Two very different films on a related subject from the early 1960’s. One of the reasons I enjoy films from this time period is the frank subject matter, often adapted from best sellers, that take the viewers to the edge of reality with minimal soap opera or totally unrealistic and annoying love interests. These are film noir stories that have come out of the darkness.
Seven Days in May (1964)
Suppose military officers were contemplating a coup to replace the President. The reason is the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Back during the deep freeze of the Cold War, there was concern in our own government about naively believing in treaties that would be violated and leave the United States vulnerable to a first nuclear strike. To a degree, there was safety in the Cold War, each side knew where they stood, and careers could be built with a heightened military standing. The Military Industrial Complex likes a permanent war economy.
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas co-star in this political thriller. John Frankenheimer, a frequent Lancaster collaborator, directs from a script by Rod Serling who adapted a best selling novel. Kirk Douglas bought the book and his company produced the film.
Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Douglas) discovers a plot to overthrow the President and remove him and the Cabinet in a coup de tat in seven days. Casey begins to investigate and provides this information to the President, who eventually confronts General James Mattoon Scott, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Lancaster). The bulk of the film is a detective story to unravel the plot without Gen. Scott finding out before the President can devise a plan to stop the coup. Fredric March was the only actor considered for the role of the President and he is magnificent. Frankenheimer said that March raised the bar for every other actor on the film.
Supposedly, President Kennedy read the novel and liked it, as he had with Frankenheimer’s film The Manchurian Candidate. Kennedy gave support to the making of the film, by allowing filmmakers to photograph the inside of the White House, and to film the protest-gone-wrong scene that opens the film. The authors of the novel, Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, were political journalists who based the story around heightened tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, particularly the Bay of Pigs, and controversial people of the era to give it a sense of reality.
The film’s low angles, extreme close-ups and commanding wide shots add to the tension and paranoia in the film’s mood. Frankenheimer uses music sparingly on purpose, like a semicolon or exclamation point. In television, he had limited use of production resources so learning how to let the drama breath and flow into the lens separated the ordinary directors from those who would move on to feature films. Both Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet were in the latter category.
Fail Safe (1964)
The threat of thermonuclear war kept people on the edge of their seats in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The military was always prepared, and sometimes the preparation went terribly wrong.
Henry Fonda, in another of his earnest and thoughtful roles, plays the unfortunate President of the United States, who must inform the Soviet leader of a wayward bomber heading towards a Soviet target. Larry Hagman, plays the interpreter, who shows the fear and stress that the President conceals. With a great supporting cast including Walter Matthaw, Frank Overton, Daniel O-Herlihy, Fritz Weaver and Dom DeLuise, it was directed by Sidney Lumet. Lumet’s direction is gritty and gloomy, you feel the perspiration and the dismay.
A malfunction in the U.S. warning system scrambles the air force and sets them toward targets in the Soviet Union. Fail Safe relates to the absolute outer marker for recalling a plane on the way to the target. Discussions in the background detail the arguments for a first strike and the inevitability of thermonuclear war. To make the film more interesting, a professor (Matthau), who is advising the Pentagon on limited war with nuclear weapons. They debate the difference between 60 million American deaths and 100 million.
“We’re making war more efficient,” says Gen. Black. “We’re setting up a war machine that acts faster than the ability of men to control it.”
Gen. Black: “We’ve got to slow down.”
Professor: “I disagree, we’ve got to speed up.”
And so it begins. Strike or not to strike, accident or not, take advantage of the situation becauses the Soviets would.
The film covers a lot of ground, from the SAC base operations center in Omaha, to the Pentagon to the White House. At the SAC base, a visiting VIP witnesses the alert and decisions in the face of this mistake, a reported UFO that scrambles bombers. The alert status continues to escalate, as does the tension, and the confusion. The alert is cancelled after the UFO is an American plane. The bomb group receives what it thinks is the “go” code and sets direction to their target. After failing to recall the bomb group, the Air Force attempts to shoot down the bomb group but fails. The President then calls the Soviet leader to explain. The Soviets attempt to shoot down the bombers. Masking devices make it difficult to shoot down the bombers. Soviet jamming prevented communication with the bomber, and may have triggered the mechanical failure of the fail safe signal. The President talks the bomb group but that also fails to stop the mission.
The professor advocates for a full first strike against our mortal enemy with minimal civilian loss. The President orders that our forces aid the Soviets in shooting down our bombers, including how to bypass our air to air missile defense. A SAC Colonel attempts to take over the operations center and order a full strike. The President comes up with a solution to stop a full retaliation against the U.S. I won’t spoil the ending.
Sidney Lumet directed 12 Angry Men with Fonda and he uses the same techniques to convey the internal character conflict. This is a hard film to watch, you wonder why it didn’t happened before.
In these days, our country’s defense was our large cache of nuclear arms and our huge conventional weapon systems. The Soviets were our enemy, the world was very black and white, like the photography. Today, threats don’t have to nations or even armies. The most effective weapons are social media, computer hacking, taking over a country’s economy or as medieval as IEDs. While nuclear weapons are still a threat, the biggest threat is falling into the wrong hands.
Both films take you to situations that seem unbelievable, yet are within possibility. Typical of these films, they were made by very skilled directors who worked in dramatic television and know how to ratchet up the tension.
These two films have their slow moments where theory and political debate substitute for action, but both films cover all the bases in telling their respective stories. The casts are each rich and deep with acting talent and you’ll recognize the faces of future stars.
Each of these films deserve their own separate discussion, but are linked by their underlying Cold War pretext. See them. Your life might depend on it. Not really, but you’ll feel like you were standing on the brink the collapse of our democracy or the end of the world.