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President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) is about to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union for the disarmament of all nuclear weapons. This has caused a record slump in his popularity and the public opposition of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the charismatic General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). Lyman is determined to proceed regardless but then a Pentagon officer, Colonel Martin Casey (Kirk Douglas), approaches him with a shocking revelation. He believes that General Scott is planning a military coup, to be staged during a troop mobilization exercise at the end of the week. Although his staff are skeptical, President Lyman is not so sure. He now has only seven days to find proof that the most popular general in the country is planning treason, and stop him.
Originally a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. When adapted as a theatrical movie (with Rod Serling, no less, writing the screenplay), President John F Kennedy gave the producers special access to the White House, allowing them to film there with access never before or since granted to any (non documentary) film crew. The President would even conveniently arrange to visit Hyannis Port for a weekend when the film needed to shoot outside the White House. The Pentagon, in contrast, refused to cooperate at all, leading to the filmmakers doing a bit of covert filming on-site with star Douglas in costume.
JFK considered the film so important because he believed the events in the book and movie could very well happen. After the spat between Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman, as well as JFK's own problems with his generals, he was well aware that there were those in the military who felt they should be in control of the country instead of him.
The story is said to have been influenced by the right-wing anti-Communist political activities of General Edwin A. Walker after he retired from the military. The authors got the idea for the book after interviewing then Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay.
Tropes in this movie include:
- The Alcoholic: Senator Clark. At one stage when he's being 'detained' on a military base, the conspirators send in a bottle every hour to keep him quiet. Clark has to keep pouring them down the toilet, which doesn't improve his disposition.
- Backed by the Pentagon. Definitely not, for obvious reasons; though as mentioned above President Kennedy gave the movie his covert support.
- Cannot Spit It Out: Colonel Casey can't bring himself to actually say the unthinkable -- that there's a coup planned -- and starts waffling until the politicians tell him to stop screwing about.
- Chekhov's Gun: A White House aide gets a signed statement from an admiral who was approached but refused to take part in the conspiracy. Worried about it being stolen on the way back to Washington, he hides the statement in his metal cigarette case. Thus it survives his death in a plane crash and gets returned to the US embassy with his other personal effects, just in time to save the day.
- Day of the Jackboot: Unlike other fiction based on the same concept, Seven Days in May goes to great lengths to portray its subject realistically. There are no gunfights or car chases, both sides are operating covertly with only limited personnel, and an essential condition for any successful coup -- the public relations factor -- is an important part of the planning.
- Empathy Doll Shot: A Spanish policeman finds a doll in the wreckage of a plane crash.
- Engineered Public Confession: Averted. Even when the President confronts him with a direct accusation, General Scott never admits to anything.
- Gullible Lemmings: Colonel William "Mutt" Henderson, part of the secret ECOMCON strike force, has no idea why he's training to seize communications assets rather than defend them until Senator Clark informs him of the plot. He then helps the Senator escape.
- Honor Before Reason: After seven days the President still doesn't have firm proof of the conspiracy, but he does have letters Scott wrote to his mistress, which his colleagues urge him to use to force Scott to resign. For a moment it looks like the President will use them, but he refuses to stoop to crude blackmail. In the novel though his lawyer friend isn't so particular, warning Scott against seeking a Presidential nomination in the next elections. "The President is a gentleman, I am a trial lawyer; a mean son of a bitch."
- My Country, Right or Wrong: Colonel Casey also disagrees with the President's disarmament treaty, but has sworn to defend the Constitution.
- A Nazi by Any Other Name: General Scott at the American Veterans rally.
- Not So Different: At the end, hoping to bring Scott on his side (or at least dissuade him from being his enemy), President Lyman asks him what he would do about the possibility of the Soviet's cheating on the treaty if Scott were in power. After Scott replies, Lyman says that is exactly what Lyman is planning to do. Scott doesn't believe him.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: For once this helps the good guys. When an Air Force general complains about 'classified' flights that he hadn't authorised, the President realises he's not part of the conspiracy and orders him to ground the aircraft at once.
- One-Scene Wonder: John Houseman as one of the coup-plotters. It was his first appearance before the camera after years of working on the production side of the business.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: A Pentagon communications officer tells Colonel Casey about a seemingly-innocuous bit of gambling by some high-ranking officers (it's actually a code indicating their willingness to join the coup). Instead of a heavy-handed punishment detail, General Scott wisely has the blabber shipped off to a highly-desirable post in Hawaii, and orders Casey to take a few days leave so he won't be in a position to observe anything else suspicious.
- This turns into a Brick Joke at the end of the book version, when the officer, now working in Hawaii, hears about Scott's resignation and thinks that President Lyman sure must hate gambling.
- The Remake: by HBO as The Enemy Within in 1994, with Sam Waterson as the President, Jason Robards as the General, and Forest Whitaker as the Colonel. Updated for a post Cold War world, and the conspirators planning to use the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to declare the President incompetent to serve.
- Revealing Coverup: Averted. There's only one death under suspicious circumstances (of a White House aide carrying absolute proof of the conspiracy) and that's never shown to have been anything other than an ordinary plane crash. Two people who look like they've been 'disappeared' turn out to have been merely detained on various pretexts. The closest we get to this trope is when a conspirator angrily tells Colonel Casey to shut up about the gambling signal -- it's this overreaction that first raises his suspicions.
- Rousing Speech: General Scott was to give this once communications had been seized. Even when the coup is foiled Scott still believes he can force the President's impeachment by arranging an interview with all the major networks. Instead it's President Lyman who gets the standing ovation at the end.
- Shut UP, Hannibal:
General Scott: I asked you a question -- do you know who Judas was?!
Colonel Casey: Yes, I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform.
- Strawman News Media: Type 3, with a dash of Type 5. The only member of the media given both a face and a name is a member of the conspiracy.
- Treachery Cover-Up: President Lyman decides that what happened must never become public knowledge, in order to preserve the idea that a military coup against the United States government is simply unthinkable.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: The novel on which the film is based (published in 1962) is set in May 1974, after a stalemated war in Iran. The motion picture is set in 1970 and features the then-futuristic technology of video teleconferencing.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: General Scott could possibly be interpreted as this, depending on your politics.
- Wild Card: Vice Admiral Barnswell is approached to take part in the coup, but thinks it's too risky and declines. Knowing this the President sends his aide to force him into providing a signed statement about the conspiracy, which is lost when the aide's plane crashes on its way back to Washington, whereupon Barnswell claims he knows nothing about any such statement.