While sometimes compared unfavorably with director John Frankenheimer’s other political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May is a riveting melodrama about a planned military takeover of the US government. It is not as inventive as Candidate, but it is at least as suspenseful. If the central situation seems a little dated (Burt Lancaster is a popular Chief of Staff who uses public discord about a nuclear disarmament treaty as the excuse for a coup d’état) the basic threat remains as real as ever.
It is easy to feel a touch of nostalgia for the movie’s political simplicities. On one side we have right thinking, liberty-loving, (lower case) democrats. On the other, strutting, blatantly self-serving quasi-fascists are ready to destroy the Constitution in the name of protecting it. Giving them cover are those nasty, reliably perfidious Soviets, still a bogeymen in post-McCarthy America. (The film was made in 1964.) Substitute “terrorists” for “Soviets,” however, and you can recognize that the transformation of political complexities into simple formulas remains all too current, and that such reductionism is not restricted to the movies. The temptation to give into authoritarian diktat as an illusory means of making problems go away remains as strong as ever.
Seven Days starts tough, with a riot in front of the White House, and punches forward relentlessly, stumbling only when it indulges in a gratuitous bit of titillation about Lancaster’s romance with Ava Gardner. Blatantly tacked on to the main story, it is difficult to take her scenes seriously, although Gardner is affecting. The performances generally are compelling, including Kirk Douglas in the central role of the Marine colonel who uncovers the plot. Rod Serling’s script has characters making speeches about politics, liberty, the American Way and so on, but whenever the script threatens to get bogged down in a swamp of talk, Frankenheimer, a master of action suspense, pushes things along.
It remains melodramatic, but not because the central conflict is cut and dried. Serling fulfills the first requirement of superior dramatic fiction—he gives the villain a good argument. More difficult to accept matters include characters dying at just the right moment to create a crisis, or lucky coincidences that allow information to be uncovered, or implausibilities like the Douglas character, who is clearly not trusted by the conspirators, nonetheless being allowed to hang around long enough to get a sense of what his boss is planning. There are also felicitous touches, however, like one character having to borrow a dime to make a phone call to “stop a revolution,” or the giddy, tickled pink reaction of a junior naval officer to the news he’s been re-assigned to Pearl Harbor after unwittingly giving Douglas important information.
The heated situation overrides the contrivances through sheer pace, drive and urgency. Reservations pale in the light of the film’s success in dramatizing a threat to political freedom that has not faded with the Soviet Union, merely taken new form.