The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, remains a hotbed of controversy. In 1973, National General Pictures added its name to the long list of conspiracy theorists, releasing the political thriller Executive Action, the first Hollywood film to dramatize the horrific events of Assassination Weekend.
Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment
Executive Action is based loosely on the 1966 nonfiction bestseller Rush to Judgment, authored by noted New York defense attorney Mark Lane. One of the earliest assassination investigators on the scene, Lane had served as JFK’s New York City area campaign manager in 1960 and had later been retained by the mother of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in 1964 to look after the interests of her murdered son.
In 1967, Lane’s book became the basis for the documentary The Plot to Kill JFK: Rush to Judgment, in which he personally interviewed a number of witnesses who had been in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza on the day President Kennedy was killed.
Donald Sutherland’s Executive Action Film Project
Executive Action, as written by Mark Lane and Donald Freed, had initially been championed by actor Donald Sutherland. But when Sutherland’s proposed film was turned down by virtually every movie company in Hollywood, the actor reluctantly sold the rights to producer Edward Lewis.
Dalton Trumbo Writes Executive Action
Edward Lewis, who held the opinion that government officials had not told the whole truth concerning the JFK assassination, took his project to once-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Armed with a small library of books on the assassination and an 8mm home movie that had captured the crime on film, Trumbo began his research.
After concluding that the shots on President Kennedy’s motorcade had come from two different directions, Trumbo went to work on the screenplay. In order to lend authenticity to his conspiracy-themed script, Trumbo convinced director David Miller to intersperse actual newsreels into the production.
When first approached by Edward Lewis to headline the film, Burt Lancaster demurred, telling the producer, “I won’t do the picture unless I’m convinced that the plot could have happened.” Several months later a confident Lancaster announced, “I’m convinced,” signing on as the sinister businessman James Farrington.
Robert Ryan, who would play Foster, had similar doubts. But after reading the script, he too signed on with Lewis. Ryan, who died on July 11, 1973 – only several weeks after the picture had been completed – later called Executive Action “the most important film I ever made.”
Other cast members include Will Geer (Harold Ferguson), Gilbert Green (Paulitz), John Anderson (Halliday), Paul Carr (Chris), Colby Chester (Tim), Ed Lauter (Team A Operations Chief), Walter Brooke (Smythe), John Brascia (Team B Rifleman), Richard Bull (Team A Rifleman), Sidney Clute (Depository Clerk), Deanna Darrin (Stripper), Lee Delano (Team A Gunman), Lloyd Gough (McCadden), Oscar Orcini (Jack Ruby) and James MacColl (Oswald Imposter).
An array of real-life figures also appear in the movie via archive footage. They include President Kennedy himself, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Texas Governor John Connally, Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, Secret Service agent Clint Hill, Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby, newsman Ike Pappas, Dallas Police detective Jim Leavelle and accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Like Donald Sutherland before him, Edward Lewis hit a brick wall when it came time to finance his picture. Finally, a private investor outside of Hollywood stepped forward, and Lewis had his money.
Filmed in Dallas
Executive Action was filmed primarily in three locations: infamous Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the actual scene of what some have called “the crime of the century”; Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park in Agua Dulce, California; and the Pasadena, California, mansion of actor Will Geer, who played one of the plotters in the film. The latter was used as the palatial home where Geer, Lancaster and Ryan initially plan the assassination of JFK.
Executive Action dramatizes the view that wealthy businessmen of a right-wing, industrial complex bent conspired to kill President Kennedy in Dallas. The trio wanted the President eliminated, the movie argues, because of Kennedy’s plan to withdraw troops from Vietnam, his signing of the nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union and his cutting of the oil depletion allowance.
The plotters accomplish their goal through subterfuge and shadow. They recruit several expert sniper teams and dispatch them to Dallas, who carry out the hit in Dealey Plaza as the President rides in his motorcade. The blame is then shifted to a “patsy,” the left-leaning Lee Harvey Oswald, who is subsequently murdered himself at Dallas Police headquarters by strip club owner Jack Ruby, who is wired into the conspiracy.
Executive Action Release, Reviews, DVD
- Executive Action premiered on November 7, 1973, just 15 days prior to the tenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
- Nora Sayre of The New York Times (11/8/73) called the film “a tactful, low-key blend of fact and invention,” resulting in “a cool, skillful, occasionally confusing argument for conspiracy.”
- Variety reported, “Executive Action, a part-fiction and documentary style film, dramatized with low key terror, is an emotional aftershock to the event.”
- Executive Action, which garners its title from a term coined by the CIA in the 1950s referring to political assassination, is available on DVD (Warner, 2007).
“In the last two years, the Secret Service has established 149 threats against Kennedy’s life from Texas alone, yet they send him into hostile territory with no more protection than you and I would arrange for a favorite dog.” – Robert Ryan to co-conspirator Burt Lancaster.