Casting Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in the same picture was one of the most inspired pairings in Hollywood history. It happened seven times, and one of the greatest of these was the 1964 film Seven Days in May.
Seven Days in May first entered the public consciousness as a bestselling novel of the same title, published two years earlier. It tells the story of an attempted military coup against a U.S. president.
In the film version, Burt Lancaster plays Air Force General James Matoon Scott, a rabid right-wing rabble rouser suspicious of President Jordan Lyman, played by Frederic March. President Lyman is on the verge of concluding a disarmament treaty with the Soviets. The film also boasts the beautiful Ava Gardner as a love interest who will provide an additional layer of intrigue to the plot.
In a world where imperialism is now largely unchallenged – or at least challenged in different ways – it is difficult to imagine the angst of a society in which the threat of nuclear annihilation was all too real and seemed ever present. Starting with the U.S. terror bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one nation had already demonstrated its willingness to use such weapons of mass destruction.
Another nation, the USSR, was by this time well equipped to retaliate in its defense using the same horrendous bombs, and thus the world gritted its teeth at every flashpoint where East met West. All the while such enemies of peaceful co-existence as Winston Churchill added another layer of ice to the Cold War with slanderous speeches, delivered to a public suffering under a barrage of anti-communist propaganda aimed at their WWII Soviet Allies.
Douglas takes perhaps the most critical role in the film, that of Jiggs Casey, a U.S. Marine officer whose political instincts are opposite that of President Lyman but do not cross the line of Scott’s fascist machinations. When Casey becomes aware of the general’s treachery, he must first convince himself his analysis of the plot is correct, then must decide how to convince others he is right, and finally, devise a strategy to derail the plot. These factors unfold a tense drama as the countdown to the coup kickoff continues to near.
The role of the man of conscience fits Douglas perfectly. Kirk Douglas, still with us at age 99, is a son of the working class who would title his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” in reference to the profession of his father, who labored behind a pushcart on the streets of New York City.
A strong believer in film as an art form, Douglas would become a passionate defender of Hollywood as it emerged as a favorite rhetorical whipping boy for the American Ultra-Right. Seven Days in May is a fine example of art that entertains but that also provides strong insight – in this case, a timeless warning of the fragility of democracy in a nation bound by the ruling class to what one of its own presidents termed “the military industrial complex.”
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