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Posted on Jun 9, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Films of the Cold War

By Wyatt Kingseed

3.jpgSeven Days in May

Director John Frankenheimer delves into the Cold War genre a second time and puts a twist on the already traditional plotline, with the Russians merely an off-screen presence.

Frederick March plays President Lyman, a liberal who fears that the nuclear age has killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. About to introduce a disarmament treaty to the U.S. Senate, he is up against Burt Lancaster as General James Mattoon Scott. The right-wing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Scott plans a military takeover because he fears the president is compromising the safety of the country. Kurt Douglas plays Lancaster’s aide, Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, who accidentally uncovers the plot by stumbling onto the cover story—a supposed betting pool for the upcoming Preakness.  Each of the headliners infuses his character with authority and conviction to give a convincing and textured performance. Jiggs admires General Scott and is disheartened to take his suspicions to the president, while Scott acts out of genuine fear that the president’s policy threatens the county he loves.           


The supporting cast is terrific. Martin Balsam plays Lyman’s friend and right-hand man in the White House; Edmund O’Brien is a Senator with a drinking problem; and Ava Gardner is a Washington socialite whose best days are behind her. O’Brien earned an Oscar nomination. He pays a surprise visit to a mysterious base in the middle of the Arizona desert where Lancaster is training a special assault force. It is a wonderful set piece. When the Senator is forcibly held incommunicado and tempted with booze, you can’t help but worry about his safety.       

Rod Serling wrote the screenplay, adapted from Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey’s best-selling novel. Serling brings his Twilight Zone magic with crisp dialog that crackles as the protagonists go at one another. The final confrontation between March and Lancaster is a highlight, with an aggravated President Lyman dressing down the self-rightist officer: "Then, by God, run for office! You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country…why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government you’re so hell-bent to protect?"

And like his film The Manchurian Candidate two years earlier, Frankenheimer presents a cautionary tale here. It is not only the military that citizens need be wary of, but also two other American institutions that in the early 60s were still generally held in high regard, the press and Congress. Members of both have joined Scott’s cabal and put their personal agendas ahead of the Constitution. Neither can be trusted.

The book and film were inspired by the disarmament debate raging in Washington at the time. A temporary suspension of nuclear testing by both super powers in 1958 failed to produce a lasting treaty and by 1962, each nation had resumed the proliferation race. 


It is the height of the Cold War. Strategic Air Command routinely flies missions to the fail safe position—the line beyond which pilots are to cease communications and ignore orders to return to base. A computer glitch sends a squadron of six B-58 bombers off to obliterate Moscow. They carry a payload of two-megaton hydrogen bombs. The U.S. President, played by an increasingly frustrated Henry Fonda, soon is on the hotline to the Russian Premier trying to explain the fowl up.

Tensions mount and cold sweat starts to pour as efforts to recall the bombers fail. American fighters ordered to intercept the bombers exhaust their fuel and crash into the Arctic Sea, and Soviet MIGs dispatched to shoot down the highly skilled bombers only manage to stop five. Eventually, the president is left with a chilling option to avert a possible retaliatory strike and nuclear Armageddon. He issues an order too incredible to contemplate.

This is a grim and pessimistic tale. Up against the incomparable Dr. Strangelove, released nine months earlier, this film was all but ignored at the box office. It lacks any of the black humor embedded in Kubrick’s masterpiece; instead, relying on straight dramatic performances in an intentionally claustrophobic setting. With the feel of a documentary throughout, it is a riveting film.

Nowhere is the contrast between Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe more obvious than in the conversations between the American and Russian leaders. Kubrick and Peter Sellers played it for camp, while here, director Sidney Lumet and Fonda play it dead serious. Lumet is a master with the camera, making exquisite use of shadows and tight angles to keep the mood tense and the audience nervous.

The cast is top notch. Fonda is the headliner, a decent and morally grounded man facing a Hobson’s choice. Walter Matthau, known best for his later comedic roles, shines as a cynical professor and Pentagon advisor with some unusual theories about nuclear warfare. He is coldly practical and believes the Russians are “calculating machines,” who will “look at the balance sheet and see they cannot win.” He’s convinced they will surrender rather than retaliate. Dan O’Herlihy a brigadier general in the US Air Force and old classmate of the president is troubled by a nightmare about a matador. Ed Binns is Jack Grady, a by the book Air Force Colonel who leads the bomber squadron.

Given the jaw-dropping ending, it’s no wonder the Department of Defense refused to cooperate with the filming.

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1 Comment

  1. i want to became an actor i will do anything for that….i am indian