The Manchurian Candidate

by KE Monahan Huntley

The Manchurian Candidate, reputedly John F. Kennedy's favorite movie-suppressed for twenty-five years after his death-illustrates the maxim "paranoia will destroy you." Director John Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod's " . . . jazzy, hip screen translation of Richard Condon's bestselling novel works in all departments" (Variety Movie Guide) and in all four throughlines of a Dramatica grand argument story.

"Bennett Marco (main character), a major in Army Intelligence, is troubled (mc problem-thought) by a recurring 'real swinger of a nightmare' of the Korean War (mc concern-past) in which he sees Raymond Shaw (influence character), a former comrade, murder two other soldiers. Marco mentions his worries to supervisors (mc approach-do-er): 'I tell you there's something phony going on (objective story problem-perception). There's something phony about me, about Raymond Shaw, about the whole Medal of Honor business.'" (Film Noir) Assuming Marco is suffering from battle fatigue (mc critical flaw-conditioning), he is put on indefinite sick leave (mc symptom-order)-a situation (mc domain-universe) he abhors.

"Marco meets Shaw and learns of Shaw's hatred for his mother and Red-baiting stepfather, Senator John Iselin, and that another member of their patrol has written to Shaw complaining of nightmares similar to Marco's. Military superiors are dubious about the origin of these dreams, since Shaw holds the Congressional Medal of Honor at Marco's recommendation (relationship story problem-perception); but they authorize Marco to investigate (rs domain-physics). He discovers (mc solution-knowledge) that the entire patrol was brainwashed (os domain-psychology) in Korea." (Film Noir)

The objective story is one of Cold War political machinations (psychology domain). The goal is a plan envisioned (conceptualizing) by communists-to be implemented by trained assassin Raymond Shaw. Shaw has no sense of who he really is (ic critical flaw-sense of self) and no recollection (ic concern-memory) of his heinous actions (story driver). The American operative orders (os symptom) Shaw to:

". . . shoot the presidential nominee through the head. And [Senator] Johnny will rise gallantly to his feet and lift [the presidential nominee's] body in his arms-stand in front of the microphones and begin to speak. . . . rallying a nation of television viewers into hysteria to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy."

Raymond Shaw is a victim of mind (ic domain) control-". . . a living time bomb and programmed murderer (Film Noir)." The American operative (os benchmark-being) is none other than his mother who tells him: "I know you will never entirely comprehend this, Raymond, but you must believe I did not know it would be you. . . . I'm on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they will ever have in this country. How did they pay me back? By taking your soul away from you. I told them to build me an assassin. I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers and they chose you. Because they thought it would bind me closer to them (os thematic conflict-situation vs. circumstances)."

Marco understands (rs concern) Shaw runs on automatic pilot and endeavors (rs domain-physics) to deprogram him (rs benchmark-doing). What Shaw does not recall (ic concern-memory) defines him--what he becomes conscious of (ic signpost 4) will ultimately humanize him.

In a moment of lucidity, Shaw "tries to fight hypnosis (ic resolve-change) when he is instructed (os symptom-order) to assassinate the presidential nominee of Iselin's party. Marco attempts to stop him (mc unique ability-interdiction); but Shaw turns the gun on Senator Iselin, his mother, and finally on himself (outcome-failure) (Film Noir)."

Marco understands (os consequence) Shaw's final act as an ironic truth--the tragic figure thwarts an ideological shift (os signpost 4-conceiving) and earns the Congressional Medal of Honor. Marco bitterly (mc judgment-bad) recites a personal citation: "Raymond Shaw . . . in the end heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country."

Sources Cited:

Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Eds. Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward. 3rd ed. New York: Overlook, 1980.

Variety Movie Guide. Ed. Derek Elley, 1992.

About the Author

KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.

Prev Articles Home Next

Dramatica Story Expert

the next chapter in story development

Buy Now