Director John Frankenheimer worked with writer Rod Serling to create the 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May, starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Martin Balsam, John Houseman (in his first film role), Ava Gardner, and the great Fredric March.

Based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, Seven Days In May depicts what happens when a military plot to overthrow the United States government is uncovered one week before the President is scheduled to deliver his State Of The Union Address. Though it contains a minimum of action, the film is nonetheless gripping, suspenseful, and, at several points, outright nerve-wracking.

It also boasts a famous confrontation scene between Lancaster and March toward the end of the movie which Frankenheimer often said was his personal favorite of all the scenes he had directed. Considering that his career spanned five decades, that's no small recommendation. That confrontation sequence remains on of the most taut, literate, and brilliantly directed sequences I have ever seen.

Movie Information

Running Time: 118 minutes

Rating: PG

Producer/Director: John Frankenheimer

Screenwriter: Rod Serling

Music: Jerry Goldsmith

Cast:

Burt Lancaster: Gen. James Mattoon Scott
Kirk Douglas: Col. Martin 'Jiggs' Casey
Fredric March: President Jordan Lyman
Ava Gardner: Eleanor 'Ellie' Holbrook
Edmond O'Brien: Sen. Raymond Clark
Martin Balsam: Paul Girard
Andrew Duggan: Col. William 'Mutt' Henderson
Hugh Marlowe: Harold McPherson
Whit Bissell: Sen. Frederick Prentice
Helen Kleeb: Esther Townsend
George Macready: Christopher Todd
Richard Anderson: Col. Murdock
Bart Burns: Art Corwin
John Houseman: Vice-Adm. Farley C. Barnswell (uncredited)

Many of the scenes and events of the film were, although at that time largely unknown to the public, very close to to reality. Some of the information touched upon places and subjects which were, and to some degree still are, condsidered classified government secrets.

Interesting items of note for viewers include:

In 1962, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was named Lyman Lemnitzer. Mount Thunder was a thinly veiled depiction of Mount Weather. A primitive black and white video conferencing system existed between Mount Weather and other locations around Washington, DC, although the President was not known to have had such a system in the oval office. Beginning in 1960, Mount Weather had a Conelrad Radio/TV studio, including a color television closed-circuit system first used within Mount Weather during Operation Alert 1960 by President Eisenhower. Gary Powers U-2 incident actually occurred in part while Ike was at Mount Weather.

The "Alert" depicted in the film refers to the Operation Alert series of exercises which occurred between 1955 and 1963. Mount Weather did contain the network control point for Conelrad. Whether there was at that time a "seize-key" capability with respect to Conelrad at that time is speculative. However such a capability did exist to a degree beginning with the Emergency Broadcast System, in approximately in 1964. However, the system was by no means automatic in the way that EAS now is.

President Kennedy departed the White House for a weekend to allow filming. The movie was released shortly after his death. Kennedy intensely disliked and distrusted most of the Joint Staff, and most especially General Curtis LeMay and General Lemnitzer. Thus it is not surprising Lemnitzer was replaced by General Taylor in 1962, immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Whether any of the Generals depicted in the conspiracy were intended to resemble Lemnitzer or LeMay is speculative. Recently declassified documents suggest Kennedy may have considered revoking pre-delegated nuclear release authority which had been permitted by Eisenhower to the Joint Staff and military commanders.

General LeMay was known to have advocated a pre-emptive strike against the USSR in the 1950's, and had the means to do so in crisis conditions absent Presidential order. General Power raised the US Defcon Alert level during the Cuban Missile Crisis without JFK's order, nearly triggering a Soviet strike. The Staff nearly unanimously recommended a Cuban invasion. LeMay later ran as candidate for Vice President with Gov. George Wallace. In the years after the cold war Defense Secretary McNamara has repeated his views that following an invasion nuclear war would have been virtually automatic.

Mount Thunder, or Mount Weather at that time was officially classified Top Secret, its location and mission unacknowledged. It was occasionally referred to as the OCDM classsified location, the OEP classified location, or code name "High Point." How it or why it happens that Kennedy allowed the use of the White House for filming, knowing that the film contained references to a classifed facility, is unknown. It is true however that the fictional President Lyman made references to General Walker, an extremist forced from command due to conflicts with the administration. General Walker was an actual person, although most of the other character names were obvious fiction. Whether Lee Oswald attempted the life of General Walker in Dallas has been a matter of question for some time. Although it is known some one fired at Walker, the actual shooter remains a mystery.

The viewer might pay close attention to a scene described as being at Mount Thunder, including a studio and control room to be used for the supposed "Alert." There is an uncanny resemblence to similar studios at the former secret cold war site known as "Project Greek Island" or "Casper" at the Greenbriar Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virgnia. No photos of the interior of Mount Weather are known published, and photography is prohibited. A few photos of the exterior may be found, but there is yet some question as to whether their being published is lawful.

Greek Island remained classified until the 1990's. Nevertheless both it and Mount Weather are of similar construction. Whether they would look the same inside is speculative. There are cryptic lines of dialog where Colonel Jiggs Casey is asked to take a weekend trip to White Sulphur Springs. It is difficult to imagine that persons connected to the film did not have detailed knowledge of both places, perhaps having visited and been inside both. Why the White House would sanction a possible security compromise of important defense facilities by assisting with the film production is puzzling. Indeed, Richard Reeves noted in Profile of Power that JFK's press secretary was given instructions to report to Mount Weather in event of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In only the last few years did formerly classified documents reveal Eisenhower's having given emergency powers to private citizens (The Eisenhower Ten) to be used in a post-attack environment. Possibly details became leaked to those connected with the book or the film. Although Reeves leaves no doubt in the book concerning the seething hatred between Kennedy personally and the General Staff, one issue in particular should put the film in context. Secretary McNamara discovered, only in the recent years after the end of the USSR, that the Strategic Air Command, having implemented nuclear warhead locks intended to preserve Presidential authority and prevent accidental release, intentionally set the lock codes to zero, and then concealed the settings from McNamara during his entire term as Secretary during JFK and LBJ's tenure.

Sources:

The book President Kennedy: Profile of Power by Richard Reeves is the must have companion to the film. The book details tensions between Kennedy and the Joint Staff, as well as the rationale behind Knebel and Bailey's book upon which Seven Days the film was adapted. In the Film, a test ban treaty is the presumed provocation. Reeves suggests Kennedy's very concerns about the prospect of accidental nuclear war by overzealous generals during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 may have been the real inspiration behind Seven Days the book. In fact many of the generals had been pre-delegated authority to use nuclear weapons by Eisenhower. The film does accurately depict the enmity and distrust between Kennedy and his "advisors", as does Reeve's book.

A more thorough insight regarding policy changes between the Kennedy and Eisenhower era--which provoked tension between the Kennedy administration and the military will be found in recently declassified documents:

"John F. Kennedy let Eisenhower's instructions stand, despite admonitions in January 1961 by White House aide McGeorge Bundy about the danger of 'decisions-in-advance' that might allow a 'subordinate commander faced with a substantial Russian military action to start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.'" http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/19980319.htm

"In 1959, Gen. Walker was sent to Germany to command the 24th Infantry Division. In 1961, however, he became involved in controversy. Walker was accused of distributing right-wing literature from the John Birch Society to the soldiers of his division. He was also quoted by a newspaper, the Overseas Weekly, as saying that Harry S. Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dean Acheson were 'definitely pink'. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara relieved Walker of his command, while an inquiry was conducted. Walker resigned from the Army on November 2, 1961."

"Even before his resignation, Walker had organized protests in September 1961 against the enrollment of African-American James Meredith at the segregated University of Mississippi. The following year, Walker ran for Governor of Texas, but finished last among six candidates in a primary election that was won by John Connally." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Walker

Photo of the Greenbrier studios. http://www.conelrad.com/groundzero/greenbrier.html

Information about the "Eisenhower Ten" declassified documents. http://conelrad.com/atomicsecrets/secrets.php?secrets=e04

McNamara's interview with Bruce Blair concerning nuclear codes. "... What I then told McNamara about his vitally important ICBM locks elicited this response: “I am shocked, absolutely shocked and outraged. Who the h--- authorized that?” What he had just learned from me was that the locks had been installed, but everyone knew the combination...." http://www.cdi.org/program/issue/index.cfm?ProgramID=32&issueid=110

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