The edge of reality

Oh, I can hear strange voices echo

Laughing with mockery

The border line of doom I am facing

The edge of reality”

Elvis Presley, ‘Edge of Reality’, 1968

I don’t answer anything from [Australian journalist] Hedley Thomas, sorry – he’s just an apparatchik of Rupert Murdoch from New York … you know, Rupert Murdoch’s [ex] wife Wendi Deng is a Chinese spy … she’s been spying on Rupert for years, giving money back to Chinese intelligence … ”

Clive Palmer on the Today show two days before the 2013 federal election

Cameron Magusic, joint culture editor

In 1962, the film The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer) was released. The plot details how a group of American soldiers were captured in the Korean conflict and hypnotised by their Communist captors. Through the dreams of Captain-now-Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), it’s revealed the leader of the group, staff sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), has been hypnotised to interfere in an upcoming American presidential election. It is up to Marco to find Shaw’s ‘American operator’ and save the day.   

This is one of a number of critiques of canonical films that Bloomsbury Publishing has re-released with updated material.

If the critique of The Manchurian Candidate, written by Greil Marcus, is anything to go by, these books are chock-full of historical facts and context relating to the film’s release, with a thoughtful discussion how the film sits within our current time.  

For example, the assassination of then-US President John F Kennedy a year after The Manchurian Candidate’s initial release caused cinemas to take the movie out of circulation, Marcus tells us.

It is not until the late ‘80s that the film got a second major theatrical release—by which point a veritable who’s who in American politics (Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, President Ronald Reagan etc etc) had been assassinated or had attempts on their lives. (There are many reasons to watch the TV series Mad Men; one of which is to ‘re-live’ the epochal era that was the ‘60s in the US that includes these pivotal moments and others.)

Marcus reveals that, by a quirk of fate, director Frankenheimer was meant to be at RFK’s side that fateful 1968 night in California until Frankenheimer himself insisted it would be better for Kennedy’s press secretary to appear alongside Kennedy while claiming the state’s Democratic primary contest.  

Marcus explores the background of the film, which was adapted from a 1959 book of the same name, and reminds us of the national fear campaign in American politics, driven by Senator Joseph McCarthy at the start of that decade, claiming that Communists had infiltrated key government departments.

We see this referenced in the film when Marco, working as press officer to the defense secretary (Barry Kelley), has to deal with vice-presidential candidate Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) claiming a certain number of Communists work in the State Department. Not only is the scene notable for its early focus on mediatisation (we see the events mostly through monitors linked to press cameras in the room), but when Marco asks Iselin to repeat his numbers in the cloakroom afterwards, it is hard to not be reminded of certain figures in global politics who make up *stuff* as they go along, and make us suffer for it.

Certainly, the truth has long been a casualty in the “hot war” between the US and China, in the words of Kevin Rudd, along with organisations in both countries and in other countries such as Australia, where as of the time of writing, pressure mounts on federal parliament to launch an investigation into the supposed influence of the Chinese government on Australian universities.

This is quite aside from the rubbish McCarthyism Palmer peddles in the above quote and which has perpetuated in racist attacks on people of Asian appearance throughout the ongoing pandemic.   

There are many other facets of the film that Marcus covers in detail, including The Manchurian Candidate’s opening dream sequence, which he describes by writing ‘nothing before it bears comparison, and nothing afterward’. High praise indeed. It is not for nothing that the 1968 film Live a Little, Love a Little, features a dream sequence in which Presley sings the above song that can only be described as ‘in Metrocolor’.

Marcus touches on the mise-en-scene of the film—namely, how President Abraham Lincoln is omnipresent throughout The Manchurian Candidate in the form of paintings and other objects. It’s a timely reminder of the so-called Lincoln Project seeking to undo President Trump’s re-election campaign and replace him with Joe Biden, arguably a candidate more suitable to the centre-right’s interests.

One piece of information that Marcus may not be aware of: he starts the second-last chapter of his critique with an extract of a 2000 piece by Kirk Smith about then-Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, whom Smith imagines as another ‘Manchurian candidate’, that ends with Smith signing off, “Xie xie tongzhi”, translated as “Thanks, dude”.

A native speaker of Mandarin informs me that ‘tongzhi’ (同志), apart from the meaning of ‘comrade’ that you can find in any decent bilingual dictionary, was also used as a euphemism to describe gay people in China before people started using ‘gay’. The more you know!

Greil Marcus’ critique of The Manchurian Candidate is worth getting, and the 1962 film worth watching or re-watching (I haven’t seen the re-boot), while we continue living in ‘interesting times’, as the Chinese saying goes.      

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

Sign up for Catalyst Magazine

Get the latest on what's happening
* = required field