SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964)
Reviewed by STEVEN TRAVERS
In 1962 John Frankenheimer directed one of the greatest Cold War thrillers of all time, The Manchurian Candidate. Many on the Right and the Left often referred to that movie in trying to identify various traitors and moles who may have worked their way into the U.S. government.
One year later, Frankenheimer was back at it, and this time he created a masterpiece perhaps even scarier, more prescient, and more suggestive of our political realities, then and now. That movie was Seven Days in May.
The source material for Seven Days in May is a 1962 novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, essentially both political journalists who desired to novelize events occurring at that time. They based it on two generals, Edwin Walker and Curtis LeMay. The screenplay was written by the great Rod Steiger (The Twi-Light Zone), a liberal but a patriot. In those days there were still liberal patriots.
The assassination of President John Kennedy made watching the film shortly after his death a chilling proposition. The assassination of his brother Robert in 1968 added to that chilling effect, as it resonated with both The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.
But events from 1934 also shadowed the film’s plot. During the height of the Great Depression, Right-wing industrialists, supposedly impressed with how Adolf Hitler was restoring the German economy, plotted a coup d’etat against President Franklin Roosevelt, using a World War I hero-general Marine named Smedley Butler.
In that scenario, General Butler pretended to go along with the plot, but gave the collaborators in to authorities at the crucial moment.
In the case of Generals LeMay and Walker, both were rabidly anti-Communist and ranged from disagreement with President Kennedy to outright disgust with his weakness, which they perceived as softness towards the Soviet Union.
General “Bombs away with” Curt LeMay was the architect of massive aerial assaults in the latter days of World War II which killed many, many civilians but gave us the decisive edge we needed to achieve victory. By 1962 he was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He famously argued on behalf of a heavy aerial bombardment of Cuba followed by an invasion to rid us of Fidel Castro and his nuclear missiles. Both Kennedy brothers disagreed, and bad blood existed between the hawks and the doves.
General Walker, basically the Brad Pitt character from Inglorious Basterds, ran “suicide missions” in occupied France and Italy, but took exception to President Dwight Eisenhower’s order that he use his troops to enforce integration during the Little Rock school crisis.
General Walker did not believe the military was an appropriate tool of social engineering, When Kennedy took office, Walker felt betrayed by JFK’s failure to use air power to back up the Cuban patriots attacking Castro at the Bay of Pigs. He also saw the effects of North Korean “brain washing” techniques used on American POWs during the Korean War. He began to see the subversive effects of Left-wing ideology infiltrating schools, academia, the entertainment industry, and civil rights. He began a series of lectures given to the troops under his command to warn them of Communist ideology. President Kennedy took exception to this and forced General Walker out of the military, which created huge headlines.
When JFK was murdered Walker made pains to demonstrate he had an alibi. A Southern Democrat, he lost a gubernatorial election to John Connally in his native Texas. An assassin tried to take him out in 1964, and he became the face of the John Birch Society, which eventually moderated under the influence of Southern California politicians Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
So all of these factors – Korean “brain washing,” Communist infiltration, the military clashing with the President, against the backdrop of the 1934 coup plan – played out in two novels that became two movies, both directed by John Frankenheimer: The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.
President Kennedy read Knebel and Bailey’s novel, and believed not only that the scenario described could happen in America, but that his Presidency and the times he presided over were ripe for just such a plot to come to fruition. He agreed to cooperate with the project, befriending Frankenheimer and spending a weekend at Hyannisport, allowing the filmmaker’s to shoot in the Oval Office. The Department of Defense objected to the project.
The film attracted an all-star cast and crew. Kirk Douglas, who recently had starred and produced the Oscar-winning Spartacus, produced Seven Days in May through his company, Seven Arts, and his partner Edward Lewis. At first Douglas intended to play the role of James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but then his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster entered the scene. It was agreed he would play General Scott. Douglas would play his aide-de-camp, Marine Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, the ultimate hero of the story.
However, Frankenheimer had clashed with Lancaster in the making of Birdman of Alcatraz, and nearly left, but eventually agreed to stay. This time he felt Lancaster’s performance was “perfect,” but clashed with Douglas, somehow feeling he was sub-par. Looking back at the finished product this seems ridiculous, but all the filmmakers were perfectionists. Frankenheimer was a Democrat who viewed the film as the final “nail in the coffin of McCarthy,” referring to the anti-Communist Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin.
Revered actor Fredric March was President Jordan Lyman, and the beautiful Ava Gardner, long a sex siren and still attractive, played General Scott’s former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook. An old school Hollywood diva, she was said to be “difficult.”
The great Eddie O’Brien played alcoholic Southern Senator Ray Clark, one of President Lyman’s last remaining allies. A young Martin Balsam followed up his bravura performance in Psycho as White House Chief of Staff Paul Girard. Andrew Duggan, a marvelous character actor with a face chiseled out of the rocks at Mount Rushmore, played Colonel Casey’s friend, Army Colonel “Mutt” Henderson. Hugh Marlowe was a TV commentator based on several men at the time promoting General Walker and the John Birch Society in front of large crowds.
Whit Bissell played U.S. senator Fred Prentice, a Californian most likely supposed to remind audiences of Richard Nixon. George Macready, another great character actor, portrayed Treasury Secretary Chris Todd, reflecting the visage of Dean Acheson. Richard Anderson played Colonel Ben Murdock, a conspirator, and Bart Burns was Secret Service head Art Corwin.
For some reason, several memorable characters were uncredited despite great lines. John Larkin played Colonel John Broderick, referred to as a good officer “in the kind of army that goose steps” by Colonel Casey. The fabulous John Houseman played Vice Admiral Farley Barnswell, knowledgeable of the conspiracy. Houseman, who had helped produce Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, assisted Frankenheimer on Seven Days in May.
Frankenheimer had served during the Korean War and insisted on authentic set designs. The Pentagon did not allow filming there but Frankenheimer, using “guerrilla filmmaking” tactics, rigged a camera in the parking lot to show Douglas “entering” the building.
Recently built Washington Dulles Airport offered an air of modernity to the film. A secret desert training center was shot near Indio, California. It was decided that the final scene would show a defeated Lancaster leaving with his tail between his legs instead of killed in a car accident which may have left him a martyred figure.
The USS Kitty Hawk, another modern marvel, demonstrated that this was a new age beyond the old equipment of World War II. White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, an original conduit between the filmmakers and JFK, remained an advisor and go-between of a sort.
Camera shots were done from varying angles, a fairly recent device that gave it something of a “documentary-in-style” look. Faces were reflected with upturned chins, sweating brows, all increasing the tension and dramatic impact.
The movie was set in the future, 1970, and featured technology not yet used, such as video conferencing. A sense of “Big Brother” pervades, in that a camera records everybody coming and going at the Pentagon.
The magnificent Jerry Goldsmith scored the film, which earned critical and artistic recognition. It has since gone down in history as a classic, one of the last of the great black-and-white movies in which the lack of color does not deter from its greatness in any way. It is timely still; perhaps too timely.
Every single performance is simply nothing short of spectacular. Like Training Day or The Godfather, even small bit parts are fabulous and memorable. Lancaster is bravura as the straight-up-and-down hero with a flaw. Douglas is something straight out of Greek tragedy; the reluctant hero destined by fate to save the day regardless of his desires. March was a classic star. Balsam was excellent, Ava Gardner still alluring and classy.
O’Brien is equally flawed, a drunk forced to do the right thing. Duggan was sensational and Macready made you believe he was a cabinet secretary.
The film opens in front of the White House, where a group of Lyman supporters with placards is confronted by a group of anti-Lyman demonstrators. A fight breaks out. The disagreement is over a nuclear disarmament treaty signed between President Lyman and the Soviet Union. Lyman is considered weak. The treaty is not considered worth the paper it is printed on; a typical liberal act of appeasement not unlike Neville Chamberlain’s infamous 1938 “peace document” with Adolf Hitler.
Lyman’s 29 percent popularity in the Gallup Poll is reminiscent of President Harry Truman’s unpopularity after firing General Douglas MacArthur. Lyman laments his position to Chief of Staff Paul Girard while a doctor advises he take a two-week vacation, something he says he has not done since his boyhood in the Midwest.
At the Pentagon, Colonel Casey is preparing a presentation for his boss, General Scott. Scott is the most decorated soldier in the military, a four-star general and Congressional Medal of Honor winner.
Colonel Casey comes across plans, using a military acronym he has not heard of, ECOMCON, which looks like a coup d’etat at a secret military base in Texas, in which all communications would be cut off, including the ability of the President during a “staged alert.” General Scott would have access to national TV networks.
In addition, the colonel has learned that General Scott and all the other generals making up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have committed to a cryptic “bet” on the upcoming Preakness, a strange circumstance not in keeping with what he knows about them. The only one to abstain is Navy Vice Admiral Barnsworth. In addition Colonel Broderick has a surprise meeting with General Scott.
Colonel Broedrick and Jiggs Casey are not friends. Broderick remarks that he figured Casey would be an “ACLU lawyer by now . . . representing the great unwashed.” If anybody would be up to no good, willing to back an effort against a liberal President, it would be Broderick.
Broderick’s aide, Colonel Mutt Henderson, is an old friends of Jiggs, but he remarks that he is working for Broderick at ECOMCON, at “site Y,” a secret base in Texas.
“With your clearance you must know about it,” he tells Casey, who plays along.
He then tells Casey that stranegly the unit appears to be more involved with attacking than defending, “as if the other side’s already got the stuff and we’re trying to take it.” He tells Casey to look him up if ever he is in Texas.
After the meeting, in which Casey is conspicuously not invited, Jiggs discovers handwriting from one of the chiefs indicating the time of the proposed plan. When he mentions the horse racing bets to Colonel Ben Murdock he is told that is secret. Murdock seems to assume Casey is in the know and tells him to be ready “on Sunday.”
The general has recently been making incendiary public speeches in direct opposition to President Lyman’s treaty, in front of large, enthusiastic crowds. He is obviously a Presidential contender if not more than that; a charismatic American hero with power that he has the will to use to its fullest extent. Casey is appalled at the treaty, but does not support any kind of military junta.
Colonel Casey attends a cocktail party in which the treaty is argued over. Casey and Girard are friendly with each other. Senator Prentice forces Casey to admit he opposes the treaty, but Casey begs off, saying as a military man he is afforded the luxury of non-partisanship. Prentice accosts him, as if his many medals are given out for “evasiveness.” whereby Casey scolds the Senator, who he accuses of having “cocktail courage.” The Senator apologizes then cyptically remarks, as if he and Casey are both in on something, that they need to be ready “on Sunday.”
Casey meets Ellie Holbrook at the party. She is a doyen of the D.C. social scene, but is intoxicated and embittered over the fact she was abandoned by her old lover, General Scott. Casey tells her she is a “bright, beautiful gal, fun to have around,” when not drinking. She lightens up and comes on to Jiggs, who seems ready rumble until his suspicons are aroused by Senator Prentice’s strange warning about “Sunday.”
He asks Ellie for a “rain check” and tails Prentice. We see the license plates of his car – California – meaning he probably was supposed to be a caricature of Nixon, although he also represents a state which at that time, incredibly, was home to the most rabid anti-Communist Birchers in America.
Casey follows the Senator to the military base where General Scott lives, and sees him received by the general. The next day the general appears tired. When Colonel Casey asks if he had a late night, the general says the opposite, he got too much sleep, “from eight to eight . . . I may never wake up again.”
Jiggs knows his boss is lying since he saw him receive the Senator near midnight. All of this leads Colonel Casey to call his friend Girard, requesting an evening meeting with President Lyman. Fortified by a drink, the colonel tells the President and Girard what he knows so far, and that this leads him to believe it is possible – not certain, but possible – that General Scott is planning to kidnap President Lyman during the “staged alert” on Sunday.
Girard warns Jiggs he could be “busted out of the service” for making such an accusation against his commanding officer, and Jiggs says he hopes very much he is wrong, but he felt the duty to report what he knew. In a great scene, Casey says he admires Scott, dislikes the treaty, yet believes in “the Constitution,” which has “worked pretty well so far, and I’m not about to say it’s wrong.” Modern Democrats would do well to emulate this concept..
The President is not very worried, believing it most likely coincidence, but considering the political situation decides to convene his “wise men” to discuss it. Aside from Colonel Casey this includes Treasury Secretay Todd, Senator Clark, and Secret Service head Corwin, along with Paul Girard.
The men question Casey and are skeptical, but President Lyman is not willing to discount Colonel Casey’s conspiracy theory, remarking that the plan if hatched to fruition gives them only seven days until the Preakness, held every May. He calls the office of budget and is told there is no group on the books known as ECOMCON.
President Lyman calls General Scott, informing him that he will be unable to participate in the alert after all. On his doctor’s advice he will be fishing. He sends Girard to Gibraltar to confront Vice Admiral Barnswell over his abstaining from the Preakness “betting pool,” and whether he is aware of a plot against the White House.
First Girard visits the admiral, who admits he was aware of the conspiracy to take over the Presidency. He writes it down on a slip of paper, but Frankenheimer marvelously gives the audience only spare information on this aspect of the plot’s uncovering.
Then President Lyman learns that Girard’s plane has crashed, obviously planned by the conspirators. At the crash site a Spanish policeman finds Girard’s cigarette case, containing the note from Vice Admiral Barnswell, but in a phone conversation with the President, Barnswell denies having confessed to Girard. Lyman knows he is lying.
Lyman says two men helped him become President, Girard and Senator Ray Clark. Now Girard is dead.
“Where’s Ray Clark?” Lyman practically pleads
Senator Clark has been sent on a dubious mission to Texas, following up on Colonel Henderson’s invitation to Jiggs to look him up if ever down there. After Girard’s death, this mission suddenly looks dangerous, because it is. Being away from a bar for even a few hours is a chore for Clark. He sweats his way down to the Lone Star State, given sketchy details, and finds his way to, of course, a bar with no patrons in it.
The floozy wife of the bar owner asks if he is in the Army, since she heard a rumor a base was nearby and the soldiers would need a watering hole – motivation for she and her husband opening the bar – otherwise it would be like living “in stir.” So far there is no evidence of a base or soldiers.
Clark finally drives on out into the desert where a helicopter swirls above and he is stopped, forced out by military guards. He is sent into an underground room by a smarmy officer who makes sure he has whiskey at his disposal, hoping he will get drunk and be an unreliable witness, unable to remember details, easily dismissed as a drunk. But Senator Clark, after looking into his soul, pours the booze out. Finally Colonel Henderson, who is unaware of the planned coup, enters his room and is talked into helping the Senator.
“I’m gonna tell you the damndest story you ever heard,” Senator Clark begins in explaining the situation to Colonel Henderson.
The colonel takes the Senator off the base, which he does only after a violent confrontation with the guards.
Henderson drives Clark to the airport where the Senator calls the President saying he has the goods, but when he turns around Colonel Henderson has disappeared, almost surely grabbed by a security detail.
Meanwhile, the Secret Service surreptitiously films boats descending on the spot President Lyman said he would be fishing at, removing all doubt that Colonel Casey’s theory is correct. Casey, in the mean time, has been dispatched to Eleanor Holbrook’s apartment, told that she has a stash of love letters written by General Scott that could provide plenty of “dirt” on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“There’s a whole lotta ways to protect the President of the United States,” Clark had told him.
Colonel Casey takes exception to the way these civilians salivate at the idea of destroying a war hero, the letters he wrote considered “dynamite.” He hates himself for the role he is playing.
Jiggs pretends to be romantically inclined. They have a drink and Ellie has a classic line, offering to cook “a steak, rare, and the truth, which is very rare.” Jiggs finds the letters. When Ellie discovers him going through them she is infuriated. Jiggs tells her if she knew why he needed the letters she would understand, and leaves with them.
While President Lyman has a great deal of evidence, he does not necessarily have the “smoking gun” he would need to convict General Scott. He calls the general to the Oval Office, telling him what he has on him, demanding the general and all his other conspirators resign. Scott refuses, plainly telling Lyman that if the Soviets knew of this plot, they likely would launch a nuclear strike.
In one of the great acting performances ever, Lancaster as Scott becomes megalomaniacal, telling the President he has no knowledge of the plot, but if he announced for the Presidency “today,” America would back him and put him in office. March as Lyman gives an equally passionate response, telling Scott if he loves America so much, why not run legitimately? Lyman scoffs at the idea, saying that the Soviets would attack before he could win – because he would win – and that millions would lie dead under the epitaph, “They died for Jordan Lyman’s concept of peace.”
It is a difficult tightrope to walk for President Lyman, who allows General Scott to leave, knowing that if he accused such a man of treason, what little support he still has would crumble. This shadows Harry Truman’s firing of General MacArthur and Kennedy’s firing of General Walker. In fact Walker’s name is mentioned in the dialogue. Lyman is ready to confront Scott with the damning letters to Ellie, but refrains.
By this time, however, the “cat is out of the bag,” and the other conspirators are scared to death. General Scott tells them he is of “stronger stuff than present company,” planning a nationwide broadcast asking the U.S. to support his takeover. But Lyman fires the other chiefs, and then receives Barnswell’s confession, the “smoking gun.”
When Scott receives a copy of Barnswell’s confession, he realizes he is through and abandons the plan and the speech. Leaving, he sees Colonel Casey, and the following makes movie history:
General Scott: “Colonel, you’re a nightcrawler. You pass information. Are sufficient enough with your Bible to know who Judas was?”
Colonel Casey: “I know who Judas was. He was a man I admired who disgraced the four stars on his uniform.”
Scott leaves, beaten.
Jiggs returns the letters to Ellie, who has followed the incredible events on the news and understands why they were needed.
“You’re hero has been shot down,” she says to Casey. “Were these the bullets?”
“They could have been, but they weren’t.”
He hands them to her. It is easy to imagine a nice love affair followed.
Lyman finishes with a magnificent patriotic speech to the nation engendering a standing ovation from the press corps. Scott’s fate is left unclear, a clever devise by Frankenheimer meant to tell the audience dangerous Right-wingers are still in the military and the body politic.
Seven Days in May is not a conservative movie, but like A Few Good men and Patton, written by liberals, it is so truthful and dynamic that it comes off as patriotic and even “conservative.” For instance, both Lancaster’s General Scott and Jack Nicholson’s Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessup are so charismatic that many come away from these respective movies (as with George Scott in Patton) loving, maybe even rooting for, the “villain.”
While President Kennedy had some reason to believe events depicted in Seven Days in May could have happened, it begets some questions. First, nothing like it ever has occurred, certainly not going as far as events in the book and film. Some might argue January 6, 2021 sounds like this, but of course it does not; that was a spontaneous outpouring by thousands who believed with the knowledge available to them at the time the Democrats stole the election as they had in 1960.
But JFK’s assassination, a far more extreme and villainous act than the coup d’etat planned by James Mattoon Scott, did occur. Much available evidence most unfortunately points to the CIA. Also, the planned kidnapping of President Lyman at Blue Lake could potentially have resulted in his death.
It is easy to dismiss the story and Rod Serling’s screenplay as a typical Left-wing hatchet job on conservatism, like so much crap Hollywood produces, not to mention the constant return to the Watergate story, all ignoring the fact JFK stole the 1960 election, plus Barack Obama’s far worse abuse of power, using the FBI and the CIA to first spy on Donald Trump in 2016-17, but also creating a fake “Russian collusion” which in essence, combined with the nebulousness of the 2020 election, amount to a coup against a Republican President in real life. This is every bit as bad if not worse than the plot of Seven Days in May. At least General Scott was willing to be out in the open about his intent, unlike the works of Google, YouTube, Facebook and other social media outlets pushing liberal causes.
Fours years after the film, a terrible event occurred with shocking overtones of both of Frankenheimer’s classics, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. JFK got to know Frankenheimer when he cooperated with him in the making of the latter. Senator Robert Kennedy also became good friends with the director.
In June of 1968 RFK was in Los Angeles for the California Democrat Primary, which he needed to win in order to secure his party’s nomination at the Chicago convention.
On election day Kennedy, his wife, and his large brood of children, spent the day and evening at Frankenheimer’s Malibu beach house, where they planned to watch the returns, which promised to go late into the night.
Around nine in the evening, Kennedy learned he won in Oregon and won a surprising victory in California by a much bigger margin than he anticipated. One of his campaign aides called him at Frankenheimer’s Malibu home, telling him he needed to get to the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to make the late news reports, address his supporters, and a TV audience.
Tired, having spent the day frolicking in the surf and sun of Malibu beach, Senator Kennedy at first begged off, but his aide was insistent: he had to get to the Ambassador. RFK dressed and made the 45-minute-or-so drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, connecting to the Santa Monica Freeway to downtown, where of course he was shot to death by Sirhan Sirhan, who to this very day claims he had no idea how he even was in the Ambassador’s pantry with a gun.
Considering Kennedy did not plan to be there, and would not have been there had he lost, which had seemed very possible, it certainly does not seem likely Sirhan Sirhan knew he would be there and planned the killing ahead of time.
Sirhan to this day looks more and more like The Manchurian Candidate, of a kind; or more likely a product of the CIA’s MKULTRA project-gone-awry, an effort to use LSD to get “normal” people – like Lee Harvey Oswald, not to mention the Manson girls? – to kill without regret.
As a smart man so often says, “Art imitates life.”
Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsman and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.
The views expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of this website.