Seven Days in May
theatrical release poster
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Frankenheimer
Screenplay byRod Serling
Based onthe novel
by Fletcher Knebel &
Charles W. Bailey II
Produced byEdward Lewis
StarringBurt Lancaster
Kirk Douglas
Fredric March
Ava Gardner
Edmond O'Brien
Martin Balsam
CinematographyEllsworth Fredricks A.S.C.
Edited byFerris Webster
Music byJerry Goldsmith
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • February 12, 1964 (1964-02-12) (Washington, DC)
Running time
118 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.2 million
Box office$3,650,000 (rentals)[1]

Seven Days in May is a 1964 American political thriller film about a military-political cabal's planned takeover of the United States government in reaction to the president's negotiation of a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The picture, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Ava Gardner, was directed by John Frankenheimer from a screenplay written by Rod Serling and based on the novel of the same name by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, published in September 1962.[2]


The book was written in late 1961 and into early 1962, during the first year of the Kennedy administration, reflecting some of the events of that era. In November 1961, President John F. Kennedy accepted the resignation of vociferously anti-Communist General Edwin Walker who was indoctrinating the troops under his command with radical right-wing propaganda and personal political opinions – which included having described former President Harry S. Truman, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and other still-active public figures as Communist sympathizers.[3] Although no longer in uniform, Walker continued to be in the news as he ran for Governor of Texas and made speeches promoting strongly right-wing views. In the film version of Seven Days in May, Fredric March, portraying the narrative's fictional President Jordan Lyman, mentions General Walker as one of the "false prophets" who were offering themselves to the public as leaders.

As Knebel and Bailey, primarily political journalists and columnists, collaborated on the novel they also conducted interviews with another highly controversial military commander, the bombastic and trigger-happy newly appointed Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, who was angry with Kennedy for refusing to provide air support for the Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs Invasion.[4][5] The character of General James Mattoon Scott was believed to be inspired by both LeMay and Walker.[citation needed]

President Kennedy had read the novel Seven Days in May shortly after its publication 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. In spite of Defense Department opposition to it, Kennedy arranged to be visiting the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port for a weekend when the film needed to shoot outside the White House.[6]


It is the 1970s, a few years in the future at the time of the film's 1964 release. The Cold War remains a major security and political problem. U.S. President Jordan Lyman has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, and the subsequent ratification by the U.S. Senate has produced a wave of dissatisfaction, especially among Lyman's political opposition and the military, who believe the Russians cannot be trusted. His popularity has reached an all-time low of 29%, there is rioting over the treaty right outside the White House, and he is warned of a dangerous cardiac condition by the presidential physician – which he blithely disregards, being too busy and beleaguered to take an ordered two-week vacation.

United States Marine Corps Colonel "Jiggs" Casey is the Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He serves its Chairman, four-star United States Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, a former air ace who earned six Purple Hearts, two Distinguished Service Crosses, and the Medal of Honor.

Casey stumbles on evidence that the hyper-patriotic Scott is leading the Joint Chiefs to stage a coup d'etat to remove Lyman in seven days. Under the plan, coolly advanced under cover of being a training exercise, a secret Army unit known as ECOMCON (Emergency COMmunications CONtrol) then honing its seizure techniques at a secret off-budget base recently set up for it somewhere near El Paso, Texas, will take control of the country's telephone, radio, and television networks while the President, participating in a staged "alert", is seized and deposed. Scott, who is busy advancing his charismatic public persona through nationally televised anti-treaty rallies, will end up head of a military junta. Although personally opposed to Lyman's policies, Casey is appalled by the plot and alerts Lyman, who hears him out.

Still somewhat skeptical, yet acutely aware of the stakes if he is wrong, Lyman gathers a circle of trusted advisors to investigate: Secret Service White House Detail Chief Art Corwin, Treasury Secretary Christopher Todd, longtime advisor Paul Girard, and Raymond Clark, the senior U.S. senator from Georgia and a close friend of twenty-one years.

Casey has deduced that it appears the heads of all branches of the U.S. military but the Navy may have bought into Scott's coup scheme, with Vice Admiral Barnswell, then aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, apparently the only invited officer to decline. Lyman begs off on a previous commitment to participate in Scott's alert, offering the ruse that he is going fishing for the weekend. He then dispatches Girard to Gibraltar to obtain Barnswell's confession, sends the alcoholic Clark to Texas to locate the secret base, and tasks Casey with the odious job of using a previously suppressed romantic attraction between him and Scott's former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook, to gather dirt on the general's private life. Meanwhile the Secret Service surreptitiously films positive evidence of what is accurately interpreted as an attempt by the cabal to kidnap the president during the phony fishing trip, removing all doubts about the existence of a plot.

Girard successfully gets Barnswell's confession in writing, but it disappears when the commercial airliner he's aboard inexplicably fatally crashes over Spain. Clark is taken captive when he reaches the secret base and held incommunicado for a day and a half approaching the planned Sunday coup. Exploiting Casey's longtime friendship with the base's deputy commander, Colonel Henderson, Clark convinces Henderson of the actual nefarious intent of the impending "alert". Henderson frees Clark and leads an escape back to Washington, DC, but is abducted and confined incommunicado in a military stockade there. In a video conference with the president, Barnswell denies he did more than chat amicably with Girard, claiming no knowledge of any conspiracy.

Knowing he holds no hole card to prove Scott's guilt, Lyman nevertheless calls him to the White House to demand that he and the other conspirators resign, asserting that a mass firing will be detrimental both to the nation's stability and its international standing. Scott refuses, and bold-facedly denies the existence of any plot, instead taking the opportunity to denounce Lyman and the treaty. Lyman argues that a coup in America would prompt the Soviets to make a preemptive nuclear strike. Scott maintains that the American people are behind him. Lyman then challenges him to resign and run for office and seek power legitimately, honoring the democratic process Scott professes to be seeking to preserve. Scott is unmoved. Lyman is on the verge of confronting the general with the letters obtained from Holbrook when his integrity prevails and he decides to trust his existing hand and allow Scott to leave unchastened.

Scott meets the other three Joint Chiefs and reasserts his intention of going through with the coup. He plans a bombastic network broadcast at 9 PM that evening and encourages them to watch it. However, Lyman calls a nationally televised afternoon press conference, at which he is prepared to announce that he has fired the four men. As he is speaking Barnswell's hand-written confession, recovered from the plane crash, is handed to him and he delays the conference for half an hour. In the interim, copies of the confession are delivered to Scott and the other plotters. As the press conference resumes, Scott prepares to go forward with the coup anyway, but then gives up when he hears President Lyman announce that the other three conspirators have tendered their resignations. Dejected to the point of distraction he leaves glassy-eyed for his home on a nearby military base in his limousine.

The film ends with an oration by Lyman to the assembled press corps and American people via television and radio on the state of the nation and the values it stands for, vigorously asserting it is not merely sound but gains strength leading through peace rather than conflict. He receives a standing ovation from the press corps.


Uncredited speaking roles (in order of appearance)


Kirk Douglas and director John Frankenheimer were the moving forces behind the filming of Seven Days in May; the film was produced by Edward Lewis through Douglas's company Joel Productions and Seven Arts Productions. Frankenheimer wanted screenwriter Rod Serling to be a partner in the production, who agreed. Douglas intended to star in it, alongside his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster. Douglas enticed Lancaster to join the film by offering him the meatier role of General Scott, the film's villain, while Douglas agreed to play Scott's assistant.[8] Frankenheimer had Nedrick Young rewrite the love-themed dialogue during the scene where Casey visits Holbrook at her apartment.[9]: 1:05:00 

Lancaster's involvement almost caused Frankenheimer to back out, since he and Lancaster had butted heads on Birdman of Alcatraz two years earlier. Only Douglas's assurances that Lancaster would behave kept the director on the project.[10] Ironically, Lancaster and Frankenheimer got along well during the filming, while Douglas and the director had a falling-out.[11][12] 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 favorite directed scene, that Lancaster was "perfect" in his delivery and that no other actor could have done it better.[9] 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.[9] He saw it as explicitly putting "a nail in the coffin of McCarthy".[9]: 1:36:00 

The filming took 51 days and according to the director the production was a happy affair, and all of the actors and crew displayed great reverence for Fredric March.[9] Many of Lancaster's scenes were shot later on as he was recovering from hepatitis.[9] Ava Gardner, whose scenes were shot in just six days, however, thought that Frankenheimer favored the other actors over her. Frankenheimer remarked that she was a "lovely person" and overwhelmingly beautiful, but at times "difficult" to work with.[9]: 1:06:00  Martin Balsam objected to his habit of shooting off pistols behind him during important scenes.[10] The director had been briefly stationed in the mailroom at the Pentagon early in his Korean war hitch, and stated that the sets were totally authentic, praising the production designer.[9] Further providing authenticity, many of the scenes in the film were loosely based on real-life events of the Cold War.[13]

Supercarrier Kitty Hawk in 2002
Supercarrier Kitty Hawk in 2002

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 (standing in for Gibraltar), without prior Defense Department permission. In another, Frankenheimer wanted a shot of Kirk Douglas entering the Pentagon but could not get permission because of security considerations. Instead, he rigged a camera in a parked station wagon to photograph Douglas walking up to the building. Douglas, in full U.S. Marine Corps colonel uniform, received salutes from military personnel,[14] who, even if they recognized him, had no way of knowing whether he was a reserve officer or not.

Frankenheimer recruited well-known producer and friend John Houseman to play Vice Admiral Farley C. Barnswell in his uncredited acting debut. Houseman agreed in return for a fine bottle of wine (seen during the telephone scene).[9]: 1:30:00  Several scenes, including one with stand-ins for nuns, were shot inside the recently built Washington Dulles International Airport, and the production team were the first to ever film there.[9] The alley and car park scene was shot in Hollywood, and other footage was shot in the Californian desert in 110 degree heat. The secret base and airstrip was specially built in the desert near Indio, California, and an aircraft tail was used in one shot to make it look like a whole plane was off the picture.[9] Originally the script had Lancaster die in a car crash at the end after hitting a bus, but this was dropped in favor of him departing leaving for home in his limousine, which was shot on a Sunday in Paris during production of The Train (1964).[9]

Getting permission to film in front of the White House was aided when presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger conveyed to Frankenheimer that President Kennedy had read the book and wished to see the film made. As one source states, "These were the days of General Walker", and although the Pentagon opposed the production, the president conveniently arranged to visit the family compound in Hyannis Port for a weekend when a riot was a staged outside the White House.[15] Kirk Douglas recalled Kennedy approving of the making of the film.[16]

The director considered the scene in which Douglas's character visits the president to be a masterful bit of acting which would have been very difficult for most actors to sustain.[9] He had done similar scenes on many television shows, and not only the acting but every camera angle and shot was extensively planned and rehearsed. Frankenheimer paid particular attention to ensuring that all three actors in the scene were in focus for dramatic impact. Many of Frankenheimer's signature techniques were used in scenes such as this throughout 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-angle lens" (set at f/11) which he considered to give "tremendous impact" on a scene.[9]

The film is set in 1970, several years in the future from the time of its release. The most obvious efforts are the appearance of the year itself, including on a Pentagon display and the registration sticker on the rear license plate of Senator Prentiss' Bentley sedan. Other nods include a situation room which was designed to seem futuristic, as well as the utilization of then-futuristic technology of video teleconferencing and the recently issued and exotic-looking M16 rifle. Additionally, the concept of a nuclear treaty between Cold War powers anticipated the actual existence of one.[9]: 1:45:00 

David Amram, who had previously scored Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), originally provided music for the film, but Lewis was unsatisfied with his work. Jerry Goldsmith, who had worked with the producer and Douglas on Lonely Are the Brave (also 1962) and The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), was signed to rescore the project. Goldsmith composed a very brief score (lasting around 15 minutes) using only pianos and percussion; he later scored Seconds (1966) and The Challenge (1982) for Frankenheimer.[17] In 2013, Intrada Records released Goldsmith's music for the film on a limited-edition CD (paired with Maurice Jarre's score for The Mackintosh Man – although that film was produced by Warner Bros. while Seven Days in May was theatrically released by Paramount. The entire Seven Arts Productions library had been acquired by Warner Bros. back in 1967.


Seven Days in May premiered on February 12, 1964 in Washington, D.C.,[18] to good critical notices and audience response.[10]

The film was nominated for two 1965 Academy Awards,[19] 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, and 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.

Evaluation in film guides

Steven H. Scheuer's Movies on TV (1972–73 edition) gives Seven Days in May its highest rating of 4 stars, recommending it as "an exciting suspense drama concerned with politics and the problems of sanity and survival in a nuclear age", with the concluding sentences stating, "benefits from taut screenplay by Rod Serling and the direction of John Frankenheimer, which artfully builds interest leading to the finale. March is a standout in a uniformly fine cast. So many American-made films dealing with political subjects are so naive and simple-minded that the thoughtful and, in this case, the optimistic statement of the film is a welcome surprise." By the 1986–87 edition, Scheuer's rating was lowered to 3½ and the conclusion shortened to, "which artfully builds to the finale", with the final sentences deleted. Leonard Maltin's TV Movies & Video Guide (1989 edition) gives it a still lower 3 stars (out of 4), originally describing it as an "absorbing story of military scheme to overthrow the government", with later editions (including 2014) adding one word, "absorbing, believable story..."

Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever follows Scheuer's later example, with 3½ bones (out of 4), calling it a "topical but still gripping Cold War nuclear-peril thriller" and, in the end, "highly suspenseful, with a breathtaking climax." Mick Martin's & Marsha Porter's DVD & Video Guide also puts its rating high, at 4 stars (out of 5) finding it, as Videohound did, "a highly suspenseful account of an attempted military takeover..." and indicating that "the movie's tension snowballs toward a thrilling conclusion. This is one of those rare films that treat their audiences with respect." Assigning the equally high rating of 4 stars (out of 5), The Motion Picture Guide begins its description with "a taut, gripping, and suspenseful political thriller which sports superb performances from the entire cast", goes to state, in the middle, that "proceeding to unravel its complicated plot at a rapid clip, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is a surprisingly exciting film that also packs a grim warning", and ends with "Lancaster underplays the part of the slightly crazed general and makes him seem quite rational and persuasive. It is a frightening performance. Douglas is also quite good as the loyal aide who uncovers the fantastic plot that could destroy the entire country. March, Balsam, O'Brien, Bissell, and Houseman all turn in topnotch performances and it is through their conviction that the viewer becomes engrossed in this outlandish tale."

British references also show high regard for the film, with TimeOut Film Guide's founding editor Tom Milne indicating that "conspiracy movies may have become more darkly complex in these post-Watergate days of Pakula and paranoia, but Frankenheimer's fascination with gadgetry (in his compositions, the ubiquitous helicopters, TV screens, hidden cameras and electronic devices literally edge the human characters into insignificance) is used to create a striking visual metaphor for control by the military machine. Highly enjoyable." In his Film Guide, Leslie Halliwell provided 3 stars (out of 4), describing it as an "absorbing political mystery drama marred only by the unnecessary introduction of a female character. Stimulating entertainment." David Shipman in his 1984 The Good Film and Video Guide gives 2 (out of 4) stars, noting that it is "a tense political thriller whose plot is plotting".


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


  1. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1964", Variety, p. 39, January 6, 1965.
  2. ^ "Seven Days in May" (Kirkus Reviews, September 10, 1962)
  3. ^ "Armed Forces: I Must Be Free..." (Time Magazine, November 10, 1961)
  4. ^ Stoddard, Brooke C. "Seven Days in May: Remembrance of Books Past" (Washington Independent Review of Books, November 27, 2012)
  5. ^ Steed, Mark S. "Seven Days in May by Knebel and Bailey - Book Review" (An Independent Head, October 26, 2013)
  6. ^ Kakutani, Michiko. Kennedy, and What Might Have Been: 'JFK's Last Hundred Days' by Thurston Clarke, page 95 (The New York Times, August 12, 2013)
  7. ^ Seven Days in May cast list at American Film Institute Catalog
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Frankenheimer, John, Seven Days in May DVD Commentary, Warner Home Video, May 16, 2000
  10. ^ a b c Stafford, Jeff, Seven Days in May (article), TCM.
  11. ^ Frankenheimer, John and Champlin, Charles. John Frankenheimer : A Conversation Riverwood Press, 1995. ISBN 978-1-880756-13-3
  12. ^ Douglas, Kirk. The Ragman's Son. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
  13. ^ Antulov, Dragan. " Movie/Video Review Seven Days In May" (All-Reviews, 2002)
  14. ^ Pratley, Gerald. The Cinema of John Frankenheimer London: A. Zwemmer, 1969. ISBN 978-0-302-02000-5.
  15. ^ Arthur Meier Schlesinger (1978). Robert Kennedy and His Times. ISBN 978-0-7088-1633-2.
  16. ^ Seven Days in May commentary as part of the Kirk Douglas Featured Collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research Archived June 10, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Scott Bettencourt, liner notes, soundtrack album, Intrada Special Collection Vol. 235
  18. ^ Overview, TCM.
  19. ^ "Seven Days in May". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2012. Archived from the original on March 1, 2012. Retrieved December 25, 2008.

Further reading