“I’m going to tell you the damnedest story you ever heard.” So says one of the characters in Seven Days in May as he explains to a rescuer the fantastic events that have befallen him.
In the “not too distant future”, pacifist US President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) is about to sign a disarmament pact with Russia, with both countries agreeing to get rid of their nuclear arsenals. He has a bitter opponent in his Chief of Staff, General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who claims that the President’s foreign policy is leading the nation to disaster.
The policy is also condemned by the General’s chief aide, Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas).
Going about his business in the Pentagon, Casey realises he is stumbling across old coincidences and snatches of conversations that suggest the General is hatching a military plot to kidnap the President and take over the government.
Casey secures an audience with the President to tell him of his fears, and the President rounds up the only five men he trusts implicitly and gives them the task of getting proof of the suspected treason. He dispatches them on top-secret missions to all parts of the world to gather any evidence they can find against General Scott.
Casey is sent to the home of an ex-mistress of the General (Ava Gardner) to see if she can throw any light on the threatened revolt. Southern senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) goes into the Texas desert searching for a mysterious base at which a special force is thought to be training to carry out the General’s plans. Senator Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) heads to Gibraltar to investigate the suspicious conduct of an admiral.
There are seven days until the intended coup, and as the General and his henchmen spend them finalising their incredibly intricate plans, the President and his aides are working against time in a bid to prevent national disaster.
As the seven days dwindle agonisingly down to a mere handful of minutes to zero, the rest of the nation is blissfully ignorant of the catastrophe that hangs threateningly over its head.
Suspense mounts increasingly as the deadline approaches, and credit for this must be shared between a brilliant cast and director.
Burt Lancaster makes an unusual kind of villain. The General he plays is not a ranting, raving maniac, but a quietly determined person obsessed with the belief that he alone can save his country from disaster.
Another forceful performance is given by Kirk Douglas as a man torn between personal loyalty to the General and duty to his country. As the President, Fredric March gives a typically powerful performance.
The director who guides them so brilliantly is John Frankenheimer, who scored great successes with Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Manchurian Candidate (also 1962). Particularly fascinating in Seven Days in May are his impressions of a futuristic Pentagon with huge clocks remorselessly recording the passing of time and its closed-circuit television cameras trained on all corners to scan everybody’s movements.
Seven Days in May was scheduled for release in December 1963 but was delayed until the following year because of the assassination of President Kennedy in November.
Donald Trump probably thinks this was a documentary . . .
General James Mattoon Scott
Colonel Martin ‘Jiggs’ Casey
President Jordan Lyman
Senator Raymond Clark
Senator Paul Girard
Col. William ‘Mud’ Henderson
Sen. Frederick Prentice
Secret Service White House Chief Art Corwin