Group Dynamics as Seen in Films

Joseph J. Green

Northern Arizona University

Group Dynamics as Seen in Films

Among the films Primary, Judgement at Nuremberg, and The Manchurian Candidate, we see an example of many different types of groups and their evolutions. First we will look at a brief summary of each film, then we will see many key concepts of group dynamics are found in each film, and finally we will try to look at how the theories of group dynamics relate to each film.

In Primary we take a look at what it is like to be a candidate running in the presidential primary elections. Specifically, we look at the 1960’s battle between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey for the primary vote in Wisconsin, which ultimately results in a win for Kennedy. With what we are shown of Humphrey, it appears that he takes a dictator-like approach to tending to matters of his campaign, and Kennedy seems to take a more democratic approach where he requests people to do their best as opposed to telling them how to do their jobs. The main groups we have in this film are the public groups who support each candidate, the voting population as a whole, and the members of the two campaigns.

Judgement at Nuremberg takes us to a couple years after the end of World War II. A tribunal is formed to determined the fate of four judges who were in power during Hitler’s reign who did, not only nothing to stop it, but actively helped create the situation that was the horrors of Nazi Germany. The main question on trial was, do we punish those who were following orders and laws they knew to be unjust at the time? The four men on trial were, Dr. Ernst Janning, Emil Han, Werner Lampe, and Friedrich Hofstetter with Chief Judge Dan Haywood presiding. Interesting groups to note are, the tribunal as a whole, the defendants, the judges, and the plaintiff and defendant.

The Manchurian Candidate starts off with a group of soldiers in Korea who get captured, transported to the Manchu region, and brainwashed. One man in particular is brainwashed to be a sleeper agent of sorts, a person who has had h{is,er} mind so invaded that special codes can be used to control h{im,er} and (s)he’ll be powerless to stop it, or even know that it happens. In this case that person is Raymond Shaw. The rest of the group is brainwashed to promote this man and retell his deeds of saving his platoon, except for two men, from a prisoner of war camp and eliminating an entire Chinese platoon in the process. However, in reality, he was programed to kill the two men who didn’t make it back, and he is used as a weapon in America to aid the spread of Communism. This film has many interesting groups. However, unlike the other two films, this film mostly focuses on two person groups. The only notable exceptions are the communist group and the Army.

In all of these films we see many key concepts of group dynamics. The first is that groups have their own nature, or entity. That is, there are many individuals that make up a group, but a group is its own creature as well. The group also, over time, normalizes where the extreme opinions are removed and the individuals are brought to a general agreement on matters at hand. We see this come out strongly in Primary when simply comparing the two camps. When we see people Humphrey tries to support, the group tends to be quite and looking to him for leadership. In the case of Kennedy, we see that there is this group of people who are more lively, particularly with the songs they sing. Yet, at the same time, when we see the general public talk about votes, that is, the combination of both camps, there is a super group more concerned about what the actual result of this vote will be for the nation, and if their leader should or should not be a god fearing man.

We also see it in Judgement at Nuremberg as the defendants, the prosecution and defense, and the judges all have their initial feelings about the case. Over time, these three groups normalize and change with each other. The defendants start to feel like they have been bad people and deserve punishment, the prosecution and defense begin to settle down to where both don’t feel so strongly about their side of the case anymore, and the judges too come to their conclusions along with a dissenting opinion. After this, the tribunal as a whole started to come around to the idea that these men should be punished, but it might not be in the best interest to the nations of the west to put Germany’s leaders in prison.

The Manchurian Candidate is a bit trickier. We really only have two large groups, the Army and the Communist conspirators. Neither one being particularly well detailed throughout the film. Major Bennett Marco, a member of the captured platoon, had been having nightmares for some time which were revealing the truth about his time in Korea. When he started talking to the Army about it, the Army looked into Shaw’s history and found nothing. Ultimately, the Army believed that the Major was simply suffering from some sort of shell shock. PTSD wasn’t a well known issue at the time, but it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to suffer after high stress combat and for others to recognize that there is a problem. Even the Major himself believed it, and while it may have been wrong, this group made a judgement. However, like the other two films, the Army did start to see the truth when presented with new information, such as another soldier starting to report dreams that were the same as the Majors, and eventually the group came together to accept that Shaw may be some sort of sleeper agent. The communist side seemed to have even less description than the Army. They mostly represented an evil villain for the movie to use as the big bad guy. The only real group dynamic they seemed to have was forcing thoughts of group dynamics into the minds of the captured soldiers, aside from that, they were portrayed little more than as an unrealistic evil.

All of these films seem to play into some of the theories of group dynamics, In particular, Bruce Tuckman’s theory of group development and Kurt Lewin’s field theory behavior. Tuckman found that every group goes through a series of five stages. Forming, getting people together and figure out the goals, storming, everyone pushes opinions and seek status within the group, norming, where group norms are developed, performing, the actual actions, and Adjourning, a wrap up and abolishment of the group (Forsyth, 2010; Smith, 2005). This was somewhat touched on when describing the key concept of groups ultimately coming to a common ground, but there is more to it than just an average. Lewin’s theory found that people are a function of their individual personality and their social environment. Basically, people are heavily influenced by their social environment.

In Primary, we start off with the groups already formed. Both Humphrey and Kennedy have their own campaign staff who’ve been, presumably, working with them for quite some time outside the state of Washington. However, we can still see the results of some of the stages. It’s clear that the respective groups were formed for the purposes of convincing the public to vote for their candidate. We do see some storming actively happen as Kennedy supports the opinions of some of his staff and to let them do as they do, and with Humphrey squashing an idea or two and demanding things go the way that he says. This also plays into norming and performing quite well as both candidates continue to do this throughout the film. Finally, at the end of the film, they do adjourn, at least in part. They stop their campaigning in Wisconsin, and plan to campaign and win other states. More interestingly, the public who were part of each respective camp seemed to go through their own stages as they form to support their candidates, applause in unison, and sing their songs.

Judgement at Nuremberg, however, showed the whole process. Judges were sought from all around to preside over the case until Haywood finally accepted. He, along with other judges, the defense and prosecution, and the defendants all came together to form the tribunal. Opinions are taken from the prosecution, defense, and the defendants right at the start of the trial. It would appear that court cases are an amazing place to see group dynamics in action from start to finish. Norms came to terms as the defense and prosecution started to relax a bit, the defendants started to come to terms with the horrors they assisted in, and even the judges, though the judges already had fairly well defined terms on how to act well before this trial was to take place. As for performing, everyone seems to perform their roles as excepted of a tribunal until Dr. Janning makes his speech that effectively admits his own guilt along with the other defendants. After that, the trial has come to a close, sentences are carried out, and everyone else returns home.

In The Manchurian Candidate, the group is already formed. An army platoon, but what’s interesting is that after they are brainwashed, they, in a way, become a completely different group. All the soldiers aside from Shaw were programmed to revere him and tell everyone how much they reverie him, and to confirm his exploits of heroism. Also, what’s interesting, is that this isn’t a group that occurred by people getting together in any natural way, such as friends, or specific way, such as a court room. This is a group that didn’t exist, yet was imprinted to the minds of people who do exist. Creating the group, and its dynamics, but non-voluntarily. Being that the film is about a bunch of people who are being manipulated, the stages are all forced. In a way, the stages don’t exist, just the results of having had the stages. Forming, storming, norming, and performing are all controlled by the communists. Adjourning was the only stage that had any reality, which was merely a result of soldiers being allowed to return home.

These three films show many concepts and theories of the field of group dynamics. Though, they all seem to get to that point in different ways. Primary was a bit of a concept of a dictatorial vs a democratic group, Judgement at Nuremberg set up a group which would decide, as a whole, the fate of four men, and The Manchurian Candidate took a radically different approach by, quite literally, forcing the existence of a group upon unknowing and unwilling people. Group dynamics can be found in any gathering of humans. In fact, it’s so natural, that films are written about it with likely no knowledge of doing so.



Forsyth, D. (2010). Introduction to Group Dynamics. 5th ed. Wadsworth Publishing, pp.14-29, 47-52.

Johnson, D. and Johnson, F. (2016). Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills. 12th ed. Pearson, pp.1-45. (n.d.). Research Center for Group Dynamics: History. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Jun. 2018].

Smith, M. (2005). bruce w. tuckman - forming, storming norming and performing in groups. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Jun. 2018].