Donald Trump and the recent insurrection bring this picture bang up to date. Democracy is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the people. Can they be trusted to make the correct decision? That’s in part the thematic thrust of this high-octane political thriller that pits two of the greatest actors of their generation in a battle to decide the fate of the world. This was the era of the nuke picture – Dr Strangelove (1962), Fail Safe (1964), The Bedford Incident (1965) – all primed by the real-life Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing threat of the Cold War. But since that threat has never gone away – if anything it has worsened – the movie is as relevant today.
Just as the President (Fredric March) is about to sign a nuclear treaty with the USSR, much to the fury of the majority of Americans judging by opinion polls, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) uncovers signs of a military coup headed by hawk General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster).
The movie divides into the classic three acts. In the first, Douglas investigates the existence of a secret army unit in El Paso comprising 3,600 men trained to overthrow the government and needs to persuade the President the country is in danger. The second act sees the President hunting for proof of the imminent coup and identifying the conspirators. The third act witnesses showdowns between March and Lancaster and Lancaster and Douglas.
At the heart of the story is betrayal – Lancaster of his country’s constitution, Douglas of his friend when he takes on the “thankless job of informer.” Douglas proves rather too ruthless, willing to seduce and then betray Ava Gardner, Lancaster’s one-time mistress. Both Gardner and March prove to have higher principles than Douglas. For both Douglas and Lancaster who operate at a high threshold of intensity and could easily have turned in high-octane performances the tension is even better maintained by their apparently initial low-key confrontations. Douglas has a trick here of standing ramrod straight and then turning his head but not his body towards the camera.
As a pure thriller, it works a treat, investigation to prove there is a conspiracy followed by the the vital element to conspiracy theory – the deaths and disappearances of vital people – and finally the need to resolve the crisis without creating public outcry. The only flaw in the movie’s structure is that Douglas cannot carry out all the investigations and when presidential sidekicks Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien are dispatched, respectively, to Gibralter and El Paso the movie loses some of its intensity. But the third act is a stunner as March refuses to take the easy way out by blackmailing Lancaster over his previous relationship with Gardner.
Of course, there is a ton of political infighting and philosophizing in equal measure and speeches about democracy (“ask for a mandate at the ballot box, don’t steal it”), the American Constitution and the impact of nuclear weapons on humanity. But these verbal volleys are far from long-winded and pack a surefire punch. The coup has been set up with military precision and must be dismantled by political precision.
The film is awash with Oscar talent – Burt Lancaster, Best Actor for Elmer Gantry (1960) and, at that point, twice nominated; thrice-nominated Kirk Douglas; Fredric March, twice Best Actor for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) plus three other nominations besides; Ava Gardner nominated for Best Actress (Mogambo, 1953); and Edmond O’Brien named Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa (1954).
None disappoint. March is especially impressive as a weak President tumbling in the polls who has to reach deep to fight a heavyweight adversary. Lancaster and Douglas both bristle with authority. Although Lancaster’s delusional self-belief appears to give him the edge in the acting stakes, Douglas’s ruthless manipulation of a vulnerable Ava Gardner provides him with the better material. Edmond O’Brien as an old soak whose alcoholism marks him out as an easy target is also memorable and Ava Gardner in recognizing her frailties delivers a sympathetic performance.
Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) does a terrific job of distilling a door-stopper of a book by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. But the greatest kudos must go to director John Frankenheimer – acquainted with political opportunism through The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and with Burt Lancaster through The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – for keeping tension to the forefront and resisting the temptation to slide into political ideology.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.