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An excellent cast, a well-crafted script, and a talented director add up to
one of the great films.
This movie captures the paranoia of the cold war and how that paranoia tested the strength and definition of a democracy. The importance of civilian control over the military is well illustrated in this chilling story of a plot by the Pentagon to overthrow the US President because the military disagrees with his disarmament policy.
Use of black & white gives the film the look of a documentary, emphasizing the sense of realism for the story. If you have the chance, see this movie.
The novel and the movie Seven Days in May were based on a very
potential reality. See James Bamford's 2002 book, Body of Secrets,
which is about the National Security Agency. General Edwin Walker,
mentioned in another review, was only the least of what was going on in
the higher echelons of the U.S. military near the end of the Eisenhower
Administration and the beginning of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration.
At military bases, and even at the National War College in Washington, the most rabid preachings took place about the real threat of communism coming not from Russia or Cuba, but from high-ups in the domestic power structure, including the government. The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), led by Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer, was very right wing and rabidly obsessed with the idea that American civilization could not endure unless Cuba was militarily conquered and occupied in the long-term. They repeatedly threw suggestions for this at Eisenhower, who never took the bit. When Ike left the Oval Office and Kennedy, who had never been a military higher-up, replaced him, Lemnitzer felt adrift and became very paranoid. There were all sorts of JCS contingency plans, never implemented, for creating an incident that could be blamed falsely on the Russians and/or the Cubans to justify an invasion - a sort of second sinking of the battleship Maine. The more far-fetched of these ideas included terrorism at home to be blamed on Cuba and an attack on a friendly Central American country that could be falsely blamed on Cuba, all without the President's approval. Lemnitzer, according to Bamford, had little use for the concept of civilian control of the military. In fact,enough of this atmosphere within the U.S. military was in the wind that there was a secret Congressional inquiry into the potential for a military takeover of the government, which was based on more than idle wonder. Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee (the father of the recent Vice President), a member of the investigating committee, called for Lemnitzer's firing. Kennedy did not fire him, but did not re-appoint him to a second term as Chairman, preferring the more rational Maxwell Taylor.
When the book came out, I stayed awake for 24 hours to finish it. I could not put it down. Mercifully, the film is shorter, but it is superbly acted and very well scripted. You won't be disappointed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Fredric March is the President of the United States. He has just gotten
a nuclear disarmament treaty signed with the Soviet Union's leader, and
it has (barely) been passed by the U.S. Senate. Both countries agree to
get rid of their nuclear arsenals, and to end decades of potential
nuclear catastrophe. But there are many who oppose this treaty,
including Burt Lancaster, the greatest military hero of the day and
head of the Joint Chief of Staff. He is in contact with several others
regarding these fears, and they are planning a coup, to replace the
President and his supporters and rip up this dangerous treaty. That is
the background and story of "Seven Days In May", except that
Lancaster's closest assistant, Kirk Douglas, is appalled at the scheme
and tips off March and his associates (Martin Balsam, Edmond O'Brien,
George Macready). We are also aware that there is certain information
that can be gotten by the President that would tarnish Lancaster's
American patriot and family man image - his love letters to his
mistress (Ava Gardner). Also, as the film goes on, we are aware of the
spread of the coup - how Edmund O'Brien is held imprisoned by mutinous
soldiers. And how Balsam may have gotten a confession out of one of the
weaker links in the scheme.
This film is interesting on so many levels. Not only does it include so many good performances in it, it is one of the most "Oscar" filled film casts one can think of - March, Lancaster, Douglas, Balsam, O'Brien, and even the uncredited John Houseman (as the weak-link Admiral Barnswell) all do well in the film. But what is most interesting to me is that the film was made when it was. Because it brings up the issue of whether a political coup can happen here or not.
The subject of a fascist or dictatorial government taking over America is not new. Jack London wrote of such in "The Iron Heel" at the turn of the 20th Century. Sinclair Lewis did the same in 1934 with "It Can't Happen Here, turning real life demagogue Senator Huey Long into "Senator Buzz Windrip" who seizes power. Hollywood would have an unsettling faith (to us) in fascistic politics in "Gabriel Over The White House", "This Day And Age", and even Harold Lloyd's strange comedy The Cat's Paw". That the Depression scared the people does not really reassure us today. But "Seven Days In May was written in the 1960s. It does show how close to success such a plot may go.
Basically, what saves the day for President Jordan Lyman's administration, and the treaty, is that the confession of one of General Scott's confederates is found. Lyman is unable to bring himself to be as underhanded towards the General as the latter deserves (he can't bring himself to use the love letters the General wrote his mistress to discredit the man). The deus ex machina of the confession saves the day, and causes the other leaders of the coup to save themselves, so that Scott is deserted and discredited as a traitor (when Jiggs, sarcastically asked if he knows who Judas was, tells Scott that he is Judas Scott realizes it's over). His collapse is completed as he hears over the radio of the resignations of his co-conspirators.
The interesting thing was that Knebel's novel pushed a different slant on Scott's final collapse. Lyman, in the novel, produces the confession to Scott, and they both hear of the resignations. Scott leaves the Oval Office aware that it is over, but thinking that he might (after he resigns) start a political campaign to replace Lyman in the White House in the next election. Instead, he is confronted by Senator Clark (O'Brien) and Secretary of the Treasury Todd (George Macready)outside the Oval Office. They remind Scott that if he intends to run for the Presidency rather than resigning, there is still the matter of the love letters. Clark tells him that while Lyman is too much the gentleman to use them, neither Clark nor Todd would hesitate the opportunity of smearing him as a moral hypocrite. Scott actually is more concerned about this - and actually tries to hide behind the theoretical skirts of his betrayed wife at this moment ("You wouldn't want to hurt her" - that sort of thing). Regretfully they wouldn't care.
In 1962, John Frankenheimer had done "The Manchurian Candidate", which also suggested a threat to American Democracy (although manipulated by foreign governments and their hidden agents). Then President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and in modern times (sixty three years since the last successful Presidential murder) violence had shaken the government. So "Seven Days In May" was quite timely when it came out in 1964. It has lost none of it's timelessness since then.
Oddly enough, Fletcher Knebel wrote another political thriller that never did get made into a film. I'm not referring to "Vanished", which was made into a television movie in the 1970s. I am referring to "A Night At Camp David". In that novel, a popular American President invites his Vice President to spend a week-end in the Presidential retreat, and has a series of conversations about policy plans that reveal to the increasingly frightened Veep that his chief is an insane paranoid, who is planning moves that may lead to global disaster. The problem: Only the Veep has been informed of this - nobody else. How is the Veep to get the public to realize the danger, without people feeling the Veep is only spreading lies against a popular President in order to seize the Presidency himself? It is a fascinating plot, and I wonder why it was never filmed.
Seven Days in May is cold war movie making at its best. This film does not have a car chase, gun battles, or a President as villian. It does have great actors and is one of the finest translattion of a novel to screen. It is the first of the U.S. Militery as villian plot lines, since over used on both the screen and tv. A number of years ago a remake was done for cable-The Enemy within-and it did not work. In that the President is to be over-throw because he will sign a defense bill! The Russians are no longer the enemy and that's why it fails. In the first, made three years after the Cuban Missle Crisis, the fear of the Soviets is real and provides the ploters with a major cause against the President's program of disarmement. One of the best movies of the last fifty years.
John Frankenheimer directs this powerful political thriller about a
conspiracy by top military brass to overthrow the government. A marvelous
cast in a powerful, pulse pounding drama. Kirk Douglas is a Marine Colonel
that suspects the Joint Chief of Staff Chairman(Burt Lancaster)of plotting a
disguised military coup that would destroy the President's nuclear
disarmament treaty. Veteran actor Fredric March is outstanding as the
The very talented supporting cast includes: the beautiful Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Andrew Duggan and Edmond O'Brien. John Houseman makes his debut in this Rod Serling screenplay. This one is a heavyweight. Paranoia prevails. The Russians are always suspect; but who would think of your own military turning inside out?
A splendid ensemble cast brought together in a fun, tight political thriller. John Frankenheimer's direction is first rate. I can't imagine Alfred Hitchcock doing a better job. The novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II was first published in 1962 and takes place in the early 1970s. The film, made in 1964, is more of period piece, shot in black and white by Ellsworth Fredericks. Some of the dark tones in the film are inspired by the mood of the nation since the assassination of President Kennedy. The novel, by contrast, writes of a two-term Kennedy administration. The script by Rod Serling improves on the novel by creating a sharper climax as the president overcomes the brewing plot by panicking high-ranking military officers to overthrow the Executive Branch of the US government. The film is otherwise fairly faithful to the book. Burt Lancaster plays General James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and universally idolized military hero. The man, it seems, would make an ideal president--and that just might happen on the seventh day in May. Kirk Douglass portrays the efficient Colonel "Jiggs" Casey, who is Scott's subordinent and reluctant hero of the film. Frederick March is credible as an aging, weary president who has recently won a hard-fought battle to ratify a treaty with the Soviet Union to eliminate atomic weapons. There is a vociferous backlash against the treaty, led by right-wing television personalities. Soon it is apparent that certain elements in the military, congress, and media are all in league to usurp power from the president and, as they would reason, save the nation from the worthless treaty. The film plays on traditional political labels, both pro and con. Even though it was made 28 years ago, one can identify with many of the characters and situations in the film. In the later 1980s, President Ronald Reagan was criticized by right wing conservatives for signing a treaty with the Soviet Union to downsize nuclear stockpiles. The film has some great editing as well, most notably the scene where some of the recent mysterious occurances are beginning to make sense to Jiggs as he watches Gen. Scott address a conservative political rally. Good camerawork as well, particularly when a nervous Jiggs finally sums up to the president the fantastic plot he believes he's stumbled upon. Another great shot occurs when General Scott presents a speech he is going to make against the president to his team of co-conspirators, only the back of his head is seen. The characters are human, the story is spellbinding, the film is a classic on all levels.
Somewhat forgotten political thriller about a military plot to take over
government. Great performances by all in this film, but mostly by Burt
Lancaster and Fredric March who toward the end of the movie have a great
scene with excellent dialog that sum up the true essence of the story. Ava
Gardner is beautiful (literally) in this film. Edmund O'Brien is not to be
overlooked as the bourbon loving southern senator.
The first time I heard of this picture was when Gen Alexander Haig was
being interviewed a number of years ago about the final days of the Nixon
administration and was asked if he was thinking about the movie "Seven
in May" Eventually I saw it late one night on cable and was glad I did.
A very thought provoking, realistic political thriller that succeeds on
every level. This film features great acting from everyone involved but
namely Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and of course Fredick March. Each one
of these actors were very convincing it their respected roles. The film also
featured amazing cinematography, directing, and very powerful writing. Given
the current situation in the U.S. this film despite its age is a perfect
example of what could happen in the next few years. Unlike the other
anti-war film of 1964 (Dr. Srangelove) this actually presents its viewer
with a believable story line, one that will keep your interest throughout. I
highly recommend this film to any avid Film Buff because it is an example of
perfect filmmaking. A terrific film that deserves all 5 stars that I am
There are many movies directed by John Frenkenheimer which simply evolve over time into great works of art. In their own way, they exemplify his innate sense of mystery, suspense, and dark drama. Too many to list, one example would be "Seconds." In this film, "Seven Days in May" we have what will surely become one of the finest examples of his craft. In the story, we have Gen. James Mattoon Scott, (Burt Lancaster) (in what certainly became a custom tailored role for him) who firmly believes that the president of the United States has criminally endangered the country by agreeing to a nuclear disarmament treaty. So concerned for the safety of the U.S. that he and several Joint Chiefs of Staff, decide to remove President Jordan Lyman ( Fredric March) with a cleverly designed military alert, or Coup d'etat. Unable to confide in his own aid, Col. Martin 'Jiggs' Casey, (Kirk Douglas), Scott, arranges to keep Casey out of the loop, until the overthrow is complete. Unfornatuately for the Generals, Casey suspects their innocent "secret wagers" are more menacing than they appear and hopes the president will believe him when he shares his suspicions about the man he work's for and admires. Edmond O'Brien is Sen. Raymond Clark, one of the few men the president can trust. The late Rod Serling wrote the script and like his twilight Zone episodes, this classic film has one wondering who the real traitors are? *****
Although it may seem dated because of its' subject matter (it takes place during the "Cold War"), the underlying content of political back-stabbing is still relevant. In this star-studded cast, Frederic March gives an outstanding performance as "President Jordan Lyman". He shows how a great leader handles the toughest of situations. This is a powerful film with some very tense moments. It is also an excellent example of directing that makes the most of camera angles and lighting to enhance the drama. Clean transfer to DVD.
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