Seven Days in May (1964) – John Frankenheimer’s chilling Cold War era political thriller


The 1960s saw Hollywood producing some great thrillers that reflected the Cold War paranoia that was prevalent during the time. Some great examples are Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (a satire), Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe,  The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May both directed by John Frankenheimer. Seven Days in May was adapted from a novel of the same name and it was Kirk Douglas who brought the idea of adapting it to Frankenheimer. Frankenheimer brought on renowned screenwriter Rod Serling, who was behind the famous sci-fi show The Twilight Zone. The scenario presented in the novel is a scary one and when President John F. Kennedy read the novel, he pondered the possibility of the fictional events described in the novel actually happening and he finally came to the conclusion that they could.


When President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) signs a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, it provokes the ire of his political and military opponents. The man who seems to be the most shaken and enraged by it is General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). Scott is wildly ambitious and fervently opposes this treaty. He, along with his followers, are suspicious of the Soviets and believe that they won’t hold their end of the bargain. Scott is confident that he is the man the country really needs and has great plans for it’s future. When the odd behavior of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gets the attention of Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), he learns that Scott is planning a coup d’etat and intends to remove Lyman from his President’s chair in seven days. Casey informs the President and very soon, steps are taken to prevent that from happening.


Burt Lancaster’s character was apparently based on a real-life General named Edwin Walker, who was anti-Communist and was asked to resign by President John F. Kennedy. Frankenheimer was at the height of his creative peak in the 60s and he was just the right man to take on a subject like this. His documentary-style handling of some of the scenes brings a sense of immediacy and he succeeds in maintaining the tension throughout the film. The sharp and fiery dialogues sound similar to the kind of dialogues that Aaron Sorkin writes today. Remember those lines of Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men? The final confrontation scene between Lyman and Scott reminded me of that one a little. Of all the actors, Lancaster is the one who shines above the rest. It’s his commanding screen presence and powerful delivery of lines that I was struck by the most.


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