11/30/2014 12:10 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Mad About the '60s ... 50th Anniversary of Coup Classic Seven Days In May

(Note: This is one in a series of occasional pieces in the run-up to the series finale of Mad Men with cultural relevance to the period of the show and today.)

Today we think of the 1970s as the heyday of the conspiracy thriller, a genre which received a superhero updating in this year's smash Captain America: The Winter Soldier. After the disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate, the times made sense for chilling cinematic assessments of how society works.Or doesn't.

But the reality is that the conspiracy genre flourished a decade earlier, before most of the disillusionment. And it did so in large part at the encouragement of none other than the President of the United States.

John F. Kennedy encouraged the making of a group of films emphasizing an insidious threat from right-wing forces within and the existential dangers of the nuclear age. He began doing this after the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, in which CIA and Pentagon leaders unsuccessfully pushed him to intervene directly with US forces after a covertly-backed Cuba invasion by exile forces went unsurprisingly sideways. Kennedy intensified his cinematic efforts after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the Pentagon brass pushed for a US invasion of Cuba. Which as I discussed here last week, could easily have triggered a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

As fate would have it, all but one of these films -- the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate, starring and produced by JFK buddy Frank Sinatra -- appeared after Kennedy's assassination, though principal photography on all was completed beforehand.

Out of all the films, which also include Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and The Best Man, Seven Days In May is the most explicit about an overt right-wing military takeover of the US government. It also received the most overt support from Kennedy, who made the White House available for some filming.

Former Kennedy White House advisor and eminent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger and others discuss why President John F. Kennedy wanted Seven Days In May made into a movie.

A cracking thriller in atmospheric black and white, Seven Days In May is stylishly directed by Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer, who went on to do campaign commercials for the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy, the director's Malibu houseguest when he was assassination after delivering his California presidential primary victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel. The film features a top cast in top form, with friends and rivals Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, also the film's producer, starring as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his Marine colonel top hand, who quickly comes to suspect that his charismatic four star Air Force general boss is hatching a plot to seize the presidency for himself in a military coup.

JFK had wanted his friend Henry Fonda to play the embattled president, whose polls have plummeted in the wake of a nuclear peace treaty with the Soviet Union and an unfortuitous economic slowdown. But Fonda was unavailable, since ehe was filming another role JFK wanted him to play, that of the president pushed to launch an all-out nuclear war in Fail-Safe.

Frederic March stepped in instead. The two-time Oscar winner doesn't cause the charisma overload that the Lancaster-Fonda face-off would have. But, sad sack though he seems at first, he's plenty forceful enough. And he underscores the reality that the charismatic figure can easily be the one who is in the wrong.

For much of the film, March's older, much less vigorous President Jordan Lyman seems very overmatched by Lancaster's crisp ramrod charisma as General James Mattoon "Gentleman Jim" Scott. But with a little help from his friends, he may get by.

Chief among these crucial friends is a mere acquaintance, Marine Corps Colonel Martin J. "Jiggs" Casey, director of the Joint Staff, which provides planning and staff services for the heads of the armed services who make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Demonstrating how the Pentagon has continued to grow over the past 50 years since the Cold War heyday, the Joint Staff director gig is now a three-star general slot. Its most famous recent holder? General Stanley McChrystal. He had the post just before he became our Afghanistan surge commander. Before he was fired by President Barack Obama for gross disrespect toward civilian authority.)

While Burt Lancaster has arguably the showier role of the film's two big stars, it's producer Kirk Douglas who is its lynchpin and beating heart. Scorned by some of the far right-wing officers around Lancaster's General Scot as "a bleeding heart liberal," Douglas's crisp Col. Casey actually agrees with Scott that the Soviets are duping the president on the nuclear peace treaty. But he stands on his oath of office as a Marine officer, which is not to the military or some martial ideal but to our democratic process and systems of laws in the form of the Constitution.

Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling's screenplay, which is top-notch throughout, is especially adept in its use of Douglas's character.

After noting a number of disquieting facts, Casey makes up his mind after viewing a big Scott speech the general asked him to watch. Introduced by the country's leading right-wing commentator, Scott whips up a huge crowd of veterans with a message of star-spangled strength. The white horse is clearly waiting just off stage.

The rest of the cast is top-notch as well. Standouts include Oscar-nominated Edmund O'Brien as an alcoholic Southern senator who has to undertake a big mission to protect his presidential pal, Martin Balsam as the sort of confidential aide every major politician needs, and Ava Gardner as Scott's faded glamour girl ex-mistress who knows where the bodies are buried. John Houseman also stands out as a slippery Navy admiral who dallied with Scott's coup.

So, can it happen here? Could an unpopular president pursuing a "treasonous" course during frightening times run afoul of the military brass and right-wing media?

Uh, sure. To the extent that they would mount a coup? That's tougher. There are an awful lot of folks in the military who take their oaths seriously.

In the film, those loyalist elements -- personified by the Douglas character -- loom large.

The trailer for Seven Days In May.

But it has certainly happened elsewhere lately, and we've either helped or gone along, in Egypt and Ukraine.

Was JFK serious about this as an actual threat or was he symbolic in encouraging a cultural counterweight to right-wing forces in the military, media, and politics?

That's hard to know.

But when the commander of the Air Force accused him during the Cuban Missile Crisis of appeasing Communism and creating "another Munich" for refusing to launch air strikes and invade Cuba, JFK may have believed he was face to face with at least one top officer who would gladly boot him out of office by force. That was General Curtis LeMay, incidentally, architect of the vast strategic bomber force in the 1950s and in 1968 the vice presidential running mate on Alabama Governor George Wallace's right-wing racist ticket.

Seven Days In May isn't the grand and strange class that Frankenheimer's earlier Manchurian Candidate is. It's far less sardonic, satirical, and surrealistic than the latter film, which continues to echo in the culture in ironic ways. (Recall the far right talk of Obama as a "Manchurian Candidate," from people who obviously don't understand the movie, in which the title character is a tool intended for left-wing forces which turn out to be right-wing forces.)

Seven Days In May is far more straightforward. It's a gripping, stylish, well-written thriller that is well worth seeing.

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