Seven Days in May (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced by Edward Lewis; directed by John Frankenheimer; screenplay by Rod Serling based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II; cinematography by Ellsworth Fredricks; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Jerry Goldsmith; art direction by Cary Odell and Edward G. Boyle; starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, and Edmond O’Brien. Blu-Ray, B&W, 118 min., 1964. The disc includes a commentary track by director John Frankenheimer. A Warner Archive release.

In the Sixties, Hollywood made a number of films dealing with the terror aroused by the possibility of nuclear annihilation. One of them was John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days In May (1964), based on a 1962 novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and set in the then-near future. It centers on a decent, statesmanlike, peace-oriented President (Fredric March) who signs a nuclear nonproliferation treaty with the Soviet Union. His unpopularity with the public (29% approval rating) prompts a group of right-wing generals led by a tough-talking, ideological zealot—the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), who views the treaty as an act of “criminal negligence”—to plot a coup. The Sixties political villains are no longer communist fifth columnists, as in numerous Fifties’ films, such as Leo McCarey’s hysterical My Son John (1952), but charismatic generals who believe only a man on a white horse totally committed to the use of nuclear weapons can save the country from the Russians. 

Poster art featuring the principal protagonists in John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May.

Scott was partially based on Gen. Edwin Walker, whose radical right-wing views and public politicking while in uniform—he violated the Hatch Act by attempting to direct the votes of his troops—led to his being publicly and formally admonished by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Walker resigned his commission in 1961, making Walker the only U.S. general in the twentieth century to resign. Another possible model for Scott may have been Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who ordered massive bombing campaigns against Japanese cities in WWII, and who was a proponent of a first-strike nuclear strategy. LeMay later ran as George Wallace's running mate in the far-right American Independent Party presidential campaign in 1968. One could sum up LeMay ‘s moral vision by quoting him on the bombings: “There were no innocent civilians. So it doesn’t bother me so much killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”

General Scott (Burt Lancaster) and his aide, Col. Casey (Kirk Douglas).

The film’s narrative begins when low-key, upright Col. Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), Scott's aide, comes across some cryptic messages and learns of a secret military base in Texas. He suspects that Scott is leading the other Chiefs of Staff in a coup attempt that will take place seven days later, when the President will be isolated from his civilian aides during a military alert.

Casey respects Scott and shares his opposition to the nonproliferation treaty. But since he also believes in the Constitution and democracy, he chooses—despite being a career soldier committed to following orders and who “usually steers clear of politics”—to help the President prevent the coup from taking place.

President Lyman (Fredric March).

The film is conceived as a political thriller, and does not aim to be a complex exploration of Cold War political positions or of individual characters. The main figures, skillfully played by Hollywood stars like March, Lancaster, and Douglas, are asked to do nothing more than be convincing in the different political and personal stances they take. Frankenheimer uses a great many close-ups of Douglas deep in thought, weighing his political options, conveying the difficulty he has in deciding to act against Scott. A solitary March emanates calm and humanity and even provides a revelatory moment of what the presidency costs him emotionally. Frankenheimer often photographs a remote, ramrod-straight Lancaster from the back, capturing his rigidity, power, and need to control. One of the film’s strengths is that Scott never seems pathological, but is shown to be a smart, calculating, self-righteous ideologue who believes that the military knows what’s right and that our elected officials should therefore be bypassed.

Frankenheimer crosscuts rhythmically between different settings—a battleship and a desert military base in El Paso—as the President’s allies and aides track down details of the plot. He also uses a percussive soundtrack to build tension as the film tracks through corridors, conference rooms, and an underground parking garage. Although the film is much more conventionally shot and composed than Frankenheimer’s ironic and baroque The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May is nevertheless crafted with consummate skill.

Col. Casey (Kirk Douglas) informs the President of General Scott’s plans for a military coup.

The film falters in some of its secondary roles: Edmond O’Brien, who was oddly enough nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, hammily plays a broad cartoon of an alcoholic Senator from the Deep South, totally loyal to the President. A still beautiful Ava Gardner portrays Eleanor Holbrook, an ex-mistress of Scott’s, the one female character in the film. Her role is negligible, and the dialogue between her and Jiggs, when he’s trying to emotionally manipulate her to reveal something damming about Scott, feels stilted.

The film’s climatic scene, a confrontation between Lyman and Scott, is filled with scriptwriter Rod Serling’s speechifying—the steadfast democratic voice of President Lyman calling Scott a “strutting egotist,” the kind of man who hears the voice of the people in dark alleys, and demands his resignation. The shot/reaction shot setups used in the scene heighten its dramatic intensity, but still one feels Serling’s rhetorical liberalism dominating the scene. Scott refuses to resign, but a piece of damning evidence is found that stops the coup in its tracks.

President Lyman (Fredric March) confronts the traitorous General Scott (Burt Lancaster) at the White House.

Seven Days in May was a less imaginative work than films made the same year about the actual threat of nuclear destruction—like Sidney Lumet’s more politically substantial Fail Safe (1964) and Kubrick’s brilliant black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964). Still, with the advent of Trump’s Presidency, the scenario remains politically on target. With Trump, we have an administration where truth doesn’t count, and which has little use for a free press, legal regulations, or the Constitution itself. In addition, it is slavishly served by a number of demagogic radio and television commentators such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, and calls upon various elected politicians like Devin Nunes (R-CA) to overtly and illegally assist in its political defense. In Seven Days in May, General Scott and his supporters echo many of these Trumpian elements.

If there is no sign of a coup attempt under Trump yet, the military still has outsized power in making tactical decisions in Syria and other war zones, and general anxiety about the dangerous direction of our foreign policy affects many Americans. Given our present-day reality, Seven Days in May is a well-made thriller that remains contemporary in its political significance. 

Leonard Quart is a Cineaste contributing editor and author or co-author of several books on film.

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Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4