Seven Days in May (1964) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • United States military leaders plot to overthrow the President because he supports a nuclear disarmament treaty and they fear a Soviet sneak attack.

  • An unpopular U.S. President manages to get a nuclear disarmament treaty through the Senate, but finds that the nation is turning against him. Jiggs Casey, a Marine Colonel, finds evidence that General Scott, the wildly popular head of the Joint Chiefs and certain Presidential Candidate in 2 years is not planning to wait. Casey goes to the president with the information and a web of intrigue begins with each side unsure of who can be trusted.

  • At the height of the cold war, a weakened President and a popular four-star general face off in a battle for control of the US government. President Jordan Lyman has successfully negotiated an arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, but his measure is unpopular and does not sit well with General James Mattoon Scott, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has been quite vocal in his opposition. Marine Corps Col. Jiggs Casey, who works for Scott, comes to the conclusion that senior military officers are plotting a coup to overthrow the government. Working with a small circle of reliable and loyal officials, President Lyman tries to get the evidence of Scott's treachery and stop him.

  • US President Jordan Lyman is a polarizing figure, with more opposing his actions than supporting them. The reason?: he signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. His detractors believe the Soviets will not live up to their end of the treaty and thus leave the US unprotected. They don't believe true peace can be an outcome of the Cold War. One of those detractors is Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Scott is slowly ingratiating himself as a political figure - the face of US security - to raise the fervor of the peace naysayers. Marine Colonel Martin Casey - Jiggs to his friends - Director of the Joint Chiefs who works directly under Scott and who is loyal to him and his anti-treaty views, comes into a quick succession of seemingly innocent and not so innocent information - build up of a new military base in Texas dealing with Ecomcon which he previously knew nothing of, Scott secretly organizing $10 bets from other US military leaders on a horse race at the Preakness, anti-treaty Senator Frederick Prentice stating to him in private that they must all stay alert on Sunday, and Scott lying about his previous night's activities - which in combination makes him believe that Scott is leading a military coup against the president. Ecomcon seems to be shorthand for "Emergency Communication Control" and the taking of those $10 bets signifies support for the coup to happen in seven days on that upcoming Sunday during a covert military training exercise in the form of an all out alert about which Prentice should have known nothing. Jiggs brings his concerns to the President, who in turn cautiously takes the information with seriousness. With Jiggs, his chief aide Paul Girard, and his dearest friend, senior Senator Raymond Clark (who is better known as a dipsomaniac than an effective politician) among others, Lyman tries to amass evidence of the conspiracy, that evidence which includes dirt on Scott's private life from his former mistress, Ellie Holbrook, to be used only if all other avenues fail. They do learn that the conspiracy is true, but that it is so widespread - its scope including at least one in the media, political commentator Harold McPherson - that obtaining evidence is difficult. Without it, Lyman, as an unpopular president, will lose total effectiveness as a leader if he requests Scott's resignation. The race to Sunday begins as both sides try to protect their ideal of what's best for the country.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • (Monday, 12 May) The United States is in a state very close to turmoil. Strikes threaten to shut down the entire coal industry--and on Pennsylvania Avenue (still open in front of the White House in the film setting), two opposing forces of demonstrators meet, first in stony silence, then with taunts shouted back and forth. One side carries signs offering thanks to President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) for signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. ("Peace On Earth Or No Earth At All" says a double-wide banner.) The other carries bellicose signs denouncing Lyman and the treaty, and promoting the possible Presidential candidacy of a four-star Air Force general: James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Then a Scott fan swings his sign to cut the double-wide banner. Result: mélée, to which the Capitol Police respond at once with cruisers, motorcycles, and paddy wagons.

    Inside the White House, the President's physician (Malcolm Atterbury) notes that Lyman's blood pressure climbs by three millimeters of mercury for every letter he dictates. Aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) reluctantly shares with Lyman a Gallup Poll result showing that only 29 percent of the American people approve of the treaty. To the desperate pleas of the physician that he take two weeks off, Lyman says that he will take a swim in the White House swimming pool.

    Lyman asks Senator Raymond Clark, D-Ga. (Edmund O'Brien) to join him. Lyman has two things to tell Clark. One is his rationale for the treaty: that absent that treaty, the hair-trigger status quo would only get worse, and inevitably some hatred-crazed officer, on either side, might initiate a full nuclear strike, maybe with authorization, possibly without, and the resulting war would end in Pyrrhic victory. The other is some advice to Clark: lay off the sauce. Ray Clark is, quite simply, an alcoholic.

    Clark takes his leave of the President and returns to Capitol Hill and a meeting of the Senate Committee on the Armed Services. (Today such a meeting would take place in the Russell Senate Office Building.) General Scott is the key witness. He insists that the treaty is "at best, an act of naïveté, and at worst an unsupportable negligence." Senator Frederick Prentice, R-Calif. (Whit Bissell), the chairman, is inclined to sympathize and to throw softball questions at Scott. Clark ridicules the proceedings ("a bad Gilbert and Sullivan") and frequently spars with his chairman and with Scott. Very clearly, Scott cannot persuade anyone who does not already agree with him.

    Scott does enjoy the almost unquestioning devotion of his senior administrative assistant, Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey, USMC (Kirk Douglas). As the two men make their way out of the Russell Building to Constitution Avenue for a drive back to the Pentagon, Scott instructs Casey that no one on Capitol Hill, or in the press, is to know about an alert planned for the upcoming Sunday (18 May). "This one must be deep and dark," he says.

    Back at the Pentagon, Casey checks into the E-ring and goes to the office complex of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There he chats with a young officer in All-service Radio, Lt. (jg) Dorsey Grayson USN (Jack Mullaney). Grayson gives Casey some gossip: that General Scott has sent a message to "nothing but the cream", asking them to place their bets for the upcoming Preakness race. The recipients are: the commander of Vandenberg AFB; commander, SAC (Omaha, NE); ComSixthFleet (Gibraltar); Commander-in-chief, Pacific Theater; and commander, First Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, NC. The only man to send in a no-bet message: Vice-Admiral Farley C. Barnswell USN (John Houseman), ComSixthFleet.

    Casey goes on to his office, where he next meets Colonel William "Mutt" Henderson USA (Andrew Duggan), a member of the Army's Signal Corps. Henderson tells Casey that he is exec of EComCon, a secret unit based at a "Site Y" near El Paso, TX. Casey has never heard of EComCon, but draws Henderson out. Henderson reveals that his commanding officer is Colonel John Broderick USA (John Larkin), an officer that Casey has always regarded with suspicion of harboring neo-Nazi attitudes, particularly toward what an army ought to be. Henderson also reveals that EComCon has 100 officers and 3600 enlistees--and has been training more often for seizure than for prevention, as if the assets that EComCon is tasked to guard are already in enemy hands, and EComCon has to repossess them.

    General Scott's aide-de-camp, Colonel Murdock (Richard Anderson), interrupts the two by sending Henderson to another office. He then tells Casey that he should not discuss the alert with Henderson. Casey then, on a wild hunch, starts trying to draw out Murdock on Scott's Preakness pool. To his surprise, Murdock becomes terrifically angry and lets Casey know, in no uncertain terms, that he ought not to stick his nose into "the General's personal business!" As soon as Murdock leaves, Casey calls the Pentagon operator and asks whether she has a listing for EComCon. The answer: negative.

    That night, Casey goes to a party at the home of Stewart Dillard (Charles Watts). There he has a run-in with Girard, who protests Scott's belligerent appearance before SASC earlier that day. Senator Prentice butts in, taunts Girard over the treaty, then tries to goad Casey into talking out-of-school about what the military thinks of the treaty. This Casey will not do. Before things get seriously out-of-control, Dillard shows up and escorts Girard to meet "the wife of the Indian Ambassador."

    To Casey's immense relief, the next guest to speak to him has more pleasant things to say. This is Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), who until recently has been General Scott's squeeze. Now he has apparently dumped her, and she is trying to drown her sorrows in booze, a thing that Casey tries to put a stop to. Casey then agrees to see Ellie on a social basis.

    But before Casey can keep the nightcap date, Prentice, clearly not through, button-holes Casey and shoots his mouth off: "We all have to stay on the alert, especially on Sunday." Casey cannot let that rest. He apologizes profusely to Ellie, then sets out for Fort Myer, General Scott's headquarters. What to his wondering eyes should appear but Senator Prentice' automobile, parked outside of General Scott's official residence, and Senator Prentice getting out of his car and letting an orderly escort him into the residence--at 2345 hours.

    (Tuesday 13 May) The next morning, Casey reports to work, to review some footage from the last all-service alert, run in January. Scott is clearly not satisfied, saying that the military's response is way too slow. He then asks Casey to "stay close" and be available after the JCS meeting. Casey notices that Scott is tired, and asks Scott whether he got to bed late. Scott answers that he "went to bed too early, slept from eight to eight, too much sleep. I may never wake up." Clearly, that's a lie.

    After the meeting, Casey notes that the Chief of Staff of the Navy was not present at the meeting. He idly picks up a crumpled piece of paper from the desk of General Hardesty (Tyler McVey), Chief of Staff of the Air Force. The note reads: "Airlift EComCon 40 K212s to Site Y before 0700 Sunday. Chi, New York, LA, Utah." (The K-212 is a fictitious troop transport; no such aircraft exists on the military aircraft catalogue.) Scott tells Casey to keep secret the Preakness pool and Admiral Barnswell's refusal to participate. He then asks Casey to watch the broadcast from tonight's convention of the American Veterans' Order, which Scott will address.

    Grayson flags Casey on his way out, saying that he has just received a transfer to Pearl Harbor. He also reveals that Admiral Barnswell was indeed the only man to "poop out on the General's racing form."

    Casey does watch the AVO convention. Commentator Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe) introduces Scott, who addresses the meeting after the fashion of a politician, not a military officer. Casey has now seen enough. He calls the operator and asks for a connection to the White House.

    Casey goes to the White House and lays out everything before the President: EComCon (which, if it is a formal military abbreviation, could stand for Emergency Communications Control), its size, its ostensible mission, its probable mission ("training for seizure"), the Hardesty Note, the Preakness pool (and shipping Lt.-jg Grayson off to Hawaii when he revealed too much), Senator Prentice shooting his mouth off, Scott receiving Prentice late at night and then lying about how soon he went to bed that night, and finally that Congress is in recess, the Vice-President is on a goodwill tour of Italy, and the President has been asked to participate in the alert without the press. The upshot: General Scott is orchestrating a plot to take over the government. D-Day: Sunday, 18 May.

    Girard is not inclined to believe Casey. Girard also telephones Bill Condon at the Bureau of the Budget (after Casey leaves), and from him learns that no authority has ever appropriated funds for anything like EComCon. But the President will not discount the story. Hastily he assembles a task force, consisting of Girard, Supervisor Art Corwin (Bart Burns) of the Secret Service, Secretary of the Treasury Chris Todd (George Macready), Senator Raymond Clark, and Col. Jiggs Casey.

    (Wednesday 14 May) Chris Todd flatly does not believe in the plot, citing the absence of evidence for EComCon. Girard is inclined to agree with him. But the President cites the Navy being left out of the JCS meeting, the Hardesty Note, and what 3600 troops, aboard 40 K212 transports, could do. Art furthermore reveals Col. Broderick's Nazi-like attitudes, and Clark especially fears Scott's politician's manner.

    Finally, the President calls a halt to any further discussion. He lays out specific assignments. Chris Todd will coordinate at the White House. Art will recruit as many Secret Service agents as he needs to run tails on Generals Scott; Hardesty; Riley (William Challee), commandant of Marines; and Diefenbach (Robert Brubaker), chief of staff of the Army. Paul Girard will take a letter from the President to Gibraltar, confront Admiral Barnswell with it, and get his written reply. Ray Clark will go to El Paso, take a telephone number that Casey got from Col. Henderson, and "find that base." Casey will stay close to Scott and try to gather more information from him.

    Scott catches Casey looking up El Paso on the map. Whether Scott suspects Casey of compromising him, the film does not make clear--but Scott peremptorily gives Casey a seventy-two-hour leave.

    At Dulles Airport, Casey sees Clark off, but not before Clark instructs Casey to go see Ellie Holbrook, who might know more about Scott than anyone. As Casey prepares to leave with Art Corwin, they spot Harold MacPherson getting into a staff car belonging to Scott. The two men trail this car to a back alley, where apparently McPherson has met with Senator Prentice.

    (Thursday 15 May) President Lyman cancels all his appointments for the day. He also telephones Scott to tell him that he won't participate in the alert after all, but will go to his private island retreat on Blue Lake, Maine. (This is not the official Presidential retreat at Camp David; this is Jordan Lyman's private property.) Scott tells his secretary to hold his calls, while he calls Colonel Broderick at Site Y.

    Ray Clark makes it to El Paso an strikes up a conversation with a girl (Colette Jackson), who wonders why no soldiers have patronized the bar, though a base must be located nearby, as she and the bar owner see and hear planes flying in and out of a remote area at all hours. Clark gets into his automobile and drives down a desert road, and takes a turn-off. Then a helicopter drops out of the sky, and out steps a stone-faced guard, gun drawn, to arrest Clark.

    Paul Girard has made it to Gibraltar, and meets with Barnswell aboard his flagship (USS Kitty Hawk, CVAN 63). Barnswell breaks into a sweat, then agrees to write a detailed confession.

    Jiggs Casey goes to see Ellie Holbrook at her home. From her he gets a detailed and lurid story of her affair with Scott--in which Scott was so supremely sure of himself that he would write letters to her describing all the details of their relationship, none of which are safe for work. Casey then stuns and hurts Ellie by taking possession of the letters. Because he cannot tell her why he needs the letters, she assumes, incorrectly, that he came to collect them to spare Scott any embarrassment.

    (Friday 16 May) President Lyman screens some very damning footage shot from Blue Lake. Shown is a runabout reconnoitering the private island. In that runabout: Colonels Murdock and Broderick. That alone convinces Lyman, and Todd, that Scott and the others are indeed guilty.

    Todd heaps fulsome praise on Casey for securing Scott's lurid love letters. Casey makes no effort to hide his monumental distaste, and lets Todd know that he does not appreciate the inference. Lyman stops the nasty argument and assures Casey that, thanks to Paul Girard securing a written confession from Barnswell, he, Lyman, won't have to use the letters. But then Presidential secretary Esther Townsend (Helen Kleeb) brings in a dire message: Paul Girard is dead, killed in a crash of the airliner he was on. (The airline's name is "Trans-Ocean Airlines," but is probably TWA, given the era of the film's release.)

    Ray Clark, now detained at Site Y, bellows into a telephone to Senator Prentice that he will demand several explanations from him the next time he sees him. Colonel Broderick, now back from his errand to Blue Lake, tells Clark that he's not going anywhere for awhile, and leaves him a bottle of booze. Clark pours this down a sink drain after reading a newspaper account of Girard's death.

    Henry Whitney (Fredd Wayne), an attaché at the US Embassy in Madrid, visits the crash site looking for the personal effects of Girard and the one other listed American passenger.

    Back on Site Y, late at night, Colonel Henderson visits Clark in his locked room. Clark then tells Henderson that when he, Henderson, first told Jiggs Casey about EComCon, Jiggs had never heard of it. Jiggs then looked up EComCon and found no reference to it in JCS orders. Henderson sits down to listen as Clark tells him "the d____dest story you ever heard." Whereupon Henderson decides to take Clark off the base. He tries to go non-violently, but when a sergeant detains him near the base flight line, and the alarm sounds, Henderson decks the sergeant, drives over the barrier berm, and escapes with Clark.

    (Saturday 17 May) Henderson and Clark arrive at Dulles Airport. But when Clark calls the White House to report in, someone takes Henderson away as if Henderson never existed. The President later confirms that someone has seen Henderson driven into Fort Myer and confined to the stockade--incommunicado.

    The President calls Barnswell to try to trick him into an incriminating statement. The savvy Barnswell denies ever signing anything or handing anything to Girard.

    Chris Todd urges the President to arrest Scott, Hardesty, Riley, and Diefenbach right now. Lyman will not do this without evidence. Ray Clark urges Lyman to use the Scott Letters, but Lyman won't make up his mind to do that, either.

    Then Scott's plan begins to unravel. Scott is rehearsing the communications cutouts at Mount Thunder, when an aide tells him that General Barney Rutkowski (Ferris Webster) has gotten his wind up after ten of the K212 transports crossed his radar and then flew under it. The aid is afraid that the by-the-book Rutkowski will go straight to the President with what he knows.

    That is exactly what Rutkowski does. "Someone has a secret base near El Paso, and I should have been notified!" says the angry Rutkowski. He then says that thirty more transports were due to fly in the same general direction by 0700 Sunday--only now they're due by 2300 that night. The President orders Rutkowski to ground any aircraft going anywhere near El Paso, or flying out of it.

    Now Lyman summons Scott to the White House. At a late-night meeting, with no witnesses, Lyman confronts Scott with everything he knows: EComCon, the detention of Senator Clark, the collusion between Senator Prentice and Colonel Broderick, the very selection of Broderick (considering his attitudes), Broderick's reconnaissance of Lyman's Blue Lake island, the arrest-without-charge of Colonel Henderson, and the Preakness code. Then the two men debate one another's moral position. Scott insists that he could be elected by acclimation whenever he asked. Lyman stands on the Constitution, elections, and the very real possibility that the Soviets would attack at once upon sensing that the United States was falling to a military dictator. In the end, Lyman demands Scott's resignation, and those of Hardesty, Riley and Diefenbach, and says that he will announce that demand in a press conference the following afternoon.

    Scott passes Casey on his way out and leaves without a word. Lyman then comes out of the Oval Office, hands the Scott Letters to Casey, and tells them to give them back to Ellie.

    (Sunday 18 May) Scott's plans have gone more than a trifle awry. Obviously, the EComCon Airlift did *not* take place as planned. So Scott plans to tape a delayed broadcast "to take his case to the people." Hardesty, Riley and Diefenbach are highly dubious by this time, but Scott presses on.

    President Lyman begins his press conference, pre-empting the Preakness Race to do it. Then he delays it for half an hour, when Henry Whitney shows up--with the Barnswell statement, which Whitney did manage to recover from the wreckage of Paul Girard's doomed flight. (Girard had hidden it in a cigarette case that Lyman had given him as a special gift.) After ordering Whitney to keep the paper secret, Lyman has it copied out.

    Casey goes to the E-Ring to hand-deliver a copy of the Barnswell statement to Scott, together with Lyman's written demand for Scott's resignation. Scott accuses Casey of betraying him, and Casey accuses Scott of betraying his country and "disgrac[ing] the four stars on his uniform."

    Scott goes to a TV station to record his belligerent message. But before he can begin, a panicked Prentice and McPherson inform him that the President has a signed statement giving names and dates and implicating them all. Scott contemptuously dismisses the two men and returns to the E-Ring--where he overhears Lyman accepting the resignations of Hardesty, Riley and Diefenbach. Now utterly defeated, he gets back into his staff car and orders his driver to take him "home."

    Casey goes to see Ellie, who knows perfectly well why Casey took the Scott Letters. As he hands them back to her, she accepts Casey's word that the letters "might have been" "the bullets" to "[shoot down]" Scott, but weren't. The two agree to see each other again, after the excitement has died down.

    Lastly, Lyman declares that it is "slander" to suggest that the United States cannot be strong without directly waging war. He insists that world peace, and freedom, will come peaceably. With that, and a display of the Constitution, the film ends.

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