Seven Days in May, by Albert W. Vogt III

Now that I have passed the 500th post mark for The Legionnaire, I decided to go back to reviewing movies submitted by you, my loyal fans.  If you are reading this and saying to yourself, wait, what suggestions, I suggest you head over to The Legionnaire’s Facebook page, or find us on Twitter, and recommend as many films as you care to mention.  I also ask for patience.  While the list is pretty small right now (and I have yet to figure out why I need to coax more submissions out of you all), it typically grows, eventually.  While Cameron does contribute, these lists are typically left to me, and I am but one man.  I am often surprised by the productions you submit to be reviewed.  I think about this when I cover some of the titles I recently reviewed.  How did movies like Deadpool (2016) or Casablanca (1942) not end up on my suggestion list?  I chose the latter of those for the 500th post because it is universally agreed to be one of the greatest films ever made.  And before you go thinking that Deadpool and Casablanca do not belong in the same sentence together (though I understand if you maintain that opinion anyway), remember that the former is one of the highest grossing R rated movies of all time.  None of this has anything to do with today’s review of Seven Days in May (1964), other than my bafflement over getting entries like it and not the others I mentioned.  Do not get me wrong: Seven Days in May is a good movie and I am glad I saw it.  I suppose, as they say, there is no accounting for taste.

One of the first things I noticed in the opening credits of Seven Days in May is that it is written by Rod Serling.  If that name does not ring an immediate bell, he is the creator of the original Twilight Zone.  Bear this in mind as you read the following synopsis.  The first scenes feature competing protests taking place outside of the White House.  One side is demonstrating their support of the bellicose General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other is marching for the sitting president Jordan Lyman (Frederic March).  Tensions are high because President Lyman recently signed a treaty with the Soviet Union in which both superpowers agreed to get rid of their nuclear armaments.  Those on General Scott’s side believe that the Russians will not honor the agreement, where the other side sees the treaty as the only real pathway to peace.  Soon, a riot breaks out between the opposing groups of demonstrators.  Inside the White House, President Lyman worries about a seemingly restless American public who fear being left unprotected and are showing mounting favor for General Scott.  It soon becomes clear that President Lyman might have more to fret about than some rowdiness outside the presidential residence.  When General Scott’s aide, Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) arrives at his post in the Pentagon, he receives some strange coded messages regarding betting on the upcoming running of the Preakness Stakes horse race involving all the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Initially he dismisses it, but other officers in the building to which he mentions it swear him to silence on the matter, a strange suggestion given the apparent benignity of the situation.  Next, Colonel Casey is visited by another military friend, Colonel William “Mud” Henderson (Andrew Duggan), who discusses a recent transfer to a command with which Colonel Casey is entirely unfamiliar, something called “ECOMCON.”  A few phone calls and assorted inquiries reveal nothing else, and it leads him to believe that it is purposely being kept secret.  What truly gets Colonel Casey’s gears turning, though, is General Scott.  During their daily meeting, General Scott discusses plans for an upcoming training exercise on the same Sunday as the Preakness.  It involves massive troops movements being deployed to key metropolitan areas, and the president being isolated and essentially at General Scott’s mercy.  A subsequent tailing of Senator Frederick Bissell (Whit Bissell), a vocal proponent of General Scott’s, to the chairman’s home confirms that something truly menacing is afoot.  Colonel Casey decides to take his hunch to the president.  While President Lyman wants to dismiss the suspicions, after some prodding of Colonel Casey it becomes evident that the officer earnestly thinks there is a military coup planned.  Moving more swiftly now, President Lyman charges his closest confidants with gathering more evidence.  Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien) is sent to Texas to investigate the ECOMCON base, while his aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsm) flies to Gibraltar to confront Vice Admiral Farley C. Barnswell (John Houseman), the only member of the Joint Chiefs not in on the mysterious bet.  Vice Admiral Barnswell makes out a written confession to Girard, but Girard dies in a plane crash on his way back.  Nonetheless, there are too many perceived angles to what is going on, enough for President Lyman to request General Scott’s resignation despite the lack of solid evidence.  During the course of their tête-à-tête, General Scott all but admits to desiring to overthrow the government in the name of security, citing patriotism and accusing President Lyman of cowardice.  The next day, President Lyman calls a press conference where he lays out his case for calling for General Scott’s resignation.  In the middle of it, Vice Admiral Barnwell’s signed confession emerges, having survived the crash in Girard’s cigarette case.  With this revelation, all the other Joint Chiefs back down, leaving General Scott without allies.  He then, too, quietly returns home and accepts that there is nothing more to be done.

There are many parallels that can be drawn between Seven Days in May and recent events in our country that I am going to do my level best to skirt.  While there have been times in its long history when the Catholic Faith has bled over into the political realm, the majority of the people the Church remembers, i.e., the saints, have been largely apolitical.  Suffice to say, I have my opinions and I stated them to the old man I live with while we watched the film, much to his chagrin.  Despite this hasty disclaimer, the character I would like to focus on is President Lyman.  On the one hand, he is just as implacable as General Scott in defending his position, that of the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.  On the other, he shows remarkable restraint.  In case you were wondering what Colonel Casey is up to while President Lyman’s other lackeys are out uncovering General Scott’s plot, he is cozying up to Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner).  She is a Washington, D.C., socialite who had been General Scott’s former lover, an affair he kept hidden from his wife.  Colonel Casey discovers letters written by General Scott to Eleanor in her apartment detailing the sordid business, and hands them over to President Lyman.  The president treats them as the “nuclear option,” an apt metaphor given the underlying theme and the constant presence of the so-called “nuclear football” at the chief executive’s side.  During the climactic showdown between President Lyman and General Scott, the president almost refers to them when the general remains obstinate in refusing to step down from his position.  It is a momentous and magnanimous gesture on the president’s part, made even more so by the fact that he still had no solid proof that the coup is about to take place.  It is also an act of Faith, and it is described as such though in different terms.  General Scott cannot understand behaving in such a manner, and he believes that the Soviet Union will not only disregard the agreement, but will launch nuclear weapons at the United States given the first opportunity.  President Lyman counters by saying that the general’s actions would be construed as a bigger threat, and thus a surer guarantee of a nuclear disaster.  He goes further, saying that it takes even greater strength to win without war.  Amen, brother.  This blog features an angel with a sword, a weapon to fight against corrupting influences in our society.  However, the true victory of God will be achieved without such acts.

You would not know it from looking at President Lyman, or watching most of Seven Days in May, but he is as noble of a character as I have seen in a film.  He has a message of peace any Christian can get behind when he says that the true enemy is the nuclear age, and that we should beware of saviors in red, white, and blue.  Overall, it is not a terribly action-packed film, but it is one that will get you thinking.  As I am always a fan of such mental exercise, the movie gets my recommendation.

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