CLASSIC CONSPIRACY MOVIE PICK OF THE WEEK
This week, I’m recommending the 1964 movie Seven Days in May, the other politically paranoid film from the 1960s by director John Frankenheimer. (He also directed The Manchurian Candidate, one of the best-known films in this category.)
The plot of Seven Days in May revolves around a deep-cover government conspiracy. It’s not an unfamiliar idea now, but it probably seemed hopelessly implausible in the early 1960s. That’s because the whole thing revolves around a conspiracy among high-ranking Pentagon officials to overthrow a politically unpopular US president. The plan seems extreme but necessary to the officials involved because they think the president is selling the country out by appeasing America’s enemies in a treaty. So, in the view of the conspirators, a military coup d’état is seen not only as acceptable under the circumstances; to do any less would amount to a betrayal of the values they hold so dear.
The film is dated in some ways, as most productions from that era are. However, its story is quite interesting and its general questions remain relevant. Could anyone imagine circumstances in which people would favor a military intervention in US democracy? In today’s volatile and dysfunctional political world, that question may not seem as impossible as it once may have.
Based on a New York Times #1 bestseller of the same name by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, the script for Seven Days in May was written by Rod Serling. Although known today as the mastermind of the Twilight Zone TV series that originally ran from 1959 to 1964 (and has aired endlessly in re-runs), Serling made a name for himself earlier in the 1950s an award-winning writer with credits that included works for Studio One, General Electric Theater, Ford Television Theatre, Kraft Theater, and many others. One of the hallmarks of Serling’s work was a tendency to deal with important social or political themes, often cloaked in metaphor or hiding in fantasy or science fiction. The conspiracy theme in Seven Days in May was well-suited to the kinds of ideas that Serling excelled in dealing with.
Regardless of its political paranoia, Seven Days in May is a worthy film on many other levels. Frankenheimer’s direction is crisp and engaging. More than that, the pairing of friends Kirk Douglas, who plays the hero, and Burt Lancaster, who is his opposite, makes for a wonderful opportunity to see two masters of acting in the waning days of Old Hollywood. Lancaster, especially, is in great form in this film. I’m a huge admirer of his work, and I think this performance, in which he plays a conspirator with sneering self-confidence, is one of his best. Too often, viewers are shown villain-as-villain and never get any sense of the character as a person. Here, Lancaster gives us a complete person. You may not like the character, but you won’t think you don’t really know him. In fact, he may seem all too familiar as a type.
According to one of Lancaster’s biographers, the decision to make of film from the novel was not very popular with some elements in the Pentagon. It was, after all, near a high point in the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis very close in the rear-view mirror. The idea of showing the US military as anything less than 100% patriotic in the fully Constitution-compliant way was at odds with how most Americans saw their military. Yet, according to Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life, when Lancaster bumped into John F. Kennedy at a Washington dinner party before the film went into production, Kennedy — who seems to have known the book — reportedly said it would make a good film.
JFK was right. Seven Days in May did make the basis for a good movie. Unfortunately, Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet before the finished film was released. And in fact, to distance the movie and its political conspiracy theme from the real-world tragedy of Kennedy’s death, the premiere was delayed for several weeks. It finally opened on February 12, 1964. As the result of JFK’s murder, it was by then a very different world from the one in which the movie was filmed some months earlier. In fact, Kennedy’s assassination would mark the beginning of an upward trend in conspiracism in American culture.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the book Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics, I ‘m suggesting a different classic film with a conspiracy or political paranoia theme every week this summer. Think of it as a do-it-yourself Paranoid Summer Film Festival.