Flip the Script

 

Here’s the pitch: mid-budget political thriller, set in the very near future. Clashing mobs of demonstrators are rioting outside the White House. The president’s approval ratings are being hammered by a concerted campaign to undermine him, and his controversial peace treaty with Russia. In televised hearings, top military officers in glittering dress uniforms denounce the new policy, stepping over the line of insubordination right into sedition.

One lone, loyal colonel discovers that rogue elements within the government are poised within days to take physical control of all networked communications in the United States. The president will be deposed. It will take incredible courage—and luck—to stop them. I bet you’ve already caught on to what I’m describing: the plot of Seven Days in May, 1963, a crisp, well-made Hollywood thriller loved by well-meaning progressives in its day. But now…flip that script!

Because ironically the political descendants of the people who cheered on the president then might cheer for military revolt today, depending on who is in the White House.

Seven Days in May was a best seller, adapted for the screen by Rod Serling, who did his usual fine job of telling a crackling story with light-handed liberal earnestness. A defense of elected authority against the deep state works just as well for today’s right as it did sixty years ago for the left.

The idea that television, one of the biggest things to enter most people’s lives in the previous ten or fifteen years, had become the medium of political control, was still relatively new. The shadowy institutional antagonist of Seven Days in May, ECONCOM, is an acronym for Emergency Control of Communications, a covert plot of “responsible” Congressional and military authorities to exploit Civil Defense capabilities to take over the media. It should be needless to say that early-’60s Democrats like Kirk Douglas regarded that as a very bad outcome indeed.

The novel and the movie were set in 1963’s near future. The president’s name, Jordan Lyman, is a close approximation of Lyndon Johnson, still the Vice President while this film was made. The only sign that it isn’t present-day ’63 is the widespread use of video phones in the federal government, both as visual interest and as an on-screen shortcut to save narrative time. It’s one of the subtle modern touches that make a new version seem like a relatively easy shift to the present.

Director John Frankenheimer was usually very strong with visuals. He dramatizes the takeover plot expertly, often finding wordless ways to convey vital information. He does trip himself up in one scene, a brief but important one of General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), sort of an unlikely cross between Douglas MacArthur, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Vindman, delivering a televised speech to a veteran’s group. It’s supposed to be rhetoric so fiery and unhinged that it turns the audience into an angry, bellowing mob of fascists, but the words Serling provides aren’t all that inflammatory. So Frankenheimer’s camera and editing have to jump in to do the dirty work of propaganda, with brief cuts of grotesque-looking people filmed at grossly unflattering angles. It’s crude; worse, it’s stupid. It looks like a half minute of a silent era Soviet film, not like a visually credible television broadcast. For a moment, the mask slips. At the top levels of persuasion, you can’t afford slip-ups.

Another Kirk Douglas film of the era, Lonely Are the Brave, was rapturously received as an art film by progressive critics, but didn’t find much of an audience for its downbeat story of a vanishing breed of man with less and less of a place in modern America. That nonconformity and unwillingness to submit to authority was treated as a liberal attitude in its day. Yet there’s little in the basic situation of this bleak 1962 landscape of abandoned ways of life that wouldn’t resonate today on the populist right.

And hey, let’s be generous. Flipping the script can go both ways! The Hollywood right has a couple of early-’50s scripts hanging around its necks, solemnly ready to sell, metaphorically at least, to anyone on the left with the blind trust the country once felt towards the federal government, or someone newly concerned about the sinister motives of hidden Muscovite spies who are the ones spreading needless discontent among our deservedly happy people.

The Red Menace (1949) is just crying out to be remade as The Red State Menace. Originally, it was about a newly discharged GI. Disgruntled and down on his luck, he’s a sucker for smooth-talking Communist organizers. Today, in the hands of the creative teams behind Lightyear and The Mindy Project, it could be the story of a bitter young white man, clinging to his prejudices, who falls under right-wing influence and is quickly turned into a criminal saboteur. But thank goodness for wiretaps and, above all, informers! It takes a lot of neighbors, old ladies, and little kids eagerly dropping a lot of dimes to the FBI to keep a country safe.

John Wayne made the “notoriously” anti-Communist 1952 film Big Jim McLain, about a HUAC investigator sent to Hawaii by Congress to flush out agitators in the maritime unions. This could be remade as Big Jen McLain, with Aisha Tyler. She’s been sent by “The Squad” to root out hurtful gender stereotypes along the Honolulu waterfront, and find the hidden leaders of a group of tough Christian thugs who’ve been roaming the docks, forcing frightened longshoremen to accept their religious tracts.

Screen storytellers of the current era: many of you clearly have the inclination, and for now the opportunity, to re-brand the cliches of McCarthyism with your own names atop fresh new forms of intolerance. Flip scripts like these, and make it proudly explicit: Go for it!  And come to know the taste of history’s endless verdict.

But for anyone interested in different screen storytellers of tomorrow: A series of occasional R> posts will be called Screwtape’s Screening Room, in honor of the C.S. Lewis stories. They’ll bring clinically cold and precise, professionally informed attention to tools for shaping mass opinion. These will be cynical, at times even seemingly admiring dissections of the fine workmanship, the sheer rhetorical craftsmanship, that goes into making some stories so widely effective and persuasive.

“And that was the president of the United States.” (©1963 Joel Prods./Renewed WBD)

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Where is Nixon when you need him?

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Where is Nixon when you need him?

    My license plate frames read, “Cardinal Richelieu: Now More Than Ever.”

    • #2
  3. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I’m more into “Three Days Of The Condor” because they showed a PDP-8.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Gary McVey: The Red Menace (1949) is just crying out to be remade as The Red State Menace. Originally, it was about a newly discharged G.I. Disgruntled and down on his luck, he’s a sucker for smooth-talking Communist organizers. Today, in the hands of the creative teams behind Lightyear and The Mindy Project, it could be the story of a bitter young white man, clinging to his prejudices, who falls under right wing influence and is quickly turned into a criminal saboteur. But thank goodness for wiretaps, and above all, for informers! It takes a lot of neighbors, old ladies, and little kids eagerly dropping a lot of dimes to the FBI to keep a country safe.

    Put a chick in it. Make her lame and gay!

    • #4
  5. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Thought provoking indeed.  Who writes the scripts?

    Today, who controls access?

    • #5
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    kedavis (View Comment):

    I’m more into “Three Days Of The Condor” because they showed a PDP-8.

    I’m more into Destination Moon because they showed a Vannevar Bush-era integrating calculator:

    • #6
  7. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    I’m more into “Three Days Of The Condor” because they showed a PDP-8.

    I’m more into Destination Moon because they showed a Vannevar Bush-era integrating calculator:

     

    Also shown in “When Worlds Collide.”

    But anyway…

     

    • #7
  8. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    I didn’t think of Seven Days in May.  I thought of The Enemy Within, the 1994 remake.

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thought provoking indeed. Who writes the scripts?

    Today, who controls access?

    That’s it. Much of 1963’s responsible, normal, reasonable educated America is mistaken about who or what the cultural establishment really is. Hint: It’s not a bunch of old ladies in the DAR who say things like “Ohh my dear, that is simply unthinkable” while holding lorgnette eyeglasses on a stick in front of their faces.

    • #9
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I think of something Reagan used to say to the effect of “I didn’t leave the Democratic party; the party left me”. If you wanted to see color-blind multiracial, multiethnic patriotism on screen in 1955, you probably got it from liberals; nowadays, you’d get it from conservatives. That’s partly what this post is about.

    • #10
  11. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I didn’t think of Seven Days in May. I thought of The Enemy Within, the 1994 remake.

    It’s not bad, in parts, but back then, HBO tended to drive story points with a sledgehammer. 

    • #11
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    YouTube offers a number of screening options. If, like escaped con man Harry Mudd, you are inclined towards cost free options, I can’t officially endorse that, but I would suggest you see which versions have a running time of 1:57:55. 

    Yes, that’s right, you heard me, 1:57:55!

    Those Saul bass opening credits are great, BTW.

    • #12
  13. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    “A series of occasional R> posts will be called Screwtape’s Screening Room, in honor of the C.S. Lewis stories. They’ll bring clinically cold and precise, professionally informed attention to tools of shaping mass opinion. “

    Great idea!  Are you going to do this?…starting soon, I hope?  Looking for nominations for movies, videos, and general approaches needing analysis?

     

    • #13
  14. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Much of 1963’s responsible, normal, reasonable educated America is mistaken about who or what the cultural establishment really is. Hint: It’s not a bunch of old ladies in the DAR who say things like “Ohh my dear, that is simply unthinkable” while holding lorgnette eyeglasses on a stick in front of their faces.

    Indeed. I think a lot of professors think that they are teaching their students about bold, transgressive ideas when in fact those ideas are the same ones the kids have been hearing since they were 6.

    • #14
  15. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I think of something Reagan used to say to the effect of “I didn’t leave the Democratic party; the party left me”. If you wanted to see color-blind multiracial, multiethnic patriotism on screen in 1955, you probably got it from liberals; nowadays, you’d get it from conservatives. That’s partly what this post is about.

    I think this explains exactly my personal development and probably many others who grew up in an allegedly “conservative” Democrat South. I was a senior in high school in 1955.

    • #15
  16. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    Gary McVey: Here’s the pitch: mid-budget political thriller, set in the very near future. Clashing mobs of demonstrators are rioting outside the White House. The president’s approval ratings are being hammered by a concerted campaign to undermine him, and his controversial peace treaty with Russia. In televised hearings, top military officers in glittering dress uniforms denounce the new policy, stepping over the line of insubordination right into sedition.

    Wag the Dog sprang to mind.

    • #16
  17. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    Gary McVey: Seven Days in May was a best seller, adapted for the screen by Rod Serling, who did his usual fine job of telling a crackling story with light-handed liberal earnestness.

    Here is a brief account of Serling’s military career during WWII.  He volunteered to be a paratrooper and boxed as a flyweight. He wasn’t a good soldier but came home with a bronze star.

    • #17
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    David Foster (View Comment):

    “A series of occasional R> posts will be called Screwtape’s Screening Room, in honor of the C.S. Lewis stories. They’ll bring clinically cold and precise, professionally informed attention to tools of shaping mass opinion. “

    Great idea! Are you going to do this?…starting soon, I hope? Looking for nominations for movies, videos, and general approaches needing analysis?

     

    Yep, you’ll be seeing SSR soon! I warn you, though, we’re going to (metaphorically) make lib/lefties guests of “honor”. If you’re going to study propaganda, you want it done right, by the people who really know how to get away with it. 

    • #18
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    One informal rule of screenwriting: Men love information. We love a little bit of education with our action/suspense. So Goldfinger gives you a lecture on The World of Gold. The 1996 Mission Impossible explains what a NOC list is (non-official cover; spies without a protective connection to an embassy). Tom Clancy’s stories offer lots of examples. 

    Seven Days in May made people notice something they never gave a thought to: how does television go from coast to coast? For most people it’s like water, or electricity; you turn on the set and expect it to be there. But all it takes is AT&T pulling the patch cord, and it’s gone. Few people realized that could happen, let alone happen because of a government order. 

    The book was more detailed, explaining that ECONCOM also cut the lines for network radio, teletype, telegrams and long distance phone calls. But for the movie it was easier to dramatize TV alone. 

    • #19
  20. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thought provoking indeed. Who writes the scripts?

    Today, who controls access?

    That’s it. Much of 1963’s responsible, normal, reasonable educated America is mistaken about who or what the cultural establishment really is. Hint: It’s not a bunch of old ladies in the DAR who say things like “Ohh my dear, that is simply unthinkable” while holding lorgnette eyeglasses on a stick in front of their faces.

    Sounds like David French to me.

    • #20
  21. Michael Minnott Member
    Michael Minnott
    @MichaelMinnott

    I suggest the 1973 cinema classic Invasion of the Bee Girls.  Surely, it requires our intense scrutiny.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Because, y’know, communism, or something.

    • #21
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Two years ago I had a post about a rarely seen, rarely repeated 1967 TV movie, a pilot for a projected series called Shadow on the Land.  It’s set in an alternative America that basically looks like everyday reality, but below the surface, it’s under the rule of a fascist bureaucracy. Like Seven Days in May, it’s the type of story that appealed to liberals back then and conservatives now. 

    It would be a good script-flipper, politically speaking. Plus–if for a moment this was anything more than fanciful–the intellectual property rights (belonging originally to Columbia, now Sony) would be cheap.

    By contrast, in the real world, a countercultural Seven Days in May, with the heroes and villains reversed, might be intriguing, but Warner Bros would be very unlikely to sell the rights to, say, Ben Shapiro and Nick Searcy. 

    • #22
  23. Bob Armstrong Thatcher
    Bob Armstrong
    @BobArmstrong

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Two years ago I had a post about a rarely seen, rarely repeated 1967 TV movie, a pilot for a projected series called Shadow on the Land. It’s set in an alternative America that basically looks like everyday reality, but below the surface, it’s under the rule of a fascist bureaucracy. Like Seven Days in May, it’s the type of story that appealed to liberals back then and conservatives now.

    It would be a good script-flipper, politically speaking. Plus–if for a moment this was anything more than fanciful–the intellectual property rights (belonging originally to Columbia, now Sony) would be cheap.

    By contrast, in the real world, a countercultural Seven Days in May, with the heroes and villains reversed, might be intriguing, but Warner Bros would be very unlikely to sell the rights to, say, Ben Shapiro and Nick Searcy.

    @garymcvey –

    Would you be willing to perhaps make a post sharing your industry insight into the business side of counter-cultural media such as what is being built out by the people at the Daily Wire, or by the makers of The Chosen, as examples?

    • #23
  24. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Two years ago I had a post about a rarely seen, rarely repeated 1967 TV movie, a pilot for a projected series called Shadow on the Land. It’s set in an alternative America that basically looks like everyday reality, but below the surface, it’s under the rule of a fascist bureaucracy. Like Seven Days in May, it’s the type of story that appealed to liberals back then and conservatives now.

    It would be a good script-flipper, politically speaking. Plus–if for a moment this was anything more than fanciful–the intellectual property rights (belonging originally to Columbia, now Sony) would be cheap.

    By contrast, in the real world, a countercultural Seven Days in May, with the heroes and villains reversed, might be intriguing, but Warner Bros would be very unlikely to sell the rights to, say, Ben Shapiro and Nick Searcy.

    @ garymcvey

    Would you be willing to perhaps make a post sharing your industry insight into the business side of counter-cultural media such as what is being built out by the people at the Daily Wire, or by the makers of The Chosen, as examples?

    Sure I would; it’s a fascinating story. One caution: without inside sources, we can’t always tell the complete story. But what’s publicly available ought to tell us plenty. 

     

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    This sounds related:

    https://ricochet.com/1518342/info-wars-and-todays-tyranny/

    • #25
  26. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Arahant (View Comment):

    This sounds related:

    https://ricochet.com/1518342/info-wars-and-todays-tyranny/

    There are a couple of overlapping, but separate things going on. The fight over “disinformation” is certainly part of the background of watching something like Seven Days in May, but to me, that’s an argument about news. Very important, but my emphasis here is less direct. It’s about culture and persuasion and influence; how do you get people to change their minds. 

    General Motors, in the old days, tried to have a car in every price range. We need a strategy like that, because one size doesn’t fit all in the right-side coalition. If you feel a certain way about abortion, you probably feel a certain way about homosexuality and school choice. Probably. But it doesn’t say how you’d feel about Ukraine, Operation Warp Speed, the proper role of law enforcement, or anything else that conservatives disagree about among ourselves.

    • #26
  27. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Gary McVey: This could be remade as Big Jen McLain, with Aisha Tyler. She’s been sent by “The Squad” to root out hurtful gender stereotypes along the Honolulu waterfront, and find the hidden leaders of a group of tough Christian thugs who’ve been roaming the docks, forcing frightened longshoremen to accept their religious tracts.

    I don’t know that that much forcing would be involved.

    • #27
  28. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    kedavis (View Comment):
    Also shown in “When Worlds Collide.”

    I can’t say I noticed.

    Possible NSFW and epilepsy warnings though.

    • #28
  29. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thought provoking indeed. Who writes the scripts?

    Today, who controls access?

    That’s it. Much of 1963’s responsible, normal, reasonable educated America is mistaken about who or what the cultural establishment really is. Hint: It’s not a bunch of old ladies in the DAR who say things like “Ohh my dear, that is simply unthinkable” while holding lorgnette eyeglasses on a stick in front of their faces.

    Yeah, that was more the 1930s cultural establishment, was it not? At least that’s what the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges led me to believe, and I can’t recall them having steered me wrong before.

    • #29
  30. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I didn’t think of Seven Days in May. I thought of The Enemy Within, the 1994 remake.

    It’s not bad, in parts, but back then, HBO tended to drive story points with a sledgehammer.

    You know who else did that? John Henry.

    • #30
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