Seven Days in May (1964) uses a most meaningful and chilling biblical term in the crackling dialogue: “false prophets”. It is this phrase, so well known, and occasionally exploited by religious fundamentalists, that we hinge this post on, and not so coincidentally, this election year.
This is the fifth and last movie we will discuss in our series on the treatment of fascism in classic films. The previous four films were The Mortal Storm (1940), Address Unknown (1944), Storm Warning (1951), and Keeper of the Flame (1942).
“False prophets” is the term used by star Fredric March to describe General Edwin Walker, a real-life figure, who attempted a political career, unsuccessfully, after President John F. Kennedy accepted his resignation in November 1961. Walker, an outspoken critic of political figures and members of the government he felt were communist sympathizers – naming, in his accusations, President Harry S. Truman, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and others in government, used his position in the Army to impose his extreme right-wing views and attack those who did not agree with him. Crossing the line of propriety, not to say prudence, among military figures who desire political power is nothing new. General Douglas MacArthur, also frustrated in political aspirations, was removed from his position by President Truman when he attempted to sidestep the authority of the President and run the Korean War in his own manner, which included his intention to escalate a full-scale war with China.
Adolf Hitler was a soldier in World War I who blamed Germany’s defeat on the politicians, and thought he could run things better, too.
The story in Seven Days in May is fictional, but that it was, and is, entirely plausible makes the movie an important voice not only of those tense days of Cold War crisis when nuclear weapons raised the ante in a war of words with the Soviet Union, but remains relevant today. Nuclear weapons have not gone away. A new demagogue has risen from the dark corners of a free and tolerant society to exploit it. Donald Trump, however, was not a soldier or representative of our arms services. He has declined membership and avoided the draft on several occasions. But he has more support and free range than any false prophet in our history. The lazy, shallow, and inept media, and a moronic legion of extreme right-wing supporters, has allowed this. They even celebrate it.
Though we have seen much in this election year alone to make us jaded, nevertheless I don’t think that keeps us from feeling the power of Seven Days in May, the shock of the characters facing an unimaginable threat to our democracy. Though it was made at the height of the Cold War, and is set in a vague not-too-distant future of the early 1970s, the theatricality of the movie (it is really a series of “drawing room scenes”); the sharp, literate dialogue; the fast-paced plot; and the stellar acting make this movie as equally relevant today as it is a timepiece from an era when the media wasn’t so much a “loose cannon” as it is today, providing a showcase for other loose cannons.
I first read the novel on which the movie is based when I was in high school, and re-read it before preparing for this post. I understand much more about politics and government, and life, than I did at sixteen – but the eerie chill that something like this could happen remains just as profound in middle age as it did in my teens, but the movie works even simply an entertaining thriller of Cold War intrigue, if one is unaware of how real it is.
Directed by John Frankenheimer, everything in the film is a purposeful tool, right down to the credits which count off to seven numerals superimposed over the Articles in the Constitution. The arrows in the talons of the eagle on the presidential seal, they are weapons. They are a threat – but not to foreign enemies. They also resemble missiles.
We begin with an orderly protest of marchers carrying signs in front of the White House. We, today, might be first struck that the protesters are well-dressed, conducting themselves with cordial dignity. Compared to protest mobs today, it looks like a country club cotillion. We are not sure exactly what they protest, but soon there is a group of counter protesters. They are for the president. They are against the president. They are for a nuclear weapons treaty. They are against the treaty. In another moment, the scene becomes less strange and more familiar to us – the two factions get loud, ugly, and start to beat each other up.
Fredric March is a beleaguered President, who has just signed a pact with the Soviet Union over the use of nuclear weapons. His ratings in the polls has dropped. His doctor warns him about his high blood pressure. He is a man of principle, but he is discouraged and fed up.
Among his confidants is a Southern senator played by Edmond O’Brien, terrific in the role as an acerbic, no-nonsense career politician. He also has a drinking problem, which he recognizes with a mixture of sadness and amusement. Martin Balsam is an adviser. The movie is so jam-packed with the best actors of the day, just picking them out is entertaining.
Burt Lancaster shines as a General of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has come to The Hill to testify to a senate committee that he feels the treaty with the Soviet Union is a bad idea, that it makes our country vulnerable. He makes several impassioned points. “There hasn't been a single piece of paper written in the history of mankind that could serve as a deterrent to a Pearl Harbor. I sometimes wonder why we haven't learned that lesson by now. Every twenty years or so we have to pick ourselves up off the floor bleeding and pay for that mistake. Those mistakes are delivered to us C.O.D. by peace loving men. And bought and paid for with the lives of other men. Men in uniform.”
Kirk Douglas is Lancaster’s aide, a Marine Corps colonel who agrees with Lancaster’s view that the disarmament treaty isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Mr. Douglas will soon become embroiled in a mystery, a political controversy, and inevitable disillusionment in the man he most admires – Burt Lancaster – when he discovers that Lancaster is planning to take over the government and appoint himself as dictator in a military coup.
It begins, innocently enough, when Kirk Douglas discovers betting slips left by the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the coming Preakness horse race. He is amused by this, and especially amused that an admiral is too cheap to cough up a ten-dollar bet.
Soon, the young aide who let this funny gossip slip, as well as the code used by the betters: ECOMCON, has suddenly been reassigned. He’s there one day, gone the next.
An old friend of Douglas, played by Andrew Duggan, is a colonel who has been assigned to a new secret base in Texas, and he confesses to Douglas that he is baffled by the mission for which he and his men are training: not defense, but seizure of the government. Douglas, fearing something is going on behind his boss’s back, keeps his eyes and ears open. We follow him to a Washington cocktail party, where he meets up with Ava Gardner, who happens to be Lancaster’s former mistress, whom Burt has dumped.
We follow Douglas as he tails the car of a firebrand right-wing senator to Lancaster’s home in the middle of the night. We follow Douglas through a darkened parking garage, and through the halls of the Pentagon. We come to understand, as he does, eventually, that Burt Lancaster is plotting to take over the country. Lancaster has established the secret base, unknown to the President and other members of the government, and will take over all the media first, shut them down, and then throw the treaty out.
Douglas, choked by his suspicion, brings it to the President, but neither Fredric March nor his staff believe him at first. Still, they look into the matter.
Edmond O’Brien is dispatched to Texas to find out where this secret base is. He is kidnapped and held in confinement at the base. Knowing his problem with alcohol, O’Brien is brought a steady supply of whiskey to quiet and disorient him, which he heroically pours down the toilet. Andrew Duggan checks on the prisoner, and O’Brien manages to convince him about the plot to overthrow the government. Duggan fires on his own men to free O’Brien in a daring nighttime escape. Then Duggan disappears.
President Fredric March was slated to attend scheduled war games exercises in a secluded bunker with Lancaster, but he declines to go, insisting he is going to go to his fishing camp instead. He doesn’t; he cleverly remains safe at the White House, and it is discovered that Lancaster’s henchmen arrived at the fishing camp on a mission to kidnap March.
Martin Balsam is sent to an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to obtain the confession of the admiral who knew about the plot, but decline to place his “bet”. He is played, in his acting debut, by John Houseman. A masterful scene, as Houseman squirms, wishing he had more time. His gentlemanly guilt turns our stomachs. But the pot is not foiled just yet. The tables are turned when Balsam, signed confession in hand, dies in a plane crash. Houseman will later lie and insist he never signed any confession document.
Douglas is sent to New York to woo and con Ava Gardner out of her love letters from General Burt Lancaster in an attempt to use anything against him to stop him from taking over the government. It is a chore that sickens him.
It’s a nail-biting finish, but an 11th-hour lucky break for the doomed democracy occurs, and Fredric March, proof in hand, demands the resignations of all the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lancaster, with that steely-eyed glare that bores through the unfortunate person to whom he is speaking, arrogantly declines, and openly declares his intentions to take charge. He insults the President, and the presidency, and declares war on democracy to get what he wants.
Their firey exchange:
Lancaster, resplendent in his uniform, his broad shoulders, his ramrod straight posture of a proud, accomplished man. He is filmed from a low camera angle, so he looks even taller, mightier: “I'm here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles, when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.”
President Fredric March, sitting, older, looking defeated and horrified, “And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, would it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply cry.”
Lancaster, addressing himself in the third person, the telltale sign of the depth of his conceit: “James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding interest in the survival of this country.”
March responds “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?”
But with evidence in hand, and a still-free press in place, and men in the military—like Kirk Douglas and Andrew Duggan—who may not agree with politicians, but who agree that as military men their purpose is to defend the Constitution and not to circumvent it—Lancaster’s coup collapses. Lancaster accuses Kirk Douglas of being a Judas. “Are you sufficiently up on your Bible to know who Judas was?”
Douglas, at attention, looks him in the eye and answers, calmly, without any passion, “Yes, Sir, I know who Judas was. He was a man I respected and admired—until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform.”
It has been noted that the Pentagon did not want this movie made, but that President John F. Kennedy supported it, through his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, and “conveniently” left for weekends at Hyannis so the film crew would be free to film exteriors in front of the White House.
Fredric March offers a summary of the evil of the day: “He's not the enemy. Scott, the Joint Chiefs, even the very emotional, very illogical lunatic fringe: they're not the enemy. The enemy's an age, a nuclear age. It happens to have killed man's faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy, for others it was a General Walker, and now it's a General Scott.”
I would suggest, however, that this is not a sickness specifically of the nuclear age. Hitler’s rise to power was not a product of the nuclear age, nor Napoleon’s, nor any dictator through history who exploited misery, spread lies, and relied upon the ignorance and bigotry of an easily-manipulated populace to steal power. The only distinction between the dictators or would-be dictators of history and Donald Trump is Trump has the advantage of a media enamored of “reality” television, who regards him as entertainment and thus has given him a platform and stature he would not have so easily attained in another age. He has been given a free ride to fame. He has learned through the process that he can do whatever he likes, the more obnoxious he is, the more attention he gets.
The truth is what he decides it will be. His rabid followers will not complain so long as they agree with him. When he goes after them, they will have no one to turn to for help—except any trace of democracy that might be left to shield them.
Benjamin Franklin announced at the close of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 that his colleagues had created “a Republic—if you can keep it.”
President Barak Hussein Obama told the delegates assembled in the same city at the Democratic National Convention this year that “democracy works, but we’ve got to want it.” As regards Trump, the President noted, “We don’t look to be ruled,” he said. “Anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.”
It is up to us to make sure they fail, those “false prophets.”
Returning to that term, for those extreme right-wing fundamentalists who are so fond of looking ahead, almost gleefully, to Armageddon, a warning of “false prophets” occurs several times in the Bible. We use the imagery of the Bible too much like a Rorshach test, seeing what we want to see. Look hard and see if you can recognize Donald Trump.
In Matthew 7:15 (quoting from the King James Bible):
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
And from John 8:44:
He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
This concludes our five-part series on how fascism was depicted in classic films. I would like to conjecture why modern filmmakers don’t cover, intellectually and passionately, the issues of our own times, instead of wiping them away with allegorical stories of space warriors and fictional superheroes. But I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the wish to be “politically correct” has made seeming to take a partisan editorial stance in a film too uncomfortable, leaving one too open to criticism, sort of "damned if you do and damned if you don't," or is just unprofitable.
Or maybe our society, and especially our movies and media, just needs to grow up.
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.
Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.
Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.