Seven Days in May

Seven Days in May Information

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 with a screenplay by Rod Serling based on the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, which was published in 1962.

The story is said 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, 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 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'etat 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, in New York City to ferret out potential secrets that can be used against him (he leaves in possession of morally 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 nonparticipant in the coup, 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 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 members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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.


  • Burt Lancaster as General James Mattoon Scott
  • Kirk Douglas as Colonel Jiggs Casey
  • Fredric March as President Jordan Lyman
  • Ava Gardner as Eleanor Holbrook
  • Edmond O'Brien as Senator Ray Clark
  • Martin Balsam as Presidential aide Paul Girard
  • Andrew Duggan as Colonel Mutt Henderson
  • Hugh Marlowe as Harold McPherson, TV commentator
  • Whit Bissell as Senator Fred Prentice
  • Helen Kleeb as presidential secretary Esther Townsend
  • George Macready as Secretary Chris Todd
  • Richard Anderson as Colonel Ben Murdock


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. 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. Ironically, Lancaster and Frankenheimer became close friends during the filming, while Douglas and the director had a falling out.

Some of the other actors had problems with Frankenheimer. Ava Gardner thought he favored the other actors over her and Martin Balsam objected to his habit of shooting off pistols behind him during important scenes.

John Houseman, then a well-known producer, made his American feature acting debut in a small role as a vice-admiral (he would not appear onscreen again until his Oscar-winning role in 1973's The Paper Chase).

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. 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. He 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. The charge of Impersonating a Military Officer was a real possibility.

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. Kirk Douglas recalled President Kennedy approving of the making of the film.

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. The film also featured the then recently issued M16 rifle.

Alternate ending

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


Seven Days in May premiered on 12 February 1964, appropriately in Washington, D.C. It opened to good critical notices and audience response.

The film was nominated for two 1965 Academy Awards, 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

  • A Very British Coup, a 1988 3-episode miniseries, based on Chris Mullin's novel about an attempted right-wing overthrow of a left-wing British government
  • List of fictional revolutions and coups
  • Politics in fiction

This webpage uses material from the Wikipedia article "Seven_Days_in_May" and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reality TV World is not responsible for any errors or omissions the Wikipedia article may contain.



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