Seven Days in May (1964)
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by John Frankenheimer
U.S. President Jordan Lyman has signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union which has led to the American public beginning to question if he should resign. Meanwhile, US Marine Colonel Casey works in the Pentagon and comes across evidence that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by Air Force General Scott, are plotting a coup d’etat to remove Lyman. The overthrow of the government will be staged a military emergency exercise, but involve Scott commandeering the airwaves to announce Lyman being forced out of office. Casey has only a week to work with the President and find solid proof to show the American people. But at every turn, Scott and his people are there to stop them.
This was Frankenheimer’s follow up to The Manchurian Candidate, another entry in the political thriller genre but entirely different from the former film. The Manchurian Candidate was built heavily on the friendship between Shaw and Marco, while Seven Days in May manages to balance a personal story and fully flesh out the conspiracy plot. After recently rewatching The Manchurian Candidate I noticed that the Chinese and Russian character are sort of dropped from the plot halfway through to focus on Shaw exclusively. While that in no way hurts the quality of that film, it does leave us wondering about what the full scope of the brainwashing conspiracy is.
Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone, penned this screenplay, and we get a much better sense of the mechanics of the conspiracy. By the end of the film, we have a full understanding of the logistics of Scott’s coup, who all the major players are, and the purpose. At the same time, there is a small personal subplot involving Casey and one of Scott’s former lovers, Eleanor. Through dialogue, we learn Casey has had a short affair with Eleanor after Scott left her. Her close ties to Scott become key to leverage the President is seeking to take down the rogue general, and this leads to some devastating moments between her and Casey.
This is yet another film deeply entrenched in the Cold War era. I was reflecting back on the scope of these films since I started this marathon and it is interesting to see how more substantial their focus has become. Movies like Mr. Smith and The Great McGinty are very local, small plots, exclusively about Americans and their form of government. With Frankenheimer’s pictures, we begin to see America in a global context, the constant threat of Soviet aggression and duplicity looming over the stories.
Fredric March, who plays President Lyman, delivers a robust speech about the nature of America and war:
“There’s been abroad in this land in recent months a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win without war the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander because our country is strong, strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud, proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men, are wrong. We will remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient, and we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.”
Looking at this through the context of “The War on Terror” and American aggression in the Middle East it is clear that foreign policy has dramatically shifted in the ensuing near sixty years since Seven Days in May was made. With the appointment of former ambassador John Bolton to National Security Advisor, we have in essence promoted a General Scott to a seat of tremendous power in the White House. President Trump is no shrinking violet when it comes to making grandiose statements about potential war. It is clear he sees pre-emptive strikes as a sign of American strength. It’s funny that in our current context, some people hope for a coup led by military leaders promoting a peaceful diplomatic path.