Seven Days in May (1964)
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had a friendship that spanned decades, during which they made seven films together, playing heroes, villains, friends, and enemies. They were among that generation of actors that started their careers in the midst of the Studio System and managed to find their way out of it again, producing some truly remarkable films under their own production banners. Among these is 1964’s Seven Days in May, a political thriller about the near-overthrow of the United States by a military coup.
Lancaster is General James Mattoon Scott, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is in direct disagreement with President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) over a missile treaty recently signed with Russia. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to disarm their nuclear warheads, effectively bringing the Cold War standoff to an end and avoiding any future nuclear war. The decision is unpopular with America at large, but none more so than General Scott, who believes that the President is setting the U.S. up for an attack when the Russians fail to honor the agreement. What few realize, and what Scott’s aide ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) soon discovers, is that Scott and several other high-ranking commanders of the Army, Navy, and Marines have been setting up a military coup aimed at killing the President and taking over the U.S. government. When Casey stumbles across information about the coup, he’s placed in a position of defying his commanding officer, whom he greatly admires, in order to stop it.
The film is directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) and scripted by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) for Kirk Douglas’s own production company. The script is taut and topical, dealing with the Cold War and arms race to immediate and chilling effect. The first half of the film is primarily concerned with the discovery of the coup and Jiggs’s crisis of conscience. He has to do the right thing and report his suspicions, but he doesn’t particularly want to. The mis-en-scene in this section is all lights and darks, as the chiaroscuro mirrors Jiggs’s increasing suspicions and divided loyalties. As we head into the second half of the film, occupied with proving and preventing the coup, the pacing picks up significantly, moving away from the conflict between Jiggs and Scott and into the attempts of various members of the President’s staff to find something concrete on Scott.
Seven Days in May is chock full of excellent performances: everyone from Lancaster and Douglas to Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner, who plays Scott’s former lover with more on the General than she realizes. It becomes increasingly clear that Scott is a self-obsessed sociopath who believes that what he’s doing is not for personal aggrandizement but the good of the United States. Few actors can portray the intensity of the fanatic and still remain firmly grounded, but Lancaster pulls it off. His General Scott is a true-believer, logical and totally terrifying.
If Seven Days in May has a flaw it is in the few speeches handed to its characters, particularly Frederic March’s President Lyman. While March’s performance is a strong one, he has at least two speeches intended to provide the film’s already obvious message about the dangers of Cold War rhetoric and nuclear armament. The speeches are largely unnecessary and do somewhat date an otherwise topical film.
Far more chilling are the moments that hammer home how prescient this film is. Scott gives a speech about patriotism and freedom that eerily reminds one of some pundits we typically hear on Fox News…and in Congress. The coup relies on a belief that Scott and his compatriots know the will of the people, and will force that will on the country irrespective of democracy. The continuous refrain of jingoistic patriotism is as recognizable today as it was in 1964. Seven Days in May is frightening because it is so believable.
While firmly embedded in Cold War mentality, Seven Days in May should be an iconic film because it is still so universal. Strong performances and script keep things moving along, though really the whole film is held on two sets of very broad shoulders. Lancaster and Douglas would make other films together, but none perhaps quite so prescient.