7 Days in May (aka Seven Days in May) (1964): John Frankenheimer’s Oscar Nominated Political Thriller

Adapted by Rod Serling from the best-selling novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Waldo Bailey II, Seven Days in May was John Frankenheimer’s follow-up to his superb noir paranoia tale, The Manchurian Candidate, in 1962.

Inspired by the right tendencies of General Edwin Walker, this fictional tale was successful due to its absorbing and gripping tale, excellent technical execution, and all-star cast, including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Ava Gardner in the leads, and Frederic March, Martin Balsam, and Edmond O’Brien, who was nominated for an Oscar, in the supporting roles.

The movie was released right after the Kennedy assassination, in November 1963, and before the escalation of the American involvement in Vietnam.

Burt Lancaster plays General James M. Scott, who plots a military takeover of the United States. He’s convinced that President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is too liberal and too soft on the country’s enemies, and that something needs to be down about it.

However, President Lyman’s attempts to find factual evidence of General Scott’s scheme is scuttled by political protocol, error and death. And it’s not clear whether the errors are “human” and the deaths “accidental.”

Who do you trust?

Ultimately, Lyman must rely upon the man who first uncovered the plot, Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas).

Frankenheimer’s taut direction and Ellsworth Fredericks’ stark black and white images, and good acting (with the stars submerging their glamorous looks) contribute to the film’s “documentary” feel.

Narrative Structure (How the Plot Unfolds)

Deviating from the book, the tale is set in the early 1970s, ten years in the future at the time of the film’s 1964 release, when the Cold War is still a problem.  In the 1962 book, the setting was May 1974, after a stalemated war in Iran.

U.S. President Jordan Lyman (March) has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, and the ratification by the Senate has caused controversy and even dissatisfaction, especially among the military, who distrust the Soviets.

Pentagon insider, US Marine Corps Colonel “Jiggs” Casey, the Director of the Joint Staff (Kirk Douglas), stumbles on evidence that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), intend to stage a coup d’etat to remove Lyman and his cabinet in seven days.

The plan calls for a secret Army unit, ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol) to seize control of the country’s communication systems, phone, radio, and television networks, preventing Congress from implementing the treaty.

Though personally opposed to Lyman’s policies, Casey is upset by the plot. Healerts Lyman, who gathers his trusted advisors: Secret Service White House Detail Chief Art Corwin, Treasury Secretary Christopher Todd, advisor Paul Girard, and Senator Raymond Clark of Georgia.

Meanwhile, Casey shrewdly pays a social visit to General Scott’s former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner) to ferret out potential secrets mentioned in indiscreet letters. Their scene together is ripe with both political and erotic tensions.

The alcoholic Clark (Edmond O’Brien) is then sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to locate the secret base, and Girard leaves for the Mediterranean to obtain confession from Vice Admiral Barnswell, who declined to participate in the coup. Girard gets the confession in writing, but is killed when his flight crashes, and Clark is taken captive when reaching the secret base.

However, Clark convinces the base’s deputy commander, Colonel Henderson, a friend of Casey’s, not to participate in the coup and to help him escape. They reach Washington, DC, but Henderson is abducted and confined in a military stockade.

Lyman calls Scott to the White House, demanding that he resign. Scott denies the existence of the plot, but denounce Lyman and the treaty. Lyman argues that a coup in America would prompt the Soviets to make a preemptive strike. Scott maintains that the American people are behind him. Lyman is about showing Scott the letters obtained from his mistress, but then decides against it and allows Scott to leave.

Scott meets the other three Joint Chiefs, demanding they that stay in line since Lyman does not seem to have evidence of their plot. reassured, they agree to continue the plan to appear on television and radio simultaneously to denounce Lyman.

However, Lyman holds a press conference, prepared to announce that he has fired the four men. As Lyman is speaking, Barnswell’s hand-written confession, recovered from the plane crash, is handed to him and he delays the conference.

Copies of the confession are delivered to Scott and the other plotters. As the broadcast of the press conference resumes, Scott prepares to go forward with the coup anyway, but then gives up when he hears President Lyman announce that the other three plotters have resigned.

In the film’s ambiguous ending, Lyman addresses the American people on the country’s future, but leaving the question of General Scott’s fate unresolved.

Made on a budget of $2.2 million, the film was received well by critics and viewers, earning over $7 million ($3.65 in rentals) at the box-office

Cast

Burt Lancaster as US Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff
Kirk Douglas as USMC Colonel “Jiggs” Casey
Fredric March as US President Jordan Lyman
Ava Gardner as Eleanor Holbrook
Edmond O’Brien as US Senator Ray Clark
Martin Balsam as Paul Girard, aide to the president

Andrew Duggan as Colonel “Mutt” Henderson, friend of Jiggs Casey
Hugh Marlowe as Harold McPherson, TV commentator who is one of the conspirators
Whit Bissell as US Senator Fred Prentice, another conspirator
Helen Kleeb as Esther Townsend, secretary to the president
George Macready as Chris Todd, member of the president’s cabinet
Richard Anderson as Colonel Ben Murdock, a conspirator
Bart Burns as Art Corwin, head of Secret Service

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: Edmond O’Brien
Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Cary Odell; Edward G. Boyle

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context
The winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Peter Ustinov for “Topkapi.”

Credits
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 118 Minutes.

Produced by Edward Lewis
Screenplay by Rod Serling, based on “Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel & Charles W. Bailey II.

Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredricks
Edited by Ferris Webster

Seven Arts Productions and John Frankenheimer-Joel Productions Inc.
Distributed by Paramount.
Release date February 12, 1964