From ‘Seven Days in May’ to Manchuria
The level of anger, hatred, and opposition directed towards President Trump as well as calls for his removal has led some to compare the situation to the 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May, a film in which the President of the United States barely avoids a military junta.
The film was directed by John Frakenheimer, who also directed 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, another classic political thriller. In that film, a U.S. Senator embarks on a communist witch hunt in the same vein as Joseph McCarthy, but in reality, is part of a complex communist plot designed to get him elected President. Frankenheimer did a marvelous job directing both films and there are similarities in the tone and presentation of each film in terms of the urgency they convey. They remind us that vigilance is ALWAYS necessary to preserve America.
Both movies were inspired by the extremely volatile and heated Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1960’s and the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation. Further, each movie features an incredible acting ensemble: Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, and Janet Leigh in The Manchurian Candidate and Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Fredric March in Seven Days in May. These movies were made before the advent of CGI when the strength of the plotline and the power of performances separated the truly great and memorable movies from the ones long since forgotten. How many films today are focused on presenting thought-provoking issues as compared to films that focus on action, adventure, and special effects? Are American movie audiences even challenged to think anymore, especially young adults?
At the time these movies were released, the concepts addressed in each film probably seemed much closer to fiction than reality. From the perspective of an American in the early 1960’s it would be hard to fathom an actual candidate for President of the United States being the figurehead of a presidential campaign orchestrated by forces hostile to democracy and American values. Wouldn’t such a candidate be exposed at some point? It probably seemed even harder to believe that a sitting American President could be overthrown by hostile forces within the United States Government. Isn’t that the kind of event which only happens in 3rd world countries? It couldn’t possibly happen in a stable country such as ours…could it?
The sad thing about both movies is that 50+ years after their initial release, both films have only become more relevant and the likelihood of the events depicted in each movie have become more plausible. In other words, instead of our country becoming more secure, it has become less secure over the past 50 years. All one has to do is examine the plot of each movie and apply it to the current political environment.
When most people think of The Manchurian Candidate, they automatically focus on the film’s most famous plot device: The brainwashing of an entire platoon of American soldiers. While a chilling concept, it isn’t necessarily the primary means by which the communists intend to take over the United States. Arguably, their plot might have actually worked if they hadn’t resorted to brainwashing.
The main characters in the movie are Major Bennett Marco and Raymond Shaw. During the Korean war, they were members of a platoon captured and brainwashed by the communists. All members of the platoon are tricked into thinking Shaw is a hero and to that end Marco recommends and Shaw (stepson of an ambitious U.S. Senator) receives the Medal of Honor.
In reality, Shaw was subjected to additional brainwashing which was designed to make him the perfect assassin (because he will do what he is told and have no memory of it). Completely brainwashed, Shaw kills members of his platoon and assassinates a newspaper publisher, a U.S. Senator, and even his own wife. This manner in which these events are depicted are absolutely chilling and horrifying and are the reason why the movie is so well-remembered.
However, Shaw himself is NOT ‘the Manchurian candidate.’ People forget that. The actual ‘Manchurian candidate’…the candidate the communists support is in fact Shaw’s stepfather, U.S. Senator Johnny Iselin, a man engaged in ‘exposing communists.’ Iselin and Shaw’s mother Eleanor are in fact communist operatives, not Shaw. They are American citizens who knowingly and willingly assist the communists. They are not brainwashed. Their endgame is for Iselin to receive the Vice-Presidential nomination of his party. At the convention, when the Presidential nominee gives his speech, the plan is for Shaw to assassinate him from a sniper’s nest. At which point Iselin will deliver one of the most powerful speeches in history…in a spontaneous fashion (when in fact the speech has already been written after years of effort to ensure it has the desired effect). After that, the plan is for Iselin to be elected President, at which point he will use the political assassination as pretense to initiate martial law and hand over the White House to the communists.
The only thing that stops this is the fact that Major Bennett figures out the plot and successfully deprograms Shaw. However, Shaw slips away and takes his spot in the sniper’s nest as originally intended, but instead of shooting the Presidential nominee, he instead kills Iselin and his mother before taking his own life (in one of cinema’s most shocking scenes). There is nothing however, to suggest that the plan wouldn’t have worked had another assassin been used. More importantly, the communist planned hinged upon complicit Americans.
Draw your own conclusions, but I don’t want someone in the White House that is unduly influenced by any source other than the average American voter. Sure, favors will always be owed and the individual voter won’t always be the primary concern. However, it’s far more likely that a candidate who raised $650 million in campaign funds (most of which came from their own wealth and individual voter contributions) will listen to the will of the voters more than someone who raised $1.2 billion in campaign contributions mainly from large PACs and wealthy independent donors (and that doesn’t even count the large donations from foreign interests to a foundation they control). It also wouldn’t be fair to single out Hilary Clinton as the only person guilty of this. U.S. House and Senate members of both parties receive all kinds of donations that are questionable. You would have to be very naïve not to assume that large donors give vast sums of money with the expectation of something in return. As Senators and Representatives argue, how much of the debate is fueled by protecting certain interests and how much is fueled by carrying out the will of their constituents? Also consider this: Our country has reached a point where an unabashed socialist such as Bernie Sanders drew widespread support. What does that imply? If someone is in fact a communist agent, do they even need to hide their support of communism any longer?
While The Manchurian Candidate deals with how a communist operative could gain control of the White House, Seven Days in May addresses the manner in which a duly elected President could be removed from office. In that film, President Jordan Lyman is facing massive backlash for signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General James Mattoon Scott, vocally opposes Lyman’s decision, decrying it as reckless and irresponsible. Moreover, he is given a platform by the media to voice his disapproval. Given the public opposition to Lyman’s policies, Scott sets into motion a plan to seize the Presidency from Lyman, establishing himself as President. The only thing that prevents this from happening is Colonel Jiggs Casey, Director of the Joint Staff.
As with The Manchurian Candidate, the real issue at hand in Seven Days in May is often misunderstood. It isn’t as much about a military junta as it is about institutionalized opposition to a duly elected President.
In this film, people who deem President Jordan Lyman unfit for office are given a voice. General Scott is given media attention, gains support from Congress, and military or not, gradually accumulates the elements needed to overthrow the President.
The only thing that stops this from happening is Colonel Casey. Casey stumbles onto Scott’s plot and brings it to the attention of the President. Like Scott, Casey couldn’t disagree more with the President’s treaty with the Soviets, but at the same time he recognizes, right or not, the treaty was passed by Congress and signed by the President. As a loyal American soldier, Casey took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and to him, and there are certain lines you do not cross. He knows it’s his obligation to warn the President, regardless if the President is right or not. It isn’t up to him to dictate policy to the President, only uphold the Constitution. Lyman is depicted as a President with few trustworthy friends, but with Casey’s help, he is able to foil the plot. He confronts General Scott. Scott makes it clear that from his standpoint, he is acting in the best interest of the American people. President Lyman takes the correct stance that if Scott feels so strongly about it, then he should run for Office. Further, he tells Scott that if he is successful in his overthrow attempt, the Soviets will absolutely nuke the U.S. Why not? If the President can be removed without cause, why should any foreign nation respect any treaty it has with us?
In our current political environment, Trump’s victory in the Presidential election was tantamount to stopping the ‘Manchurian candidate.’ Now, we are in the phase where people are willing to oppose Trump in such a brazen and aggressive manner that they are in fact trying to ignore the electoral process and overthrow a duly elected President. They are constantly trying to drive home the notion that it’s perfectly acceptable to want Trump removed from Office and that he represents some sort of anomaly or flaw in the electoral process that needs to be corrected. What they fail to realize is the overthrow of a President would ultimately lead to anarchy. If a President doesn’t comply with what certain people want, establishing a precedent where removing them is considered a valid alternative opens the door to chaos. There can be no substitute for the ballot box.
Finally, Seven Days in May conveys another message: A President doesn’t have the luxury of letting their opponents continually question their authority. It’s a balancing act. I can understand President Trump not wanting to act too aggressively (thereby playing into the picture his detractors have painted of him) but at the same time he has to defend himself.
The American people have to perceive that justice is being equally meted out. Trump can’t allow himself to be subjected to a bogus investigation into non-existent ties with Russia while at the same time allowing people such as Hillary Clinton, Loreta Lynch, James Comey, and a host of others to get away with even worse crimes without prosecution.
It’s incumbent upon Trump to act decisively and defensively. It’s what the people who elected him want. I’m not President, so it’s easy for me to encourage Trump to be more aggressive, I don’t know all the factors in play. However, at the same time, I can picture CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox News covering a potential overthrow of Trump as a positive event and giving his replacement all the support and air time they need to establish their ‘legitimacy.’ What was once considered only the work of fiction…could now actually happen.