion of art and learns to assert himself as a father when he
disciplines his haughty adopted daughter. But most importantly, he regains a
sense of hope, purpose and appreciation which had been slipping away from his
Driss experiments with
modern art, is exposed to culture, learns some self-discipline and to conduct
himself with greater finesse, while retaining common sense and principle. This
is amusingly demonstrated in the contrasting ways in which he deals with drivers
who have parked in the entrance to Philippe’s driveway. More importantly, Driss
derives a sense of purpose and self-respect from their association, and hones
his quick wit and charm to reflect a more cultured and reflective approach or
obligations and duties, readily acknowledged by Philippe, mean that eventually
Driss and Philippe must part company. Driss has evolved and moves ahead with
his life, applying for jobs with new-found confidence and poise. However, having
developed a reinvigorated outlook on life, Philippe is dreadfully disappointed
and misses the friendship and emotional engagement he has come to value so much.
It is at this point that his friend returns briefly, but only to transport him,
unknowingly, toward hope, positivity and the next emotional stage in his life,
for which, in a sense, his friendship with Driss paved the way.
The film’s huge surprise
success is due in no short measure to the sharp script which balances sympathy,
humour and emotional engagement, and the crisp, involving direction, both the
responsibility of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. However, the natural,
touching, amusing and thought-provoking performances by François Cluzet and
Omar Sy transport the material to another plain.
Although the film touches
briefly on themes such as integration and understanding of the handicapped,
family, discipline, seizing the moment and savouring life, whatever it may
bring, this is undoubtedly above all else an uplifting hymn to friendship and
the mutual benefits emotional engagement can bring, even in the most surprising
and doubtful of circumstances.
My thanks for taking the
time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.
for a job and meeting professional criteria and essential attributes
the following article was written with teaching in mind, the points made may
well apply to a variety of other professions.
In recent years there
have been several attempts to sum up, define and prescribe factors that make a
“successful” teacher, including elements such as lesson format, structure,
content, conduct and evaluation. Samples of these aspects were originally held
up as examples of good practice to serve as inspiration but they became,
successively, advised, expected and then compulsory. These aspects were readily
identifiable, relatively mechanical and often quantifiable, and contributed to
a standardised and regulated format which was no doubt intended to spread what
was perceived as desirable practice but whose rigid application could equally stifle
initiative, individuality and spontaneity.
This regimented approach
(also applied to other areas of public service) almost inevitably led to the
development of expected traits, skills and qualifications to be achieved in
order to gain a post. Strict application of these criteria could also,
conceivably, lead to a failure to recognise the work, value and “success”
(depending on the definition of this term) of individuals whose particular skills
and qualities were not taken in to account in the original listing of variables
considered appropriate for the position. Such individuals may not meet the
criteria set for “success” in the eyes of the authorities, yet they may have
achieved a great deal with their charges. Indeed, it might even be the case
that some who lack “essential attributes” or qualifications will more than compensate
for this deficiency with other skills and qualities. It is probably a mistake
to reduce a highly complex and inherently human undertaking such as teaching to
a restricted and prescriptive series of factors to be incorporated and
acknowledged in every lesson, and I’m sure the same might be said for a wide
variety of professions.
A dogmatic and
systematised approach may appeal to those who seek an easy solution to problems
or who try to impose an order on things, but it may fail to take in to account
attributes such as enthusiasm, willingness to learn, passion, dedication,
insight and, perhaps most important, the ability to relate to and engage with
others, all of which are virtually indefinable and unquantifiable, yet are
recognisable and desirable and make the difference between the mundane and the
memorable or effective and exceptional.
In 2010, concerned about
diminishing standards in our education system, David Cameron (then leader of
the opposition) seemed to entertain this highly structured and prescriptive approach
when he suggested that only those with first class degrees should be allowed to
train to become teachers in secondary education. For the first time in my life,
I tried to contact an MP (the above-mentioned David Cameron, shortly before he
became Prime Minister) to offer my thoughts:
Education is, indeed, one of the cores
of our society, and there is much that can be improved within it. However, I
must point out that insisting on good academic qualifications for new entrants
is likely to do little (if anything) to improve the lot of the country’s pupils.
Academic qualifications do not a good
teacher make. I totally agree that a teacher must know his/her subject, but
that knowledge alone will not imbue a teacher with the skills necessary to
transmit that subject or to instil interest and engagement. It is on this area
that I suggest you focus attention if you truly wish to make a difference. Too
often, teachers can appear superior and distant – accentuating teachers’
academic success only risks increasing that distance and may even attract the
“wrong” type of applicant.
I quite agree that much needs to be done
to restore the perceived value of the teaching profession, but emphasis on
academic entrance qualifications is not necessarily the way forward. Much could
be done in teacher training and within the curriculum itself – I would say that
these aspects merit more urgent scrutiny than mere academic qualification.
I am certain I was not alone in suggesting he abandon
this proposed policy and, to Mr Cameron’s great credit, this idea was quietly
and rules should be regarded as indicators or guidelines – standards offering a
direction or a pathway toward an objective. When the letter of the law is
adhered to rather than the spirit, limitations and restrictions will ensue and
opportunities may be missed. Of course, this means that those who judge must
display understanding and insight in their subject area (as opposed to merely
following procedures), and must be able to see beyond the immediate in terms of
the performance of the candidate.
Several years ago, I met
a businessman named Mike, and in the course of a conversation he informed me
that when choosing staff he rarely paid a great deal of attention to formal
academic qualifications – he was much more interested in what he could glean of
candidates’ characters and personal qualities to judge their suitability for a
post with him. As a teacher I was accustomed to emphasising the value of
qualifications, but I realised that Mike’s broader approach was sensible as, while
exam success can indicate strength of character and determination, knowledge
and skills can be acquired at various stages and in a variety of places but
will always be tools in the hands of character and acumen.
Clint Eastwood, Gene
Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris
A video presentation of this material is available here.
take place at a time and in a place where land, life and fortune were for the
taking if you had the ambition and strength to seek them and keep them.
Niceties such as law, order and morality were put on the back burner as men and
women set about building lives, businesses and empires in this untamed land.
Unruly men such as
William Munny, Little Bill Daggett and English Bob were the result of this time
and their presence may even have served a purpose of establishing an order of
sorts, though with little or no regard for legality and principle as they
appear to have acted in accordance with their own outlook and needs, or to have
been willing to sell their skills to those willing and able to pay their price.
However, as objective law
and order began to spread, they had to adapt to their environment. While the
likes of English Bob plied his trade more discreetly for private commercial
concerns, men such as Little Bill Daggett could indulge their at times cruel
temperament by applying it to the purpose of establishing the very order he
used to flout. Others, like Will Munny, settled down to family life and
Our story presents a
clash of such men in a time of upheaval and transformation from lawlessness to
order, a time when the system of objective law was in its infancy and could be
found lacking, and victims of crime had recourse to more direct and subjective
forms of justice.
A drunken cowboy assaults
a prostitute, scarring her face when he is offended by her reaction to his
“manhood”. The sheriff’s handling of the situation falls short of justice in
the eyes of the girl’s fellow prostitutes and they put a bounty on the lives of
the two cowboys they consider responsible and worthy of punishment, though the
second cowboy actually helps stop the assault and goes on to try to make
amends. However, because he is associated so closely with the event, he is
summarily included in the quest for vengeance, reflecting the need for an
objective system of justice wherein the guilty are identified and punishment is
seen to fit the crime.
We meet a young man who
goes by the name “The Schofield Kid”. He claims to be a tough young killer who
is attracted by the thousand-dollar bounty, but who also appears happy to
avenge the reported vile and by now wildly exaggerated treatment of the girl in
question. Doubtless influenced by tales of derring-do in cheap novels which
embellished the violent acts of gunmen, converting them into acts of heroism
motivated by defence of principle and honour, the Schofield Kid seeks to enlist
the help of Will Munny in order to fulfil the contract on the two cowboys.
In many ways, the Kid may
represent impressionable and youthful readers of heroic fiction or even modern
cinema audiences witnessing acts of heroism and courage in westerns who are
inspired to do something similar, but the truth is that these fictionalised
accounts are contrived, if beautiful, corruptions and twistings of potentially
ugly and terrifying truth.
It is no accident that
the Kid is short-sighted. He is plainly unsuited to this profession but is
prompted by admiration and an induced desire for adulation, fame and fortune.
He fails to foresee the consequences of his actions but will learn a painful
and life-changing lesson taught by reality.
We also meet the
journalist and aspiring writer Beauchamp who is a small man apparently highly
impressed by those unwilling to accept legal and moral constraints. He appears
to admire the rhetoric of ever more cruel and heartless men and seems to want
to share their “glory” by proxy. He sees the truth and recoils from violence,
but embellishes such acts and twists them to his own (written) gain and
advantage, leading to the corruption and confusion we see in the Schofield Kid. We
may, perhaps, infer from this that, by extension, all media (including
filmmakers) are guilty of such embellishment and potential misdirection.
The Schofield Kid turned
to Will Munny because of his reputation as a stone-cold killer. Now a
poverty-stricken farmer, Will puts his previous conduct down principally to the
influence of whisky, suggesting an avoidance of reflection and responsibility.
He indulged, reacted and killed, recognising no constraints, legal or moral,
and acted on his own judgment with little consideration of the consequences on
or the rights and welfare of others.
When Will joins with old
friend and compadre Ned, they recall the old days when they rode and were wild
together. They try to convince themselves that it is now acceptable to pursue
the cowboys and kill for money by suggesting this is something they have
already done, but it is implied they generally had reasons to kill, though on
reflection they appear to doubt the validity of these reasons. Age has
encouraged reflection on their experience and there are implications of regret
in both their demeanour and language, even if these are not necessarily stated
explicitly except when, suffering from a fever, Will recalls the gruesome
details of one killing and recognises his victim did not deserve to die.
Will’s conduct, attitude
and entire life were changed through the influence of his wife, Claudia. She
introduced him to love, respect, consideration, parenthood, responsibility and
farming. In keeping with a perspective laid out in westerns such as “The
Searchers”, women are perceived as a stabilising and even civilising force
providing purpose, clarity of thought, contentedness and, perhaps most
importantly, an environment based on love which underpins everything. Much is
made, in the introduction of the film, of the incomprehension of others
concerning Claudia’s decision to marry Will. Perhaps this reflects the
inexplicable nature of love and the transformations it can bring about,
combined with the unfathomable vagaries of life.
When Claudia dies, Will
tries to maintain his new life but it is a struggle work-wise and financially,
and he is tempted back to his old ways through the need and lure of money. His
repeated insistence that he “isn’t like that anymore” suggests that even though
he has learned to see things differently, to reflect and care for others, and
has experienced the benefits of this revised outlook, he may be afraid that
without his wife’s influence and with exposure to past attitudes and actions he
will revert to the undisciplined killer of the past.
Desperate and driven,
ironically, by a desire to care for his young children, he leaves them to fend
for themselves for a couple of weeks and sets off to kill for money. Thus, we
see that the façade of civilisation and morality may be dropped in times of
desperation and threat to personal survival.
Very often in Clint
Eastwood films, the heroes can be reactionary, judgmental and extreme, but the
audience finds that acceptable and even attractive because guilt is assured on the
part of the antagonists whose actions are also extreme but are the result of
self-centred determination, amorality and lack of compassion. There is
therefore often no question of regret, remorse or a troubled conscience.
“Unforgiven” is, however,
a relentlessly revisionist western which depicts the struggle to impose order
over lawlessness and within that, reflections on responsibility, guilt and
regret at the taking of a life, contrasted with the lionising and embellishment
of such actions by the media who transform violent, undignified and often pointless
murders into acts of apparent valour and heroism. In our film, pursuits, fights
and shootings are all unheroic, chaotic, unromantic, cowardly and unseemly.
Will Munny is no hero-figure.
He reduces everything to the simplest of terms and kills for money because he
has to do what he must to survive, but then he must live with it. He knows in
his heart of hearts that these cowboys don’t deserve this paid-for vigilante
vengeance and he is undoubtedly aware this knowledge will eat away at him, but
he sees no alternative.
When facing death, Little
Bill Daggett protests that he doesn’t deserve to die in this way. Ignoring the
fact that Little Bill was about to die as he had lived, Will points out that it
is “not about deserving”. There is no morality. There is only action, reaction
and living with the consequences – if you are willing to take matters into your
own hands, thus accentuating the need for an objective system of law and order
which aims to uphold the principle of fairness and justice for all.
Strikingly different in
tone from Eastwood’s previous westerns, this, his declared last western is doggedly
authentic and naturalistic in terms of script, direction and production values,
and suggests that while entertainment certainly has its place and can even
invite worthwhile reflection and thought, it may be based on an ugly, painful
and thoroughly unromantic reality.
themes were pursued in “The Shootist”, John Wayne’s last western.
My thanks for taking the
time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.
Written by George Axelrod
(based on the book by Richard Condon)
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Frank Sinatra,
Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury
A video presentation of this material is available here.
“The Manchurian Candidate”
takes place during the Cold War, a time when two political ideologies were
pitted against one another and each tried to find effective and insidious ways
of attempting to undermine or destabilise the other.
Set shortly after the
Korean War, this is the story of Sergeant Raymond Shaw who is kidnapped, along
with several of his comrades in arms, and transported to a communist base in
Manchuria in 1952 where he is conditioned (or brainwashed) as an unknowing
assassin to be activated in civilian life after the war whenever and wherever
it pleases his communist masters. Raymond’s comrades are also conditioned to
support him in his background story on his return to the American military by
whom he is greeted as a hero for courageously saving his patrol and leading
them back to safety.
As Raymond’s mother and
step-father are actively involved in politics, indeed his step-father is a Senator
with ambitions to run for even higher political office, Raymond will be well
placed to have maximum impact on behalf of his communist handlers.
Doubtless inspired by
reports of instances of dramatic changes of mind among those opposed to Chinese
communism in the 1940s and ’50s, as well as self-critical statements made by
American POWs during the Korean War, “The Manchurian Candidate” takes the
concept of communist-inspired brainwashing to its logical conclusion if
ambitions for it are ramped up to bring about the effective elimination of its
George Axelrod’s screenplay
and John Frankenheimer’s direction ensure that this is not restricted to being
a polished thriller, but incorporates political satire, the theme of parental influence
and responsibility, the role of ego in exercising influence, and a quasi-science
fiction foray into the realms of mind control. This is delivered through
largely sympathetic or intriguing characters who appeal to our emotions and intellect,
yet there are moments of self-awareness and humour.
Johnny Iselin, Raymond’s
step-father, engages in shameless self-promotion at the expense of others. He
makes baseless accusations of threats to American values and civilisation and
twists responses of opponents to enflame situations, all to promote himself as
the saviour of American society from a threat without clear foundation.
He accuses anyone who disagrees
with him or who may offer opposition to his rise through the political ranks of
being a communist and therefore a threat to the very fabric of American life.
He may thereby have been modelled on Senator Joseph McCarthy whose fevered and
bullish investigations into potential communist subversion in the 1950s destroyed
many lives and careers, and which are now commonly viewed as having served
principally to advance his own career.
Eleanor Iselin, Raymond’s
mother, is a Lady Macbeth figure pulling Johnny Iselin’s strings and providing
the words that come out of his mouth. She is a mistress of manipulation and an
egomaniac who is willing to use her son’s military record and apparent valour
in combat to advance her husband’s, and her own, political careers.
Eleanor is the hub around
which all things turn. She is a communist agent willing to trade integrity for
power. She does not believe in the communist cause but has chosen to ally
herself with the communists to enable and support her plan to promote her
husband’s political career. For their part, the communists are undoubtedly
delighted to use her ego-driven plot to sow the seeds of political disharmony
and discontent, while Eleanor believes herself capable of crushing the
so-called communist enemy once they have served their purpose in fulfilling her
An essential element and
tool in the fulfilment of these ambitions is the brainwashing and effective reprogramming
of her son. Apparently, he was chosen by Eleanor’s communist backers in an
attempt to render her more compliant to their demands, but rather than
displaying anger, guilt or despair at the destruction of her son’s life, she
shows fury at the communist underestimation of her. She fails to consider or
respect Raymond’s life except as a means of fulfilling her own ambitions and
appears incapable of feeling any guilt for the role she has played in her son’s
reduction to an instrument of her advancement.
Of course, Raymond’s
brainwashing is the culmination of a lengthy process of manipulation and
orchestration on his mother’s part. She appears to regard Raymond as her
creation to be used for her own ends as she displays a complete disregard for
him as an individual. There is even a hint at incest as she directs his life
and engineers compliance by fostering guilt and dependence in him by putting
forward persistent rationalised argument in which she is presented as the
victim constantly let down by those around her while she works tirelessly for
the benefit of others. This lifelong experience surely leaves Raymond open to suggestion
and malleability and largely unable to assert himself or indeed show much
initiative or challenge to authority. This may also go some way to explain his
attitude toward his comrades, his “unlovability” and even his immediate and
unreserved love for Jocelyn.
This also makes him the
perfect subject for in-depth brainwashing and conditioning.
Incidentally, it has been
suggested that Richard Condon, the author of the original book, modelled Eleanor
on Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s self-promoting right-hand man and “fixer”.
Raymond’s conditioning allows
for an ingenious method of infiltration and cleverly accomplishes Joseph
McCarthy’s warning of the dangers of the “enemy within”. Here, the danger, or
enemy, is within the nation, within a politically influential family and, of
course, within the very mind of the enemy’s operative.
Lack of control, and
particularly self-control is a terrifying prospect for most of us and the
premise of “The Manchurian Candidate” carries it and its potential consequences
to the extreme.
and brainwashing are used to strip Raymond of his independence, willpower and
sense of morality. In good part, this is the key to the fascination of the
whole piece. If it is possible to hijack Raymond’s soul, there is the potential
for any one of us to be transformed into an unquestioning, robotic device in
the service of some unknown third party.
In the film, the concept
and possible consequences of this transformation are introduced and developed
in a playful, fascinating and shocking sequence wherein the communist
instigators of the American troops’ brainwashing are perceived by the troops as
harmless, elderly ladies prattling on about gardening. Raymond’s “rewiring” is
put to the test and he calmly and politely does away with two of his own men,
under precise, if casual, instruction from his new masters, all provoking no
response whatsoever from his fellow soldiers.
This is a quirky,
confusing, entertaining and horrifying sequence which reveals the effectiveness
of the conditioning, the callousness and determination of the instigators and
the potential depth of the problem facing the American establishment.
Having Raymond find love
and allowing the normally aloof, unlovable and dispassionate Raymond suddenly
laugh, enjoy life and display love and devotion to Jocelyn is a stroke of
genius. Not only do we catch a glimpse of Raymond’s potential if left to his
own devices, our emotions and sympathies are doubly engaged for this tragic
character as, under orders from his American handler (his mother), he kills his
father-in-law and his new wife as part of his mother’s plan to infiltrate the
White House. Compassion and sympathy reign as Raymond’s subconscious clearly
battles his conditioning to come to terms with his actions.
Major Ben Marco, Raymond’s
Captain during the Korean conflict is also suffering subconscious attempts to
reveal the truth of the situation. His inner conflict and consequent
investigations provide the key to the unravelling of the plot, though success
is far from guaranteed and tension, suspense and anxiety are built and
maintained until the very end.
Ben is aided and
supported by Eugenie Rose, a lady he meets on a train and who falls in love
with him almost immediately after a very strange and confusing exchange of
dialogue. Her role is developed both in the book and the remake, but here she
appears to offer little more than sympathy and understanding, perhaps to contrast
with Raymond’s mother.
directorial style always puts the story first, perhaps because of his
background in television. He secures convincing, earnest and touching
performances from his cast, but this is no star vehicle or hero-driven
adventure. In this film, the storyline itself is the star and every scene
builds knowledge, interest and suspense.
It is a unique
presentation in that it is a psychological thriller combined with elements of
satirical political chicanery, ego-driven familial conflict and application of
scientific theory in the field of mind control. It is extreme, quirky and fantastic,
yet it is feasible, logical and bizarrely realistic and even prophetic as it
touches on characteristics, events and strategies which some have claimed to
perceive in recent social and political history.
My thanks for taking the
time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.