(Photo Courtesy: cinema.ucla.edu)
Opening with a dramatic countdown superimposed over the Constitution, Seven Days in May is a compelling and engaging film right from the very beginning. Director John Frankenheimer immediately puts us in a position to choose a side: are you hawk, dove...or owl?
"This country will probably live as if peace were just a big a threat as war."--Edmond O'Brien as Senator Raymond Clark
The above quote is as good a place to start as any when discussing Seven Days in May. Clark's statement is just as profound now as it was at the film's release in 1964, and that is why this film holds up incredibly well even today--there is never a shortage of debate between those who want to use military force whenever possible and those who advocate diplomacy, debate, and peace.
When the President of the United States, Jordan Lyman (Fredric March), signs a treaty with the Soviet Union in order to dismantle nuclear weapons, supporters and detractors alike come out of the woodwork. The President's detractors are not found just with placards and slogans in front of the White House, they are also found close to his ear from the Pentagon. Burt Lancaster is perhaps at his finest in the role of Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff...and the main rival to Jordy Lyman. And it is Scott who sees the prospect of peace as a threat.
It is very early in the film that Col. Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) realizes that something is incredibly wrong with the circumstances surrounding an upcoming military exercise and what appears to be a phantom base. This phantom base, it is revealed, will be the staging point for General Scott's plan to isolate President Lyman and take control of the government. It's from here on out that there is a great deal of suspense that builds up simply through dialog--there are no bullets, explosions, or car chases; the film is guided brilliantly by Rod Serling's incredible screenplay. From President Lyman's doctor saying, "Why in God's name we elect a man president and then try to see how fast we can kill him..." to Col. Casey and Senator Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell) taking verbal jabs at each other regarding "neutrality, evasiveness, and fence straddling" and "cocktail courage", or Senator Clark's "You got a dime to stop a revolution with?" it is Rod Serling's screenplay that creates all of the action.
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas may be the two big stars, but the supporting cast of Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Martin Balsam, Whit Bissell, an all-too-briefly-used John Houseman and George Macready are in no way lesser characters or individuals in the film. It's a grand testament to the script that every actor in the film has an equally powerful performance; there are no "weak sisters", to steal a phrase from the film.
Ava Gardner is wonderful as the broken Eleanor Hollbrook. She's tough on the outside, but fragile as can be on the inside, something that Gardner seemed born to play--check out her roles in The Night of the Iguana (1964) or 55 Days at Peking (1963) for further examples. Martin Balsam was never terrible in anything and is/was an underrated character actor. His role as presidential aide Paul Girard is short, but he plays perhaps the most important part in the film as certain events surrounding him play the key to how the film ends. George Macready isn't quite at his Macready-est (read: haughty), but he does show an unscrupulous hand in wanting to deal with Lancaster's General Scott. And then there's Whit Bissell. Here's a man who is in damn near every movie ever made. I say damn near, because the other character actor who is in the films not featuring Bissell is Ian Wolfe...but that's neither here nor there. Bissell is one of those actors you may not recognize by name, but you'll definitely know him when you see him. As Senator Fred Prentice, he pulls off the smarmy politician just as well as he pulls off a benevolent scientist (The Creature from the Black Lagoon).
The best lines in the film are reserved for three characters: Senator Clark, General Scott, and President Lyman. At the top of this piece, Senator Clark's comment pretty much lays the groundwork for the philosophical debate that is at the heart of the film. But it isn't his only great line. After being detained at Site Y (the phantom base), a friend of Jiggs Casey's comes to get Clark out and back to Washington. Before he does so, Clark reveals what is happening: "All you gotta know right now is this--right now the government of the United States is sitting right on top of the Washington Monument; right on the very point, tipping right and left and ready to fall off and break up on the pavement." There's probably no better way to describe a potential coup.
But of all the great lines uttered by Edmond O'Brien, it is actually March who brings the film to its highest philosophical peak--when confronted with the fact that General Scott is the enemy: "He's not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe; they're not the enemy. The enemy is an age. A nuclear age." President Lyman and General Scott finally confront each other with all their cards on the table in one of the most natural-feeling and charged scenes you will ever see on film...
Christ, that's great acting! March is utterly flawless during that scene; so flawless it almost can't even be called acting, but embodying the words as they flow through him. I'd vote for that man.
1964 was a tremendous year for film, much to the detriment of Seven Days in May. Garnering only two nominations (Best Supporting Actor--Edmond O'Brien...who, by the way, lost to Peter Ustinov for his role in Topkapi; a good film and a good role, but come on!..., and Best Art Direction), it faced an uphill battle in the other categories against films like Beckett (which saw Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton nominated for Best Actor), Dr. Strangelove, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady (Best Picture winner) and Zorba the Greek. Even Rod Serling's incredible screenplay failed to get a nomination, again in favor of the films above. In addition to having Serling's screenplay, director John Frankenheimer was in the midst of a truly great stretch of films that included Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Train (1962), and Grand Prix (1966), putting him near the top of the list for directors of the day. Sadly, he did not receive an Academy Award nomination for any of these films.
It's a shame that Seven Days in May didn't receive the award recognition that others from 1964 received, but it is not in any way an inferior film to those that were nominated. And with tensions between the United States and Russia ramping up once again, a film such as Seven Days in May is definitely worth working into your rotation.