I recently watched John Frankenheimer’s 1964 movie Seven Days in May, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Ava Gardner. It’s about a right-wing general’s attempt to start a military coup against the President of the United States. It’s based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, and the screenplay was written by Rod Serling. Seven Days in May is a tense, intelligent film that asks big questions about the relationship between the Presidency and the military. In the movie, the President, played by the great actor Fredric March, has just signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. This proves to be a very unpopular action, and right-wing Air Force General James Scott (Lancaster) feels as though the President has betrayed and weakened the country. Colonel Casey (Douglas), an aide to Scott, senses that something fishy is going on, as he starts learning of secret military bases and lots of interest in an office horse-racing pool. Casey soon discovers that Scott and the other Generals on the Joint Chiefs of Staff are planning to use a training exercise to take over the United States government. Casey goes to the President with what he knows, and an investigation begins.
Seven Days in May is a great political thriller, and Frankenheimer was the perfect person to direct it. Using black-and-white film, he creates a tense mood similar to his earlier film The Manchurian Candidate, in which things are not quite what they seem. Fredric March gives a great performance as the embattled President, who is just trying to do what he thinks is best. Kirk Douglas is excellent as Colonel Casey, whom everyone calls “Jiggs.” Douglas gives a pretty restrained performance, but it fits the movie, and the part, perfectly. Sometimes it’s hard to have the less flashy part that anchors the movie, but Douglas did a great job, and he’s very likable as Casey. Douglas said, “I haven’t played a lot of nice guys in my time, so I enjoyed that.” (The Cinema History of Burt Lancaster, by David Fury, p. 170) Lancaster was also excellent as General Scott, even though he was cast against type both as a villain and as a right-winger. (In real life Lancaster was very liberal politically.)
Lancaster wanted to make Scott a real character, not just a cardboard cut-out, and he succeeded. Scott isn’t an evil person. Scott is just doing what he feels is right, out of his patriotic obligation to protect America from its enemies. Scott feels that the Soviet Union is using the treaty as a trick to launch a pre-emptive attack on the United States, and he thinks that he can best protect the country he loves by essentially staging a military coup. Lancaster didn’t overplay the part. There’s a scene in the movie where Scott gives a speech at a conservative rally. Lancaster could have easily played it over the top, using all his Elmer Gantry-like charm and charisma to sell Scott’s point of view. But he plays it much more low-key, much closer to how a real General would address such a gathering. I think the scene works because Lancaster played it this way. I admire Lancaster’s ability to play someone who he totally disagreed with in real life, and to play a character that is not very sympathetic. Lancaster is really playing a supporting role in Seven Days in May, as Douglas has much more screen time. (Lancaster still got top billing, though.) In a way, there’s a lack of ego to Lancaster’s acting that I find very appealing. Obviously, he had an ego, you probably can’t remain a top Hollywood star for forty years and not have an ego, but he also didn’t seem to be hung up on his own image as a star. He was not afraid to play unsympathetic parts like J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, or Emil Jannings in Judgment at Nuremburg. If the part called for big bushy eyebrows, mutton chops and a moustache, like in The Leopard, Lancaster was willing to be made up to look like a much older man. I’m not saying that Lancaster was a character actor, because he really wasn’t, but he was a big movie star who was also willing to do whatever it took to fit the part. It wouldn’t fit for General Scott to suddenly come on like Elmer Gantry, with Lancaster’s mega-watt smile of blinding teeth, and so Lancaster holds back. Pamela Tiffin, who co-starred with Lancaster in 1965’s The Hallelujah Trail, said this about working with him:
“Burt was not worried at any time about other actors and if they had more lines, if they had close-ups, if they had more screen time. That was one of the most wonderful things about him when I knew him. There was no pettiness in him whatsoever. And that’s rare.” (Against Type, by Gary Fishgall, p. 237)
The supporting cast of Seven Days in May is excellent as well, with Martin Balsam as the President’s Chief of Staff, Edmond O’Brien as a drunken Southern Senator who sobers up once things get serious, and Ava Gardner as Scott’s ex-lover. O’Brien gave a great performance, and he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor as well. March was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Leading Actor in a Drama. March lost the Golden Globe to Peter O’Toole’s brilliant performance in Becket. (In a perfect world, I think both O’Toole and his Becket co-star Richard Burton should have won Oscars for Becket.) Interestingly enough, both O’Brien and Gardner had co-starred in Lancaster’s first movie, The Killers, in 1946. However, in The Killers, Lancaster and O’Brien have no scenes together, since O’Brien is playing the private detective who is investigating Lancaster’s death. And in Seven Days in May, Lancaster and Gardner have no scenes together.
What did the United States government think of Seven Days in May? It was released in February, 1964, just three months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Predictably, the military hated it, and had wanted Frankenheimer to submit a script for Pentagon approval. Frankenheimer refused. Kennedy himself, however, had read the novel and strongly encouraged the movie to be made. When Kennedy ran into Kirk Douglas at a party before filming began, he asked Douglas if he planned to make the movie. “When Douglas replied yes, the President proceeded to tell him why and how it would make an excellent movie.” (Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, p. 230) For the opening scene of the movie, Frankenheimer wanted to film a mock protest outside of the White House between pro and anti-disarmament treaty protestors. Kennedy arranged his schedule so that he and the First Family would be in Hyannisport for a weekend, thus giving Frankenheimer the opportunity to capture the scene.
Kennedy was highly skeptical of the military after getting burned early in his administration during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. (The military had assured Kennedy the invasion plan would work; it didn’t.) Kennedy also earned the wrath of some right-wing generals who thought he should have taken more aggressive military action to support the Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. According to Richard Reeves’s book President Kennedy: Profile of Power, “John Kennedy distrusted the military, at least its commanders….Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Maxwell Taylor were the men he entrusted with one of his fundamental goals: gaining civilian control over the military.” (President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, p. 306) Kennedy also faced severe pressure from the military to act during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Many of Kennedy’s military advisors advocated a preemptive strike against the Cuban missile sites. But cooler heads prevailed, and Kennedy was able to skillfully defuse the crisis without starting a nuclear war. Kennedy said of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we listen to them, and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.” (This quote is from a photo caption in President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves.)
Kennedy was genuinely appalled at the idea of nuclear war, and despite his sometimes tough rhetoric, he was determined to maintain peace at the height of the Cold War. Early in his Presidency, he sat through a meeting where he was presented with the American plans for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. (Kennedy was not seriously considering such an attack, it was merely a contingency plan.) After listening to details of exactly how many missiles would be fired, and learning how much they would destroy, Kennedy disgustedly said, “And we call ourselves the human race.” (Reeves, p. 230) Kennedy thought it was “insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” (One Minute to Midnight, by Michael Dobbs, p. 229)
Like President Lyman in the film, Kennedy also signed a weapons treaty with the Soviet Union, although Kennedy’s treaty was much more limited and was not a total disarmament treaty. It was the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater. It was the first significant arms control treaty of any kind signed by both the United States and the Soviet Union. JFK signed it on October 7, 1963. Kennedy had called for the Treaty much earlier, and he advocated for it in a remarkable speech he gave at American University on June 10, 1963. The topic of Kennedy’s speech was world peace, and the speech was written by him and Ted Sorensen, his most trusted speechwriter. In the speech, Kennedy argued for seeing citizens of the Soviet Union in a more human light. Kennedy said, “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” (Let the Word go Forth: The Speeches, Statements, and Writings of John F. Kennedy-1947 to 1963, p. 285) In the same speech, Kennedy stressed what the citizens of the world have in common, saying, “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” (Let the Word go Forth, p. 286) This was actually a pretty radical thing to say in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, to actually acknowledge that the Russians were people too, just like us. Today Kennedy’s speech at American University is seen as one of his most eloquent.
When JFK’s friend Red Fay asked Kennedy if he thought the events depicted in the novel Seven Days in May could ever actually happen in the United States, Kennedy had an interesting response.
“It’s possible. But the conditions would have to be just right. If the country had a young President, and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced?’ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation and only God knows just what segment of Democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment. Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs it could happen. It won’t happen on my watch.” (Reeves, p. 305-6. Story originally from Red Fay’s book The Pleasure of His Company.)
There were certainly right-wing military men during this period who were very contemptuous of liberalism and Kennedy. Perhaps the most well-known was Major General Edwin Walker, who had served in World War II and Korea. By the late 1950’s Walker was convinced that many of America’s leaders were too soft on Communism. Walker began giving long lectures to his troops, and eventually telling them how they should vote. Walker used “a political index prepared by a group so far to the right that it did not even give Barry Goldwater a perfect score.” (Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, by David Talbot, p. 72) For these acts, which broke many Army regulations, Walker was relieved of his command and transferred. Walker became a darling of the far right, and eventually resigned from the Army. Walker was also a racist, and he protested the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Was Walker really trying to start a military mutiny, or was he just a slightly wacky John Bircher? It’s more likely that he was just the latter, but he was investigated for sedition after his conduct during the riot at Old Miss when James Meredith tried to enroll in classes. And then Walker’s story just gets stranger. Walker lived in Dallas, and on the evening of April 10, 1963, someone fired a bullet at him through the dining room window of his house. The bullet hit the window frame, thus saving Walker’s life. Walker just had a minor cut on his forearm from bullet fragments. The crime went unsolved at the time, with no real suspects. However, once President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald immediately became a suspect in the Walker shooting. While Oswald did not confess to firing the shot at General Walker, the Warren Commission concluded that it was in fact Oswald who fired at General Walker. It makes some sense that the apparently left-leaning Oswald would have a hatred for the right-wing General Walker, but if he did indeed fire the shots at General Walker, why would he assassinate the liberal Kennedy just seven months later? Like many things in Oswald’s life, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless Oswald was just trying to get famous, and didn’t really care who he tried to shoot.
There’s a final, sad note in the relationship between John Frankenheimer and the Kennedys. Frankenheimer was a very good friend of Bobby Kennedy’s, and when Kennedy was running for President in 1968, he spent the day of the California primary, June 4th, at Frankenheimer’s house in Malibu. Later that evening, Frankenheimer drove Kennedy to his victory party at the Ambassador Hotel. After making his victory speech, Kennedy was walking through the kitchen of the hotel when he was shot three times by Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy died 26 hours later. While Frankenheimer was driving Kennedy to the Ambassador, he was speeding and missed a turn off of the freeway. As Frankenheimer cursed himself, Bobby Kennedy said to him, “Take it easy, John. Life is too short.”