"Although much of this film is fiction, much of it is also based on documented historical fact. Did the conspiracy we describe actually exist? We do not know. We merely suggest that it could have existed."

Released ten years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, nine years after the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and six months after the nationally televised Senate hearings on Watergate began, Executive Action theorizes that a conspiracy of industrialists plotted and carried out the murder of the President of the United States. Crisply presented, confidently straightforward and refreshingly free of melodrama, Executive Action delivers a thick slice of paranoia without resorting to hysteria.

Burt Lancaster stars as James Farrington. He leads a discussion (dated June 5, 1963) among a small group of white men intended to convince wealthy conservative oil magnate Harold Ferguson (Will Geer) of the need to kill Kennedy. Ferguson, with his white hair, white suit and Southern drawl, plays Devil's advocate, shooting holes in the worst case scenarios presented ("Kennedy will lead a Black revolution [and] withdraw from Vietnam, leaving Asia to the Communists") and expressing reservations ("I understand these things. They're tolerable only if they're necessary, and permissible only if they work"), but it's not made clear why his involvement is thought so important -- did they need his money? They seem well-funded without him.

Farrington is an old hand at running "black ops" and has two teams of marksmen training in the field, headed by William Watson and Ed Lauter. (Dick Miller plays one of the sharpshooters.) Robert Foster (Robert Ryan, who died a few months before the film's release) appears to be in charge of the operation, taking time to explain the racist spin of the conspiracy to Farrington. The real problem, Foster says, is the swarming numbers of people throughout the earth, especially the browns and blacks. Once the world's over-population is reduced, attention can be turned to America's own over-population ("blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poverty-prone Whites, and so forth"). As chilling as anything is Foster's matter of fact referral to genocide. The film moves speedily through the months. The line between truth (represented by black and white news footage) and fiction (shot in color) is fairly well marked, but the film blurs the lines occasionally by presenting footage of a fake Oswald and a fake Jack Ruby in both color and black and white. The final sequences play out in very tense fashion, despite the fact that the ending is pre-determined. It's like watching a jigsaw puzzle being quickly assembled with great care and unerring accuracy.

A helpful "making of" feature, included on the recently released DVD, helps fill in some background details. Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay, based on a story credited to Mark Lane and Donald Freed. Lane, an attorney, was an early doubter of the lone gunman theory and wrote the best-selling Rush to Judgment, published in 1966, which questioned the conclusion of the Warren Commission. Freed, a playwright, evidently wrote a treatment with Lane that came to the attention of producer Edward Lewis. (Lane and Freed's novel, Executive Action: Assassination of a Head of State, was published in May 1973.) Lewis was a veteran producer who had worked frequently with Trumbo in the past (Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave) and asked him to take a look at the material. Trumbo was not a big believer in conspiracies, but the project intrigued him and he spent more than a month doing his own research before concluding that he wanted to write the script.

Trumbo was not the only creative talent that needed to be convinced before coming on board. Director David Miller, as well as stars Lancaster, Ryan and Geer all had their doubts. Conspiracy theories had abounded from the day of the assassination, but most who promulgated such views had been viewed as crackpots. That started to change later in the decade with the societal changes that swept the nation, punctuated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. As the 60s bled into the 70s, the conspiracy theorists didn't sound so nutty anymore, and by the time Executive Action came along, the pump had been primed by the increasing coverage of the Watergate break-in and subsequent government cover-up.

Executive Action may be the only film in history that lists nine researchers in its opening credits. According to Wikipedia, it is "one of two American films to present a dramatization portraying the JFK assassination as a conspiracy (the other being Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK)." There's a huge gulf between the two films in the manner of storytelling. Executive Action is a docudrama, more interested in appealing to the intellect, while JFK mercilessly whips the viewer into an emotional frenzy. By today's standards, Executive Action is calm, peaceful and reasonable. If you believe in a conspiracy of some kind and are willing to swallow several major assumptions, the picture presents a logical way that one might have been carried out. If you don't believe in a conspiracy, it's still worth watching for its lean storytelling and the reflection it provides of the time in which it was made.

Remember, though: just because you don't believe in a conspiracy doesn't mean one doesn't exist.
categories Features, Cinematical