The story of J.M. Barrie's friendship with a family who inspired him to create Peter Pan.
Nominated for 2 OSCARS: Best Supporting Actor (Edmond O'Brien), Best Art Direction
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Americans have a long history of turning to military heroes in times of political crisis. From George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, whose Presidency ended less than five years before Seven Days in May was produced, Americans have often elected successful generals when they lose faith in politicians to lead the country. This history also has a darker, undemocratic current. There had long been suspicions of a generals’ plot to seize power from Franklin Roosevelt, and the novel, upon which Seven Days in May is based, took its inspiration from rumors that General Curtis LeMay considered ousting John F. Kennedy.
The film’s plot takes these innuendoes and provides a fictional narrative. In a future 1970, the President (Frederic March) has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with Soviet Union. The treaty is deeply unpopular with the American people who are scared that the Russians will break the treaty, leaving the United States defenseless. Air Force Chief of Staff General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) has become a symbol for opponents of the treaty to rally around. Scott, along with other members of the military, Congress, and the media instigate a plot to seize the Executive Branch of the government. His aide, Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), begins to uncover this plan and takes his concerns to the President. Then Casey, along with a small group of the President’s most trusted friends, including Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien) and Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), must protect Constitutional democracy from a dangerous domestic threat.
An intriguing plot is not enough, though, for an effective film, and Frankenheimer uses all his skills as a director to place the audience “within” the action. In the opening scene of protestors fighting outside the White House, the brawl is shot with quick cuts and a constantly moving camera as if the audience were watching news film or a documentary. Frankenheimer places the camera behind the head of characters so we see the action from their perspective. He uses this technique most effectively in a scene where Scott is informing the other Joint Chiefs of his plans, forcing the audience to have the same perspective of the film’s villain. He uses other techniques to remind the audience of the stakes. Note especially a scene between Scott and Casey where Scott attempts to discover whether Casey would be amenable to the overthrow plot. When the camera is on the disloyal Scott, a missile is behind him. When the camera is on the loyal Casey, an American flag is behind him.
The performances match the directing. Lancaster plays Scott as a man so convinced of the rightness of his cause, so convinced that the country may not long survive without his rescue, that he defies the cliche power-mad General. We can still see in Scott the bravery that won him (to use Casey’s words) “a chestful of medals that is only half of what he deserves.” Douglas plays Casey almost as a counterpoint to Scott, a man plagued by doubt and uncertainty. We believe Casey when he first tells the President of the suspected plot that he hopes his suspicions are unfounded. If it is true that the Presidency ages a man, then Frederic March plays the role precisely right. Burdened not only by the weight of the office but also profound unpopularity, March embodies a weary man who knows that he is placing all his energy into this last fight to defend the Constitution. When he tells Scott that the election is in “a year and nine months,” it sounds like a finish line. The film is also savvy about television, which most films look down upon. Key moments, such as Scott’s speech to a conservative audience and the President’s triumphant press conference at the end of the film are shown to the audience through television. Frankenheimer (or perhaps Serling) knew that as a “cooler” medium television would provide a greater contrast between Scott’s angry speech about patriotism and the President’s response that patriotism is meaningless without the principles of democracy and civil liberties.
Seven Days in May is not merely a period piece, exposing the paranoia of one moment in the Cold War. One only needs watch Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and that film’s re-imagining of the Kennedy assassination as coup d’etat to see the continuing power of this narrative. The film exposes our fears about the instability of democratic government. That great question of whether any government whose legitimacy rests in the hands of the people rather than divine right or military might “can long endure.”