Seven Days in May

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Seven Days in May
Sevendays moviep.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by John Frankenheimer
Edward Lewis
Screenplay by Rod Serling
Based on Fletcher Knebel
Charles W. Bailey II (novel)
Starring Burt Lancaster
Kirk Douglas
Fredric March
Ava Gardner
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography Ellsworth Fredericks
Edited by Ferris Webster
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • February 12, 1964 (1964-02-12) (Washington, DC)
Running time
118 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2.2 million (est.)
Box office est. $3,650,000 (US/Canada)[1]

Seven Days in May is an American political thriller motion picture directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Ava Gardner, and released in February 1964. The screenplay was written by Rod Serling based on the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, published in 1962.

The story is said[by whom?] to have been influenced by the right-wing anti-Communist political activities of General Edwin A. Walker after he resigned from the military. An additional inspiration was provided by the 1961 interview by Knebel, who was also a political journalist and columnist, conducted with the newly appointed Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay,[citation needed] an advocate of preventive first-strike nuclear option.

President John F. Kennedy had read the novel and believed the scenario as described could actually occur in the United States. According to Frankenheimer in his director's commentary, production of the film received encouragement and assistance from Kennedy through White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, who conveyed to Frankenheimer Kennedy's wish that the film be produced and that, although the Pentagon did not want the film made, the President would conveniently arrange to visit Hyannis Port for a weekend when the film needed to shoot outside the White House.


The story is set several years into the future during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, not long after a stalemated conflict in Iran similar to the Korean War (the novel gives the date of May 1974, while license plates and map displays in the film are labelled May 1970). With the ever-present possibility of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction, U.S. President Jordan Lyman signs a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, with both nations agreeing to simultaneously destroy their nuclear weapons under mutual international inspection. The ratification produces a wave of public dissatisfaction, especially among the President's opposition and the military, who believe the Soviets cannot be trusted.

As the debate rages, a Pentagon insider, United States Marine Corps Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey, becomes suspicious of behavior among the Joint Chiefs of Staff and comes to a shocking conclusion: the Joint Chiefs, led by his charismatic superior officer, Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, intend to stage a coup d'état to remove President Lyman and his cabinet in seven days. According to the plan, an undisclosed Army combat unit known as ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol) will seize control of the country's telephone, radio, and television networks, while the conspiracy directs the military and its allies in Congress and the media from "Mount Thunder" (a continuity of government base based on Mount Weather) to prevent the implementation of the treaty.

Although personally opposed to President Lyman's position, Casey is appalled by the unconstitutional cabal and alerts the president of the potential threat. Lyman forms a small inner circle of trusted advisors and friends to investigate, including Secret Service Director Art Corwin, Treasury Secretary Christopher Todd, adviser Paul Girard, and Georgia senator Raymond Clark.

Casey makes the pretense of a social visit to General Scott's former mistress, the vulnerable Ellie Holbrook, to ferret out potential secrets that can be used against him (he leaves in possession of compromising letters between her and Scott). The aging, alcoholic Clark is sent to El Paso, Texas to locate the supposed "Site Y" military base, while Girard leaves for the Mediterranean to obtain a written confession from Vice Admiral Farley C. Barnswell (who is known, through a response to a code involving the Preakness Stakes horse race, to have declined participation in the coup). Girard gets the written confession, but is killed when his flight crashes into a mountain in Spain, while Senator Clark is taken captive by conspirator Colonel Broderick upon finding the secret base and is held incommunicado. The senator convinces Colonel Mutt Henderson, the base's deputy commander and friend of Col. Casey's, to help him escape. They succeed, though when Clark makes a call to the president, Henderson is arrested by Scott's men.

A showdown with Scott is scheduled in the Oval Office, with the president confronting him and demanding the resignation of both him and all Joint Chiefs involved in the plot. Scott initially denies any guilt, claiming that the president had verbally approved the secret base in Texas, before freely challenging the treaty, arguing it would weaken the U.S. and lead to an attack by the Soviets. Lyman counters with the suggestion that a military coup could result in a preemptive strike by Moscow. Scott is unmoved, stating that he feels the American people are behind him and his position. Lyman considers using the blackmail letters, but decides against it, and allows Scott to leave.

Shortly thereafter, Scott briefs the other three members of the Joint Chiefs, demanding they stay in line and reminding them that the president does not seem to have the evidence they would need for charging them with treason. Somewhat reassured, the others agree to stick to the plan to appear on all television and radio networks simultaneously on Sunday to denounce the president. However, Lyman first holds a press conference where he demands the resignation of Scott and all co-conspiring members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (that is, not including Barnswell), interrupted only by an attaché from the U.S. Embassy in Spain bringing Barnswell's handwritten confession, recovered from the plane crash. A copy is given to Scott and the other officers in on the plot, who have no choice but to resign and call off the coup. The ending has Lyman addressing the American people on the country's future.



Kirk Douglas and director John Frankenheimer were the moving forces behind the filming of Seven Days in May; the film was produced through Douglas's Joel Productions. Frankenheimer wanted the screenwriter to be a partner in the production, and Rod Serling agreed to this arrangement. Douglas agreed to star in it, but he also wanted his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster to star in the film as well. This almost caused Frankenheimer to back out, since he and Lancaster had butted heads on The Birdman of Alcatraz several years before. Only Douglas's assurances that Lancaster would behave kept the director on the project.[2] Ironically, Lancaster and Frankenheimer became close friends during the filming, while Douglas and the director had a falling out.[3][4] Frankenheimer was also very happy with Lancaster's performance, and noted in the long scene toward the end between Lancaster and March, probably his all time favourite directed scene, that Lancaster was "perfect" in his delivery and that no other actor could have done it better.[5] Most of the actors in the film Frankenheimer had worked with previously, a directorial preference. Frankenheimer, in the DVD commentary for the film, stated that he would not have made the movie any differently decades later and that it was one of the films he was most satisfied with.[5] He saw it as a chance to "put a nail in the coffin of McCarthy".[5]

Many of Lancaster's scenes were shot later on as he was recovering from hepatitis.[5] The filming took 51 days and according to director John Frankenheimer the production was a happy affair, and all of the actors and crew displayed great reverence for Fredric March.[5] Ava Gardner, whose scenes were shot in just six days, however, thought that Frankenheimer favored the other actors over her and Martin Balsam objected to his habit of shooting off pistols behind him during important scenes.[2] Frankenheimer remarked that she was a "lovely person" and overwhelmingly beautiful, but at times "difficult" to work with.[5] Interiors for Seven Days in May were shot at the Paramount studios in Hollywood, and on location in Paris, France, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Arizona and in California's Imperial Valley.[6][7] The director had formerly been in the military and had been inside the Pentagon so didn't have to conduct much research for the film; he stated that the sets were totally authentic, praising the production designer.[5] In addition, many of the scenes in the film were loosely based on real-life events of the Cold War to provide authenticity.

In an early example of guerrilla filmmaking, Frankenheimer photographed Martin Balsam being ferried out to the supercarrier USS Kitty Hawk, berthed at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, without prior Defense Department permission. Frankeheimer needed a commanding figure to play Vice-Admiral Farley C. Barnswell and asked his friend, well-known producer John Houseman to play him, to which he agreed, on condition that he have a fine bottle of wine (which is seen during the telephone scene), although he was uncredited for it. It was Houseman's American acting debut, and he would not appear onscreen again until his Oscar-winning role in 1973's The Paper Chase. Frankenheimer also wanted a shot of Kirk Douglas entering the Pentagon, but could not get permission because of security considerations, so he rigged a movie camera in a parked station wagon to photograph Douglas walking up to the Pentagon. Douglas actually received salutes from military personnel inasmuch as he was wearing the uniform of a U.S. Marine Corps colonel.[8] Several scenes, including one with nuns in the background, were shot inside Washington Dulles International Airport which had recently been built, and the production team were the first ever to film there.[5] The alley and car park scene was shot in Hollywood, and other footage was shot in the Californian desert in 110 degree heat. A secret base and airstrip was specially built in the desert near Indio, California, and they borrowed an aircraft tail in one shot to make it look like a whole plane was off the picture.[5] Originally the script had Lancaster die in a car crash at the end after hitting a bus, but in the end this was edited out in favour of a small scene of him departing by taxi which was shot on a Sunday in Paris after the filming of the train scene in France.[5]

Getting permission near the White House was easier. Frankenheimer said that Pierre Salinger conveyed to him President Kennedy's wish that the film be made, "these were the days of General Walker" and, though the Pentagon did not want the film made, the president would conveniently arrange to visit Hyannis Port for a weekend when the film needed to shoot outside the White House.[9] Kirk Douglas recalled President Kennedy approving of the making of the film.[10] The director considered the scene in which Douglas's character visits the president to be a masterful scene of acting which would have been technically very difficult for most actors to sustain.[5] He had done similar scenes on many television shows, and every camera angle and shot was extensively planned and rehearsed as was the acting in the scene by the actors. Frankenheimer paid particularly attention to ensuring that the three actors in the scene were all in focus for dramatic impact. Many of Frankenheimer's signature shots were used in scenes such as this through the film, including his "depth of focus" shot with one or two people near the camera and another or others in the distance and the "low angle, wide lens" which he considered to give "tremendous impact" on a scene.[5]

Some efforts were made in the film to have the movie appear to take place in the near future, for instance the use of the then-futuristic technology of video teleconferencing, and of the use of (more exotic) foreign cars in place of (more ordinary) American cars. The film also featured the then recently issued M16 rifle.

Alternate ending[edit]

According to Douglas, an alternate ending was shot, but discarded:

General Scott, the treacherous Burt Lancaster character, goes off in his sports car, and dies in a wreck. Was it an accident or suicide? Coming up out of the wreckage over the car radio is President Jordan Lyman's speech about the sanctity of the Constitution.[4]

This alternate ending echoes the novel, which ends with the apparent vehicular suicide of Senator Prentice.


Seven Days in May premièred on 12 February 1964, appropriately in Washington, D.C.[11] It opened to good critical notices and audience response.[2]

The film was nominated for two 1965 Academy Awards,[12] for Edmond O'Brien for "Best Actor in a Supporting Role", and for "Best Art Direction-Set Decoration/Black-and-White" for Cary Odell and Edward G. Boyle. In that year's Golden Globe Awards, O'Brien won for "Best Supporting Actor", while Fredric March, John Frankenheimer and composer Jerry Goldsmith received nominations.

Frankenheimer won a Danish Bodil Award for directing the "Best Non-European Film" and Rod Serling was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for "Best Written American Drama".


The film was remade in 1994 by HBO as The Enemy Within with Sam Waterston as "President William Foster", Jason Robards as "General R. Pendleton Lloyd", and Forest Whitaker as "Colonel MacKenzie 'Mac' Casey". This version followed many parts of the original plot closely, while updating it for the post-Cold War world, omitting certain incidents, and changing the ending.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1964", Variety, 6 January 1965: 39 . Please note this figure is rentals accruing to distributors not total gross.
  2. ^ a b c Stafford, Jeff, Seven Days in May (article), TCM .
  3. ^ Frankenheimer, John and Champlin, Charles. John Frankenheimer : A Conversation Riverwood Press, 1995. ISBN 978-1-880756-13-3
  4. ^ a b Douglas, Kirk. The Ragman's Son. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Frankenheimer, John, Seven Days in May DVD Commentary, Warner Home Video, May 16, 2000
  6. ^ IMDb Filming Locations
  7. ^ Notes, TCM .
  8. ^ Pratley, Gerald. The Cinema of John Frankenheimer London: A. Zwemmer, 1969. ISBN 978-0-302-02000-5.
  9. ^ Arthur Meier Schlesinger (1978). Robert Kennedy and His Times. ISBN 978-0-7088-1633-2. 
  10. ^ Seven Days in May commentary as part of the Kirk Douglas Featured Collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research
  11. ^ Overview, TCM .
  12. ^ "Seven Days in May". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-25. 

Further reading[edit]

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