"Then, by God, run for office! You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country…why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?"
The film version of Seven Days In May is based on the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II and is brought to the screen by director John Frankenheimer (Ronin, 52 Pickup, The Manchurian Candidate) and screenwriter Rod Serling of "Twilight Zone" fame. One of the best political thrillers ever made, it is the story of an attempted coup d'etat of the United States government lead by head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster).
Scott and other Joints Chiefs feel that President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has betrayed the safety of the United States by signing a controversial disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. With Lyman's approval numbers in the cellar, Scott and the other generals feel the time is right for new leadership that, of course, only the military can provide. Making secret deals with various leaders in Congress and with broadcast executives, Scott plans on seizing control of the US on the first Sunday running of the Preakness horse race when the country's military is running safety maneuvers.
Kept out of the loop, Scott's top aide, Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas), begins to suspect something is going on when he finds himself being shut out of meetings and conversations. Putting things together, piece by random piece, Casey makes the hardest decision of his life and brings his suspicions to the President. Finding all of Casey's evidence somewhat hard to believe, Lyman assembles his closest friends and allies, sending them off to various points of the world to investigate. The information they return with shows that Casey is indeed right and the way of life that all hold dear is perilously close to ending.
With the clock ticking, lives are threatened, lives are lost and confrontations ensue. Will Scott succeed in his bloody takeover or will Lyman and his just cause carry the day? This is the story of Seven Days In May and I'm not going to ruin any of its surprises here.
It is quite interesting going back and watching a film such as Seven Days In May. As the director states on the commentary track, this is a movie that could not be made today for several reasons. First of all, in this age of lightning fast media, such a military coup would be near impossible to mount, much less carry out. Secondly, and more importantly, the faith in America's politicians is so low that Fredric's March's speeches about honor would be held in such low regard as to make them laughable. The man would either be ridiculed or impeached for seeming too naïve.
Those caveats aside, it is remarkable how well Seven Days in May holds up today. The film crackles with energy and tension. Frankenheimer's style of direction is perfect for this film, from the deep focus, wide-angle shots to the low camera angles that heighten impact, the film is a testament to the abilities of this great filmmaker.
For as effective as Frankenheimer's work behind the camera is, it is Serling's terse, taunt dialogue that lets the film soar. Characters sound like real people, not mouthpieces, and everyone's motivations and reasons for action are explored. There are no cardboard cutouts here. For those of you out there who only associate Serling with "The Twilight Zone," well, you are advised to watch this film and see what a master can really do. Taken out of context and put into today's cynical, faster than lightning media, many of the speeches will seem dated, but to me they ring with a core belief in the American system of government and true sense of honor and dignity.
Seven Days In May also benefits from strong work from its "A" list cast. As the informer, Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey, Kirk Douglas (There Was A Crooked Man, Spartacus, Paths of Glory), shows why he was one of the most sought after leading men of his day. This is one of his best performances. Even when doing things he finds morally distasteful, Douglas has his character maintain his focus and his cool. Never thinking himself the hero, his character does what he needs to, all for love of country and flag. It is solid, sturdy work from an actor in his prime.
At the opposite end is Burt Lancaster (Field Of Dreams, Atlantic City, Elmer Gantry) as America's would be savior, General Scott. Giving a well-textured performance that never lapses into stereotype, Lancaster convinces us that he believes all his rhetoric. It is his own solid belief in everything he says and his force of conviction, not to mention the actor's own magnetism, which makes us accept the idea of so many people blindly marching with him into a ring of treason. Lancaster is long one of my favorite actors and the work here only contributes to my belief in his talent.
In the middle and as the person who moved all these players into position is Frederic March (Inherit The Wind, The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit, The Best Years Of Our Lives) as President Jordan Lyman. With having the benefit of almost 40 years of history since this film was made, Lyman constantly reminded me of President Jimmy Carter. Lyman is a man of deep convictions and of high moral fiber, a man unafraid of putting what he perceives as the best thing for his country over the best thing for politics. More than willing to accept the wrath of public opinion, this old lion is unwilling to see the government he holds so dear taken by force, and the constitution he so loves trashed in the name of difference of opinion. In one of the last great performances of a long and distinguished career, March is wonderful. Serling saves his most floral and elegant prose for Lyman and March pulls it off with all the power and dignity one could imagine. Always human and flawed but still with that core belief of what is right and what is wrong, March keeps his character real and never lapses into melodrama. He provides the film with its moral compass and does not fail to see it home.
Seven Days in May also has a couple of the best character actors of the day in support. Martin Balsam (All The President's Men, Little Big Man, Psycho) and Edmond O'Brien (The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Fantastic Voyage) are great as Lyman's two top advisors. Again taking what could be clichéd roles and making them real, both actors help the film tremendously.
Seven Days In May is given a sparkling anamorphic transfer from Warner that preserves its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and all I can say is I wish all black and white films were given this treatment. While the print used does show its age in spots with some degree of dirt and scratches, the image itself is a revelation. Contrast is razor sharp with the blacks being solid and true. There is detail to spare, with the picture rarely showing any shimmer or pixel breakup. In the commentary track Frankenheimer hits the nail on the head when he says this movie would not have been nearly as effective in color. I have always found that B&W really focuses the viewer on the action, with color often acting as a distraction. Certainly I could not imagine Seven Days in May looking any other way.
For my money, Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, Alien, Star Trek: First Contact) is one of film's greatest composers. Here he contributes an early, effective score that is minimalist in both composition and in use throughout the film. It is heard to very good effect in the Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack. While the music comes through loud and clear, Serling's dialogue is never sacrificed. It is a very clean sounding audio track with surprising fidelity and very few signs of advanced age.
The disc's sole special feature is a scene specific commentary track with director John Frankenheimer. If you have listened to Mr. Frankenheimer on previous releases, you know what to expect. Like the man and his films, his commentary tracks are honest, informative, entertaining and sometimes blunt. He gives some very good insight into the production of the film and mixes little tidbits of interesting information throughout. For people interested in becoming filmmakers, I think a listen would be mandatory as Frankenheimer discusses in detail his shot selection and why things are put together the way they are. Be warned though, there are frequent gaps in his commentary, but they are usually there so that the dialogue can be heard. None of the gaps last long but for some people, it may be a problem.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have any complaints with the film itself. Some may find it slightly dated but I'm not among that crowd. As a disc, well, I would have preferred a documentary feature of some kind, but with almost the entire cast long deceased, I can understand its absence.
It is rare when a film can be thrilling without being action packed or full of gunfire and quippy one-liners. Seven Days In May is indeed one of those rare films. It thrills with words, execution and ideas. The movie has great performances from the Willis and Schwarzenegger of its day, Douglas and Lancaster, and it's a great example of what real star power is all about. The movie moves with a swiftness and grace that is a testament to the skill of all involved and it's a film that really deserves the moniker "classic."
Priced to purchase from Warner, there really is no question in my mind—this is a movie to own. Do yourself a favor, click on the Amazon.com link and order away. At the very least, give it a trial run with a rental. I don't think you will be disappointed.
Seven Days In May is acquitted of all charges. Both the film and its DVD incarnation are great examples of their respective mediums. If there is nothing else, have a good day. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Feature Length Audio Commentary by Director John Frankenheimer
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