Brainwashing, or at least claims of it, have figured prominently in several of history's most memorable events -- Patty Hearst's case, Jonestown's mass-suicide, the Manson family murders, and the CIA's MKULTRA program. Each suggests the possibility that people may have been coaxed out of their (right) minds. As art often imitates life, it's no surprise then that the idea of brainwashing has been a convenient plot device in fictional films. And why not? Brainwashing is an ever-intriguing notion, providing a workable shortcut to high jinks or high danger -- it's like a plot-device wormhole through narrative space-time.
Here we sample five films that employ the theme of brainwashing. Good movies or bad? That part's up to you to decide. We make no judgments. It's interesting to note, in passing, that nearly all of the brainwashers have evil intentions. It's enough to give mind control specialists a bad name. Filmmakers don't seem terribly excited about people being brainwashed into doing good. Perhaps they think that angle would be boring. And probably it would be.
First up, we'll visit a prolific filmmaker who's about to embark on an investigation of his own crimes.
5. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, a 2001 effort from Woody Allen, puts brainwashing right where you might expect to find it: in the middle of a wacky romantic comedy. Set in 1940s Manhattan, Allen plays an insurance investigator who, through the convenient magic of a lounge performer, becomes hypnotized whenever the scheming hypnotist needs pricey jewels stolen from a well-heeled home. Allen is the hypnotist's tool for high-priced burglary. The kicker is that in his day job as an insurance investigator assigned to the thefts, Allen ends up investigating himself -- for crimes he has no idea that he, under hypnosis, has committed. Allen's character usually fancies himself brilliant at penetrating the mind of a thief; clearly this case is going to present some problems.
Not helping matters is Allen's workplace arch-rival (Helen Hunt), a woman brought in to create efficiencies in the office. She too has been hypnotized by the lounge performer, alongside Allen, into thinking the bickering office mates are in love, whenever the hypnotist's code word is uttered. Let the sparks fly. (Or not!)
Next, we'll see what happens when a fashion model's world is turned upside-down.
What's the world's top male fashion model to do when his career hits the skids? That's the dilemma facing Derek Zoolander (played by Ben Stiller), who watches his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson) supplant him atop the male-model pyramid. For Zoolander, his looks have taken him as far as they ever will, and his brain is not a terribly high-functioning organ. Fortunately, a search for a new path in life leads him to a fashion designer, who appears on the scene in the nick of time (and the script) to help him out. Unfortunately, it's not all puppy dogs and rainbows: The fashion designer must put "Villain" on his tax returns (if he files them at all), because it turns out he has an evil plan to brainwash Zoolander and get the dim-witted model to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia. (The prime minister, you see, is set to reform the country's sweatshop child labor situation, something that would hurt the clothing business of the evil fashion designer.) Modest hilarity and hijinx ensue as Zoolander, and his rival, to somehow stop the madness.
Can Michael Caine find out what's happening to all the brain-cramped British scientists? Let's find out next.
3. The Ipcress File
Everyone knows actor Michael Caine from something. Even if you think you don't, you do. He's in seemingly about 10 movies per year. An early effort of his, 1965's The Ipcress File, finds the actor playing a British counter-intelligence officer named Harry Palmer, who has been tasked with finding a missing scientist. It seems British scientists are disappearing left and right, only to return with their brain-slates wiped clean. Once top scientists, they've been rendered useless by -- you guessed it! -- a brainwashing technique administered by shadowy forces. So it's up to Palmer to find the latest missing doctor before he too comes home with a skull full of mush.
Of course, you don't hire Michael Caine for a brainwashing movie and then pass up the chance to try to brainwash him yourself. Suffice it to say that agent Harry Palmer will have his work cut out for him, if he doesn't want to lose his mind.
Next, we'll see what happens to a street thug when his circuits are rewired.
2. A Clockwork Orange
If you agree that behavior modification is just a fancier term for brainwashing, then A Clockwork Orange (1971) might be film history's darkest take on the twisting of a mind by foul means. Of course, "mind," in this case, is a relative thing. It's certainly not a sound mind possessed by young punk Alex (Malcolm McDowell), and neither are his "droog" friends exactly Rhodes scholars. Alex and pals' idea of fun is terrorizing the local citizenry. And we're talking heinous acts of violence -- the gang isn't just smashing pumpkins. Jailed for his crimes, Alex sees a way out in agreeing to be subjected to a program of behavior modification in order to get out of the pokey faster. He's made to watch all manner of violence on film, ad nauseum, the idea being to turn the young man into someone who utterly rejects, and is sickened by, violence. Irony abounds, though, when the now defenseless, former thug returns to a society that, unlike him, has not had its mind swapped out for a mellower version 2.0. It's not exactly a fun night at the movies.
Our last movie is a political thriller with a brainwashed mind all its own.
1. The Manchurian Candidate
We end with a political thriller steeped in creepy mind games, set against the backdrop of a Cold War in full sail. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) centers around a soldier named Raymond Shaw, who spends a good chunk of time held captive after Communist troops ambush his unit during the Korean War. The good news is, he eventually returns to the U.S. to a hero's welcome. The bad news is, Shaw's captivity included being brainwashed by foreign agents, who turn the U.S. soldier into an instrument of assassination.
Meanwhile, a real-life crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra (playing Captain Bennett Marco) plays a major role in the story. His Captain Marco has nightmares in which the hero Shaw isn't exactly who he seems to be, and neither, it turns out, was their supposed "escape" from their Communist captors in China.
The movie was remade in 2004 with Denzel Washington, updating the action to present day and making the first Gulf War the jumping off point for the story.
For more on brainwashing, check out these clips from Curiosity: