Directed by John Frankenheimer, this film teams with his masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate to form a potent one-two punch of Cold War paranoia. The earlier film, with Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey, boasted a more complex plot and a layer of political satire that’s not found here. That doesn’t make Seven Days in May a lesser film, just a different one with different goals.
The film takes place at an undefined time, supposedly around 1970 or so, and the U.S. has entered into a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. President Lyman (Fredric March) negotiated this treaty and got it through the Senate, but at great cost to his political fortunes. He and the treaty are now slightly less popular with the American people than syphilis. A charismatic general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), is vocally opposed to the treaty and not at all shy about saying so in front of Congress. It’s no secret that Scott has his sights on occupying the White House.
His loyal aide, Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), begins to notice some odd communications flowing through the general’s office, references to bases and units he’s not familiar with, accompanied by a strangely secretive betting pool on the Preakness. He begins to add up the pieces and decides that General Scott’s plans for the White House may not involve waiting for an election year.
He goes to the White House with his suspicions, namely that General Scott is planning a military coup d’etat under the cover of a scheduled military exercise. At first, the President and his people are understandably skeptical, but when a trap that Col. Casey suggests catches General Scott in a plan to make sure that the President attends this exercise, whether he likes it or not, all the President’s men are faced with the unpleasant reality that James Mattoon Scott will stop at nothing to stop the implementation of the treaty, and the Constitution is no obstacle.
Kirk Douglas was originally signed to play the role of General Scott, but he realized that his friend Burt Lancaster was perfect for the role and took the less flamboyant role of Col. Casey. This was good thinking on his part because it’s hard to imagine anyone but Lancaster as the charismatic general. For his part, Douglas fits perfectly into the quieter role as the loyal officer torn between friend and country.
Even if you don’t care one way or the other about the politics of the film, it works on the level of a pure thriller as well, building suspense and uncertainty with every efficient turn of the screw. Between the first-rate cast, a director at the top of his game, and a compelling story, this movie belongs on any “A-list” of essential Cold War movies.