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Seven Days in May

At the Astor through March 26

By Michael Lerner

I have always had the feeling there was once a distinction between propaganda and art--maybe there never was. Art contains nuances which artists, struggling against the limitations of their medium, try to make comprehensible. Propaganda, however, denies that individual nuances make a call for political action impossible. Propaganda is the work of men who believe: it suggests action can solve the questions artists leave unanswered. So propaganda films become modern morality plays: the actors are vices and virtues incarnate.

But if you consider propaganda tolerable provided it's your brand, "Seven Days in May" is enjoyable. When the story begins, Frederic March, as President of the United States, has signed a disarmament treaty with the Russians. Despite unemployment from disbanded defense industries and the wide-spread unpopularity of the treaty, President March sticks grimly to his decision. "Eventually we would have blown each other up," he philosophizes.

Burt Lancaster, the villain, is a demagogic Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with a large following at V.F.W. posts across the country. Lancaster is convinced that President Marsh is taking the country to Hell. His aide, Kirk Douglas, does not like the disarmament treaty any more than General Lancaster. But when he discovers that Lancaster is planning a military coup, he is caught between respect for military discipline and his belief in the principles of the Constitution. The principles of the Constitution win out: Douglas tells President March what Lancaster is planning.

The ensuing contest is exciting and ideologically correct throughout. For example, the film has a civil rights tinge. The producer has dutifully used Negroes in minor roles wherever he deemed it appropriate. A Negro in the Pentagon running an automatic door receives a good deal of film footage. Negroes sit in the airports. They march in the pro and anti-treaty lines before the White House. Finally, there are Negroes at the President's press conference as the film closes. These are simply kowtows to the New Republic set; if the producer had real guts he could have cast Sydney Poitier in Kirk Douglas' role. But then Producer Edward Lewis would have been troubled by the script's implication that Douglas will some day sleep with Ava Gardner, who plays Lancaster's former mistress. Miscegenation might have confused the good guys and the bad guys, particularly for southern audiences. Anything that controversial would have detracted from the film's propaganda force.

The nicest thing about "Seven Days" is its realism. President March looks like a cross between Eisen-hower and Johnson; he acts like a Stevenson-Kennedy who talks like Truman. Then there are great shots of aircraft carriers, Sabre jets, and neat armored half-tracks that soldiers drive like ponies in an old-fashioned Western.

"Seven Days in May" advertises melodramatically the danger Producer Lewis foresees and fears. It's a movie out to prove a point; as a result, the characters are all uncomfortably stereotyped. Kirk Douglas does not struggle with personal weaknesses, hate, or pride. Instead, his moral uprightness must choose between military honor and country. The alternatives are black and white, so no interesting doubt exists about the decision he will make. The film is no artistic study of emotions, but a coarse defense of an excellent cold war position. As such, it is fun to watch Hollywood translating the peace ethic into a popular idiom.

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