Reflections on "Seven Days in May" (1964)

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Screenplay by Rod Serling

(From the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W Bailey)

Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March and Ava Gardner


A video presentation of this material is available here.


"Seven Days in May" was made at the peak of the Cold War and toward the end of the era of McCarthyism, and the principal catalyst for its action is the divisive issue of peace between the major powers of America and Russia, and how best to maintain it.

President Jordan Lyman has, with the approval of the governing authorities, signed a treaty with Russia which requires both great powers to do away with their nuclear arsenals. However, this has met with considerable political and public disapproval and anxiety, and the case for maintenance of the existing nuclear deterrent is championed by General James Mattoon Scott, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who claims the opposition cannot be trusted and America must be able and ready to defend itself against aggression.

Scott seeks to maintain his nation's strength and control through perpetuation of power and threat, while Lyman seeks to establish safety and security for all by eliminating the nuclear threat to all. One promotes national defence and posturing while the other advocates international co-operation and detente.

The crux of the film is, from General Scott's standpoint, how best to challenge the legal and political situation in order to effect change. Using constitutionally endorsed, and therefore legal means, will take time and so, convinced he has the support of the people and he is acting in the best interests of his country, General Scott conspires with other like-minded Chiefs of Staff to seize power militarily.

The dichotomy between politics and the military is somewhat blurred as devotion to duty and service to country are confused with the knowledge, wisdom and authority to direct duty and country. It appears that these military leaders have grown overly accustomed to authority, military discipline and the following of orders and they possess, perhaps, a necessarily blinkered and restricted view of political strategy and reality.

General Scott dazzles audiences with his charismatic delivery of single-minded rhetoric untroubled by the complexities of political understanding, compassion, tolerance and doubt. This is a man whose certainty and belief in himself signify strength for many and engender admiration, but these may also be viewed as his greatest weaknesses as they blind him to other paths and the potential consequences of his actions.

Support is expressed for Scott's views at political rallies, but his supporters would undoubtedly expect the principles and values he espouses to be validated by democratic means. However, Scott and his co-conspirators display egotistical delusions of grandeur when, used to authority and direct action, they perceive in this public support a mandate for the autocratic taking of political power.

The calmly intelligent, persuasive and manipulative Scott involves other senior figures in his plan to overthrow the elected government of the US, but he and his plan are dependent upon the blind devotion to military command of his subordinates.

At one point, when a US Senator is held in a secret military camp, this devotion is put to the test and is found lacking. A senior officer, when disabused of his carefully devised ignorance concerning the whole truth and purpose of his mission, opts to put allegiance to the values of the Constitution above loyalty to his military commander and helps the Senator to escape from the secret compound, and I imagine many more under Scott's command would also put patriotic loyalty above personal or military allegiance.

General Scott is eventually accused by President Lyman of being a megalomaniac with a Napoleon complex. It would certainly require a huge ego and sense of self-importance to allow him to overrule the very duty and loyalty to nation he claims to hold sacrosanct, though apparently these apply only if the government is travelling in a direction of which he approves, thus underlining his egomaniacal nature.

This nature, augmented by the authority of his elevated position, triggers a willingness to put himself above the constitutional process of election and endowing of responsibility. The principles and values he espouses may be genuinely held, but his untoward methods and attempts to impose his views are debatable to say the least, and reveal facets of his character which may be considered less than admirable.

In contrast, President Lyman is a man of principle who will not stoop to personal attacks, even when the chips are down. He may be viewed as an elder statesman focused on the bigger international picture. He is not self-centred or self-promoting and he is willing to work with former enemies and make concessions, if these are reciprocated, in order to build a lasting and secure relationship based on understanding and tolerance, not national or individual strength and threat.

His great weakness, certainly in the eyes of General Scott and his supporters, is his dependence on trust. Lyman must trust that his counterpart shares his vision and is able to deliver on his proposals on his side, while Scott rejects that position entirely. Lyman offers a way forward based on aspiration to reciprocal trust and confidence while Scott offers a historically successful defensive position based on fear and distrust.

Politically speaking, each position is valid, but in terms of the Constitution, only one man has the authority to act and that concept is really at the core of the film. All actions should be measured against the idealistic and objective values set out in the Constitution, values that are held as sacrosanct, and which may even be regarded as the true heroes of the film.

This contention is supported by the attitude and actions of Colonel Jiggs Casey, General Scott's right-hand man.

Dramatically speaking, Col. Casey is probably the most interesting character as he faces personal challenge and conflict while other main characters represent fixed and opposing views. At one point, Casey reveals he shares the political views of General Scott but, unlike Scott, he accepts the status quo and is willing to play his part to support government policy, offering a contrasting yet similar perspective on Scott's viewpoint.

Casey discovers evidence of a military plot to overthrow the government, and his perceptions, suspicions and actions allow the authorities to avoid an embarrassing and potentially calamitous event. However, he is forced to choose between disloyalty to his much-admired commanding officer and loyalty to his commander-in-chief and the Constitution, and he reluctantly adopts underhand and distasteful tactics to uncover the whole truth, causing pain to himself and to others. He is praised frequently for his actions in defence of his nation but he is profoundly distressed by the personal ethical price he has had to pay, in terms of what he sees as betrayal and manipulation, to achieve his mission.

Toward the end of the film, Scott, who demands and expects loyalty and respect from his staff, accuses Casey of being a Judas but Casey points out that it is he, Scott, who has failed to maintain loyalty and respect to the principles and values of his nation.

Burt Lancaster gives a powerful portrayal of threatening strength and power while Fredric March and Kirk Douglas are thoughtful and pained as their characters dig deep to combat this enemy within.

The intelligent and literate script, combined with taut direction, allow for ample character development and expansion of the points of view and arguments advanced by the characters, as well as the personal impact the core conflict has on each, and all within a framework of ever-increasing tension, drama and suspense.

Apparently, at the time of the film's release in 1964, John Frankenheimer stated he saw his film as a nail in the coffin of McCarthyism, but I suspect certain characters, traits and actions may resonate with contemporary viewers.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (