The “feature” I got to see virtually all of yesterday afternoon was Seven Days in May, which comes off now as an ominously prescient-sounding warning of the danger of a trash-talking demagogue taking over from a U.S. President whose reasonable approach to foreign policy is considered dangerously weak not only by the military officers sworn to uphold the decisions of the civilian government but by the American people as well. It began life as a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and it was filmed by producer Edward Lewis and director John Frankenheimer from a script by Rod Serling (an excellent choice for such a socially conscious story). The inspiration for the story was U.S. Air Force general Daniel Walker, who in 1961 was fired by President John F. Kennedy for having ordered Right-wing propaganda books for use as “training manuals” by Air Force cadets, and who immediately became a major hero for the radical Right of the time who claimed he’d been cashiered for wanting America to stand up to the Soviet Union and the forces of Communism generally instead of appeasing them, as they accused Kennedy of doing. Indeed, when President Kennedy went to Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 there was a full-page ad in a Dallas daily newspaper taken out by Right-wing activists accusing Kennedy of showing his true colors as a Communist agent or sympathizer (sometimes the accusations got pretty blurry) for having fired Walker. Walker is briefly mentioned in the film’s dialogue, as is the late Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, as the sort of real-life demagogue the U.S. has to be on guard against, but the “Walker” character in the film is the U.S. Air Force’s commanding general and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster, a highly limited actor playing a role for which he was perfectly suited: the stuffed-shirt arrogance that undid him whenever he had a part that required him to be “sensitive” absolutely suited him to play what amounts to a would-be fascist leader of the U.S.), who has responded to President Jordan Lyman’s (Fredric March) negotiation of a disarmament treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) and his apparent success in getting the U.S. Senate to ratify it (which seems unbelievable that he could have got two-thirds of the Senate to agree on anything, especially a highly unpopular treaty that has sunk his approval rating in the polls to just 29 percent), by plotting a coup d’état along with the other Joint Chiefs. The only one who refuses to go along is the admiral in charge of the Navy, vice admiral Farley C. Barnwell (John Houseman), and even he is partially complicit because he doesn’t blow the whistle on it until the principal (sort-of) good guy, Marine colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas), stumbles on the plan.
Having planned ahead for years, apparently, for just such a moment, General Scott has secretly inserted into the Congressional defense appropriation a line item for a secret military base in El Paso, Texas called “Site Y” as headquarters for a force called “ECOMCON” whose existence is known to no one in the civilian government except a few sympathetic Congressmembers, notably Senator Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell), who carried the bill creating ECOMCON and “Site Y” through Congress. Col. Will “Mutt” Henderson (Andrew Duggan), one of the people stationed at ECOMCON, says his orders were to prepare to protect the White House, the Capitol and other key government buildings from being seized by Soviet forces in case of an invasion, but “we seem to spend more time training for seizure than for prevention, like the Commies already had the stuff, and we had to get it back.” Sure of the support both of the military and the people, Scott plots his takeover for the day of the Preakness horse race, only Casey stumbles onto the plan when he sees several cables between the Joint Chiefs ostensibly trading bets on the race but really giving each other coded messages about the coup plot. Ultimately Casey leaks out word of what’s going on — to the extent that he knows it — to President Lyman, and Lyman sends out his two most trusted friends to investigate: dipsomaniac Missouri Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) and aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) — only Girard’s plane “mysteriously” crashes outside Madrid and Clark is apprehended by MP’s at Site Y and imprisoned there for two days until he manages to escape with his wits about him and make it back to D.C. The President and his remaining staff still don’t have enough information to go public with the coup attempt, and Scott has already booked time on all three major TV networks (remember when there only were three major TV networks?) to announce the coup. Fortunately, while President Lyman is holding a press conference and fielding questions about the treaty and the loss of his popularity over it, a messenger comes in with copies of Girard’s dossier, luckily recovered from the plane, and based on the information in it Lyman is able to demand the resignations of everyone on the Joint Chiefs except for Barnwell (who didn’t go along with the plan but also didn’t blow the whistle on it) and Scott himself, who refuses to resign and has his driver take him “home” at the end. President Lyman tells the American people that a military takeover has been narrowly averted and American democracy is saved.
What’s fascinating about Seven Days in May today is not so much the details of the plot — the whole idea of military men leading the U.S. has fallen so far out of fashion that Dwight Eisenhower is the last general who served as President and the last President who saw military service at all was the first President Bush — as how contemporary the rhetoric seems. It’s hard, if not impossible, to see this movie at the end of 2015 and not imagine Lyman as President Obama, talking conciliation and peace; and Scott as Donald Trump, saying not only that the President is wrong but that he’s criminally irresponsible and the nation needs a strong hand. One can’t hear Scott’s lines, intoned in the sort of strutting, arrogant tone Burt Lancaster was so good at (he was a liberal in real life but was damned good at playing reactionaries on film), aimed at Lyman — “I’m here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles — when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States” — and not wonder if Trump, who at one point told a reporter he didn’t see why we had to bother with a Presidential election, had ever thought of crashing the Oval Office and making that demand to Obama (whom, you’ll remember, Trump thinks is a Kenyan Muslim who forged a birth certificate to fake eligibility for the presidency). And one also can’t help but hear Obama in President Lyman’s plaintive reply, “I don’t know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply cry.” Likewise, all too many Americans right now don’t know how to react to Trump’s megalomania and unashamed, proud expressions of bigotry (at Mexicans, disabled people, women and now Muslims) — whether to laugh, cry or be very afraid that this evil sociopath might actually win the next Presidential election.