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Literature: Seven Days in May

Seven Days in May is a Conspiracy Thriller about an attempted Military Coup in the United States. The story first appeared as a 1962 novel by Washington journalists Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. It was adapted into a 1964 Film of the Book, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, and scripted by Rod Serling.

President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is about to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union for the disarmament of all nuclear weapons. This has caused a record slump in his popularitynote  and the public opposition of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the charismatic General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). Lyman is determined to proceed regardless but then a Pentagon officer, Colonel Martin Casey (Kirk Douglas), approaches him with a shocking revelation. He believes that General Scott is planning a Military Coup, to be staged during a troop mobilization exercise at the end of the week. Although his staff are skeptical, President Lyman is not so sure. He now has only seven days to find proof that the most popular general in the country is planning treason, and stop him.

When the movie was being filmed, President John F. Kennedy gave the producers special access to the White House, allowing them to film there with access never before or since granted to any (non-documentary) film crew. The President would even conveniently arrange to visit Hyannis Port for a weekend when the film needed to shoot outside the White House. The Pentagon, in contrast, refused to cooperate at all, leading to the filmmakers doing a bit of covert filming on-site with star Douglas in costume.

JFK -who was killed shortly before the film's release- considered the film so important because he believed the events in the book and movie could very well happen. After the spat between Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman, as well as JFK's own problems with his generals, he was well aware that there were those in the military who felt they should be in control of the country instead of him.

The story is said to have been influenced by the right-wing anti-Communist political activities of General Edwin A. Walker after he retired from the military. The authors got the idea for the book after interviewing then Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay.


Tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Senator Clark. At one stage when he's being 'detained' on a military base, the conspirators send in a bottle every hour to keep him quiet. Clark has to keep pouring them down the toilet, which doesn't improve his disposition.
  • Background Halo: One scene has Colonel Casey standing in front of a US flag, and General Scott standing in front of a display of missiles.
  • Can Not Spit It Out: Colonel Casey can't bring himself to actually say the unthinkable — that there's a coup planned — and starts waffling until the politicians tell him to stop screwing about.
  • Chekhov's Gun: White House aide Paul Girard gets a signed statement from an admiral who was approached but refused to take part in the conspiracy. Worried about it being stolen on the way back to Washington, Girard hides the statement in his metal cigarette case. Thus it survives his death in a plane crash and gets returned to the US embassy with his other personal effects, just in time to save the day.
  • Day of the Jackboot: Unlike other fiction based on the same concept, Seven Days in May goes to great lengths to portray its subject realistically. There are no gunfights or car chases, both sides are operating covertly with only limited personnel, and an essential condition for any successful coup — the public relations factor — is an important part of the planning.
  • The Deep South: Lyman's ally Raymond Clark is a senator from Georgia. In the novel, he can go between a Southern drawl and his normal voice at will.
  • Discreet Drink Disposal: The commander at the secret base keeps sending liquor in to Clark, who keeps pouring it down the toilet.
  • Driven to Suicide: The novel implies that this is the fate of Senator Prentice, one of Scott's co-conspirators, who crashes his car when he learns that the coup has failed.
  • Dueling-Stars Movie: Kirk Douglas vs Burt Lancaster.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: A Spanish policeman finds a doll in the wreckage of a plane crash.
  • Engineered Public Confession: Averted. Even when the President confronts him with a direct accusation, General Scott never admits to anything.
  • Gullible Lemmings: Colonel William "Mutt" Henderson, part of the secret ECOMCON strike force, has no idea why he's training to seize communications assets rather than defend them until Senator Clark informs him of the plot. He then helps the Senator escape.
  • Honor Before Reason: After seven days the President still doesn't have firm proof of the conspiracy, but he does have letters Scott wrote to his mistress, which his colleagues urge him to use to force Scott to resign. For a moment it looks like the President will use them, but he refuses to stoop to crude blackmail. However, in the novel Secretary of the Treasury Chris Todd and Senator Clark aren't so particular, warning Scott against seeking a Presidential nomination in the next elections. Todd: "The President is a gentleman. I am a trial lawyer; a mean son of a bitch."
  • The Korean War: Part of Jordan Lyman's Back Story in the novel. Lyman suffers a Heroic BSOD caused by what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder until another soldier, Raymond Clark, slaps him out of it. Clark goes on to become a senator—and Lyman's lifelong friend and most trusted political ally.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Colonel Casey also disagrees with the President's disarmament treaty, but has sworn to defend the Constitution.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: General Scott at the American Veterans rally.
  • Not So Different: At the end, hoping to bring Scott onto his side (or at least dissuade him from being his enemy), President Lyman asks him what he would do about the possibility of the Soviets cheating on the treaty if Scott were in power. After Scott replies, Lyman says that is exactly what Lyman is planning to do. Scott doesn't believe him.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: For once this helps the good guys. When an Air Force general complains about 'classified' flights that he hadn't authorized, the President realises he's not part of the conspiracy and orders him to ground the aircraft at once.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Averted when a Pentagon communications officer tells Colonel Casey about a seemingly-innocuous bit of gambling by some high-ranking officers (it's actually a code indicating their willingness to join the coup). Instead of a heavy-handed punishment detail, General Scott wisely has the blabber shipped off to a highly-desirable post in Hawaii, and orders Casey to take a few days leave so he won't be in a position to observe anything else suspicious.
    • This turns into a Brick Joke at the end of the novel, when the officer, now working in Hawaii, hears about Scott's resignation and thinks that President Lyman sure must hate gambling.
  • The Remake: by HBO as The Enemy Within in 1994, with Sam Waterson as the President, Jason Robards as the General, and Forest Whitaker as the Colonel. Updated for a post-Cold War world, and the conspirators planning to use the Twenty Fifth Amendment to declare the President incompetent to serve.
  • Revealing Cover Up: Averted. There's only one death under suspicious circumstances (of a White House aide carrying absolute proof of the conspiracy) and that's never shown to have been anything other than an ordinary plane crash. Two people who look like they've been 'disappeared' turn out to have been merely detained on various pretexts. The closest we get to this trope is when a conspirator angrily tells Colonel Casey to shut up about the gambling signal — it's this overreaction that first raises his suspicions.
  • Rousing Speech: General Scott was to give this once communications had been seized. Even when the coup is foiled Scott still believes he can force the President's impeachment by arranging an interview with all the major networks. Instead it's President Lyman who gets the standing ovation at the end.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!:
    General Scott: I asked you a question — do you know who Judas was?!
  • Strawman News Media: Type 3, with a dash of Type 5. The only member of the media given both a face and a name is a member of the conspiracy.
  • Treachery Cover Up: President Lyman decides that what happened must never become public knowledge, in order to preserve the idea that a military coup against the United States government is simply unthinkable.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: The novel on which the film is based (published in 1962) is set in May 1974, after a stalemated war in Iran. The motion picture is set in 1970 and features the then-futuristic technology of video teleconferencing.
  • Video Phone: The President uses a video phone to communicate with Scott, and later with another Air Force general.
  • Waving Signs Around: The film opens with a group of people picketing outside the White House and holding signs protesting the treaty.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: General Scott could possibly be interpreted as this, depending on your politics.
  • Wild Card: Vice Admiral Barnswell is approached to take part in the coup, but thinks it's too risky and declines. Knowing this the President sends his aide to force him into providing a signed statement about the conspiracy, which is lost when the aide's plane crashes on its way back to Washington, whereupon Barnswell claims he knows nothing about any such statement.

The Manchurian CandidateCreator/John FrankenheimerSeconds
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The Satan BugLiterature of the 1960sThe Ship Who
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SerpicoCreator/ParamountShane

alternative title(s): Seven Days In May; Seven Days In May
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