By Zachary Michaels
Premiering less than two months after President John F. Kennedy was killed, director John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “Birdman of Alcatraz”)’s political thriller was one of several films released in 1964 that dealt with the possibility of accidental/intentional nuclear warfare. Others included Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe” and most famously, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Based upon a 1962 novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and with a screenplay by Rod Serling (best known as the creator of “The Twilight Zone”), the film was intended to be a provocative way of showing the American public that their government could not always be trustworthy when it came to relations with the country’s enemy at the time, Russia.
President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has an approval rating of just 29%, and is among the least popular presidents in U. S. history. This is largely due to a nuclear disarmament treaty he has agreed to sign with the Soviet Union. Many members of the military, especially Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) are vehemently opposed to this kind of pacifistic attitude, and are desperate to do something about it.
Gen. Scott’s aide, Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) accidentally stumbles onto a plot concocted by his superior and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to stage a coup against the Lyman administration exactly seven days later in the month of May. He immediately informs the president of his suspicions. Lyman takes the story at face value and arranges for an investigation to be put into motion using the people he feels he can trust, including his own personal aide, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) and his close friend Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) of Georgia. Girard is sent to Gibraltar to obtain a signed statement from a Navy Admiral, Barnswell (John Houseman) that he was a participant in the plot, while Clark travels to Texas to search for ECOMCON, the secret military installation where armed forces were being trained to invade Washington D.C. on the day of the coup. Girard gets the statement, but on the return flight, his plane crashes, killing everyone aboard. Meanwhile, Clark is caught and arrested by base personnel, but eventually escapes with the help of the commanding officer, Col. Henderson (Andrew Duggan), who is a friend of Casey’s. Casey himself seeks information from Scott’s former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), who was also privy to the plot, and finds several incriminating papers in her apartment.
Lyman confronts Scott alone in the Oval Office, where Scott accuses him of being a weak leader by agreeing to the disarmament treaty. Lyman responds that he will uphold his presidential oath at any cost. It is here that Scott reveals his belief that the signing of the treaty would lead into World War 3, and that the responsibility for this would land squarely on Lyman’s shoulders. Lyman tells Scott that he intends to reveal he has asked for the resignations of all the Joint Chiefs at a press conference the next day- the day the takeover was to occur- although he will not reveal the reason. “Without proof, you couldn’t possibly say otherwise; you simply wouldn’t dare,” Scott replies.
Before the conference can get under way, a representative from the U.S. embassy in Spain arrives with Adm. Barnswell’s statement, which Girard had placed in his cigarette case, found at the plane crash site at the last minute by workers. Lyman uses the moment to force the rest of the Joint Chiefs to tender their resignations, Gen. Scott tries in vain to cut in on the television broadcast, and the coup is put down before it even begins.
Serling’s script is intelligent, insightful, and thought-provoking, raising important questions about such issues as the role of leadership in a democracy, as well as the regulation of all three government branches. Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith’s grim militaristic musical score, Ellsworth Fredericks’ stark black-and-white cinematography, and Ferris Webster’s sharp editing combine to lend the film an almost documentary-like sense of realism. Likewise, each actor gives a top-notch performance, the standouts obviously being Lancaster, Douglas, and March. Gen. Scott’s final downfall can be seen as an analog for all the tyrants throughout history that have sought to win over the people with charisma and influence.
Even half a century on, “Seven Days in May” remains a superior portrayal of the very real threat of corruption within our country’s governmental system. Modern audiences, for example, may find parallels between the exposing of the coup in the film and the exposing of the real-life scandal that ended the career of Gen. David Petraeus. Therefore, Frankenheimer’s picture will forever remain relevant as long as there is a certain level of distrust placed in the American government.