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Seven Days in May (1964)


John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) considered Seven Days in May, the next film he made after his most popular film, The Manchurian Candidate, as one of the films he was most satisfied with and the experience of making the film one of the most pleasant in his career, crediting the esteem the rest of the cast held for Fredric March, who plays US President Jordan Lyman. The cast also includes Burt Lancaster as US Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Kirk Douglas as USMC Colonel “Jiggs” Casey, one of Scott’s underlings, Ava Gardner as Eleanor Holbrook, Scott’s former mistress and romantic interest for “Jiggs”, Edmond O’Brien as the senior Senator from Georgia, Ray Clark, and Martin Balsam as Paul Girard, White House Chief of Staff and close personal friend to the president. The screenplay was written by Rod Serling based on the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, published in September 1962.

The following is copied from Wikipedia:

The story is set in 1974, ten years in the future at the time of the film’s 1964 release, and the Cold War is still a problem. U.S. President Jordan Lyman has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, and the subsequent ratification by the U.S. Senate has produced a wave of dissatisfaction, especially among Lyman’s opposition and the military, who believe the Soviets cannot be trusted. A Pentagon insider, United States Marine Corps Colonel “Jiggs” Casey, stumbles on evidence that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by its charismatic chairman United States Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, intend to stage a coup d’etat to remove Lyman and his cabinet in seven days.

The book was written in late 1961 and into early 1962, during the first year of the Kennedy administration, reflecting some of the events of that era. In November 1961, President John F. Kennedy accepted the resignation of vociferously anti-Communist General Edwin Walker who was indoctrinating the troops under his command with personal political opinions and had described former President Harry S. Truman, former United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and other recent still-active public figures as Communist sympathizers. Although no longer in uniform, Walker continued to be in the news as he ran for Governor of Texas and made speeches promoting strongly right-wing views. In the film version of Seven Days in May, the President, mentions General Walker as one of the “false prophets” who were offering themselves to the public as leaders.

As they collaborated on the novel, Knebel and Bailey, who were primarily political journalists and columnists, also conducted interviews with another controversial military commander, the newly appointed Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, who was angry with Kennedy for refusing to provide air support for the Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The character of General James Mattoon Scott itself was believed to be inspired by both General Curtis LeMay and General Edwin Walker.”

Not only, as the Wikipedia article mentions, were the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation real concerns at the time the novel was written, but the nation was still reeling from the effects of the McCarthy era. The careers of many in the film business, including Fredric March, had suffered during the witch hunt and as Frankenheimer says in the commentary track recorded in 1999, he saw the film as chance to “put a nail in the coffin of McCarthy”. Though the scene where the following lines are delivered by March is in the book, the dialogue is pure Serling:

He’s not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they’re not the enemy. The enemy’s an age – a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it’s a General Scott.”

The following lines are also delivered by March, this time directly to General Scott:

You want to defend the United States of America, then defend it with the tools it supplies you with — its Constitution. You ask for a mandate, General, from a ballot box. You don’t steal it after midnight, when the country has its back turned.”

In 1964 most Americans would be roused by those words but today, as Frankenheimer points out in the same commentary track, many Americans have lost faith in elections and those lines would be more likely to elicit eye-rolls.

I will end my review with excerpts from an excellent commentary by John W. Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a non-profit organization based in Charlottesville, Virginia, dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and human rights:

Unfortunately for the American people, the coup d’etat wresting control of our government from civilians and delivering it into the hands of the military-industrial complex happened decades ago, while our backs were turned. Over the past half-century, America has actually been at war more than we’ve been at peace, enriching the military-industrial complex with trillions of taxpayer dollars. Now we find ourselves in the unenviable position of trying to rein in a runaway militarized government with a gargantuan and profit-driven appetite for war.

Together, the military-industrial complex and its counterpart, the security-industrial complex (a.k.a. corporate surveillance state), serve as the iron-fisted right and left hands of the police state that now surrounds and profits from us. Consequently, we now find ourselves navigating a strange new world of militarized police, urban training exercises, domestic military training drills, SWAT team raids and military battle weapons and equipment used against Americans domestically — all funded by millions of dollars in grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

So what does Seven Days in May have to do with the military-security-industrial complex, government grants for training exercises and terrorism preparedness, and military drills staged to look like the real thing?

Instead of an answer, let’s try another series of questions. How do you get a nation to docilely accept a police state? How do you persuade a populace to accept metal detectors and pat-downs in their schools, bag searches in their train stations, tanks and military weaponry used by their small-town police forces, surveillance cameras in their traffic lights, police strip searches on their public roads, unwarranted blood draws at drunken driving checkpoints, whole-body scanners in their airports, and government agents monitoring their communications?

Try to ram such a state of affairs down their throats, and you might find yourself with a rebellion on your hands. Instead, you bombard them with constant color-coded alerts, terrorize them with shootings and bomb threats in malls, schools and sports arenas, desensitize them with a steady diet of police violence, and sell the whole package to them as being for their best interests.

And when leaders like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon come about who not only dare to challenge you by championing peace over war but actually manage to get people to pay attention, you carry out surveillance on them, intimidate them, threaten them and eventually do away with them, knowing full well that few will rise up to take their place.”

Full commentary by John Whitehead here.