A couple of nights ago TCM was doing a Burt Lancaster retrospective. I saw they were airing Seven Days in May. It was one of my favorite movies from when I was a kid. I can't recall whether I read the book first or not, but it was good too. For fiction it was part of a genre, Fail-Safe was another book and movie combo of this sort and then, of course, there was the marvelous parody Dr. Strangelove. Each played off the audience fear that the unthinkable might happen. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), an incredibly effective deterrent, would somehow go awry and the Cold War would become hot, leading to massive devastation.
I wondered whether the film would still hold power for me and keep my interest or if it was too dated for that. So I recorded it when it aired. Then I watched it yesterday. It is in black and white, some of the sets appear unnatural and staged, and Kirk Douglas, the hero of the piece, is a little too old-style masculine for my tastes. But the story holds up and Fredric March, who plays the President, and Ava Gardner, who plays the jilted lover of the Burt Lancaster character, do a remarkable job of making the film credible. There is a mixture of rationality and humanity in both of these characters that made me want to root for them.
The setting in the film is the aftermath of a treaty signed with the Russians for mutual disarmament. The military brass, led by the four-star general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Mattoon Scott (this is the Burt Lancaster character), think the President is weak and has put the country into great danger, because the Russians are not to be trusted to hold up their end of the treaty. A coup d'etat is planned with General Scott the leader, a leader the public is behind, whereas the Gallop Poll has the President with a popularity rating under 30%. The story then is about how Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), who is the principal aide to General Scott but is not as rabid about the military getting its way on Treaty, comes to discover the plot, brings it to the attention of the White House, who then ultimately thwarts it. ECOMCON, the title of my piece, is a secret military base near El Paso, where troops have been training for the coup, though all but their commander are unaware of the true mission. Jiggs comes to understand what that mission is and the need for the White House to verify the mission exists becomes a significant part of the plot.
Seen from today the story seems oddly relevant. Tehran is not Moscow, but the current negotiation with Iran invokes all the same fears about not trusting the other side, with Netanyahu in the General Scott role insofar as sounding the alarm. There is another part that is even more right on. There is the left-right divide that is with us now. The difference between then and now is not that we were all reasonable once but have turned into kooks since. It is that the Cold War absorbed so much mental bandwidth. It was the focus. Domestic politics was subsidiary, of necessity.
America did many terrible things during the Cold War. Worst of all, by far, is that we won it.