A previous blog dealt with a fictional conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States. In fact, Winter Kills (1979) was one of the last of several paranoid thrillers that had the JFK assassination as their foundation. Winter Kills I called a ‘fictional’ conspiracy film. Much like the neo-noir The Parallax View (1974), starring Warren Beatty. Although different types of films, they leave the viewer with the impression that evil forces are/were at work to eliminate national leadership that showed any independence of the military industrial complex, organized crime, and the entrenched (elderly) social elite.
Executive Action (1973) veers much more closely to the events of the Kennedy assassination, in essence, detailing a scenario that may have played out on November 22, 1963. In many ways, it anticipates the 1990s films JFK (1991), Ruby (1992), and Interview with the Assassin (2002). That is, many people who rejected the Warren Commission would be drawn to these films. Maybe the most important fact regarding Executive Action is that it was brought to life initially in a book by Mark Lane.
Mark Lane wrote one of the initial critiques of the Warren Commission in 1966, Rush to Judgment. In his spirited defense of various causes, he has used the ‘conspiracy’ tag to spearhead his arguments; an unfortunate circumstance occurred when he was the lawyer for Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. He could not see the authoritarian cult leader amidst his apparent persecutions. I note this aspect of Lane’s modus operandi because he made a career of it. He starts with a conspiracy and fits the parts, not unlike Oliver Stone, except that Stone’s creative imagination make his conspiracies compelling if not convincing.
Another collaborator of note is screenplay writer Dalton Trumbo. His political credentials are leftist, dating back to his days as a Communist fellow-traveler. Many of the anti-Warren Commission critiques came from the leftists. We should remember this was a time that right and left distrusted government power (if for different reasons). Executive Action was a tense, suspenseful film because of Trumbo’s writing skills. Director David Miller had previously directed an earlier Trumbo screenplay, Lonely are the Brave (1962), and had a solid resume dating back to the 1930s.
Executive Action is unique because it tells the story from the conspirators’ point of view. There are two groups: disgruntled, bigoted businessmen and two on-the-ground teams of 3-to 5 men. Working on inside information regarding Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, the teams hone the timing on the triangulation of rifles firing, as well as setting up Lee Oswald as the patsy lone gunman. The Black Ops leader, Burt Lancaster, is a friend of conspirator Robert Ryan. Three others are on board (John Anderson, Walter Brooke, and Gilbert Green), but Will Geer has doubts. His reluctance might scuttle the operation. Lancaster proceeds anyway, and soon Geer gets fed up with Kennedy’s civil rights stand, the nuclear test ban treaty, and the situation in Vietnam.
Indeed, Geer gives the go-ahead after a news program announces the withdrawal of a thousand American troops from South Vietnam. On this very point rests Oliver Stone’s thesis on Kennedy’s assassination. And like Executive Action, JFK pushes the assassination as a Black Ops mission and, more importantly, the collusion of the Military-Industrial Complex. The very first scene of JFK has Eisenhower’s Farewell Address:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.
Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK gives the most detailed rendition of the conspiracy to Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison, who subsequently spells it out a second time during his summation to the jury at the trial of Clay Shaw. Sutherland, according to Wikipedia, is credited “as having the idea for the film [Executive Action]” but couldn’t finance it.
The Executive Action conspirators express probable rational fears when they worry about Kennedy Administration policies. They also reveal some hyperbolic paranoia:
- Kennedy’s action on Civil Rights will lead to a Black Revolution
- They imagine a scenario where the Kennedy brothers serve successive two term Presidencies, with the two brothers out of office serving in high Cabinet positions.
- The population in two decades will be overwhelming brown, yellow, and black; white ‘blood’ will become degenerate.
White elites must hold onto the highest offices in government to protect their power. When a president goes off the track, ‘executive action’ must be taken.
The film methodically builds up to the assassination of Kennedy, and the scenario anticipates Stone’s JFK. Several shooters include one on the grassy knoll who fires the last bullet, the gory head shot. This is necessary to justify conspiracy advocates’ belief that Kennedy’s backwards head thrust came from a bullet from the front. Executive Action and JFK both show the construction of the infamous Oswald photograph of him holding the rifle.
The dramatic flaw in the film is its payoff. Kennedy is killed. That has to be. At the end, there is scroll of dozens ominous deaths of people being investigated or were witnesses. The producers, in a ‘making of’ short on YouTube say they want the audience to decide for themselves if there’s a conspiracy. It’s inconceivable an intelligent, responsible response can come from a one-sided argument. JFK had the advantage of dramatizing events after the assassination (with many flashbacks to pre-assassination actions). But the real difference comes in the characterization of the conspirators. JFK is populated with a dozen or more flamboyant characters who capture our interest. It doesn’t come off like a bunch of dissatisfied white men giving the president a death sentence, although that is exactly what JFK implies.
Unlike, say a good heist film or film noir, we don’t root for the Executive Action villains. Nor come close to sympathizing with them. In this sense, despite the building of tension to the assassination, we are estranged from the perpetrators. Not that this affected box office, since the film did not stay at theaters very long. There’s little doubt that a contemporary audience, even one intrigued by the Watergate scandal, would have wanted to see it.
Within days of watching Executive Action (on TCM), I rented the disk The Big Short (2015) from Netflix. Here, we have executive actions leading to a catastrophic event. In the next blog, I will examine the film and show its relationship to Executive Action’s conspiracy.