Executive Action (film)

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Executive Action
Executive Action1973.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by David Miller
Produced by Edward Lewis
Written by Dalton Trumbo
Donald Freed (story)
Mark Lane (story)
Starring Burt Lancaster
Robert Ryan
Music by Randy Edelman
Cinematography Robert Steadman
Edited by George Grenville
Distributed by National General Pictures
Release dates
  • November 7, 1973 (1973-11-07)
Running time
91 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget under $1 million[1]

Executive Action is a 1973 film about the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, written by Dalton Trumbo, Donald Freed and Mark Lane, and directed by David Miller. Miller had previously worked with Trumbo on his film Lonely Are the Brave (1962).

Donald Sutherland has been credited as having the idea for the film and for hiring Freed and Lane to write the screenplay.[2] Sutherland planned to act in and produce Executive Action, however, he abandoned the project and took a role in another film after failing to obtain financing for the film.[2]


A narrator states that when President Lyndon Johnson was asked about the Kennedy Assassination and the Warren Commission report, he said he doubted the findings of the Commission. The narration ends with the mention that the segment did not run on television and was cut from a program about Johnson.

At a gathering in June 1963, shadowy industrial, political and former US intelligence figures discuss their growing dissatisfaction with the Kennedy administration. In the plush surroundings of lead conspirator Robert Foster (Robert Ryan), he and the others try to persuade Harold Ferguson (Will Geer), a powerful oil magnate, to back their plans for an assassination of Kennedy. He remains unconvinced, saying, "I don't like such schemes. They're only tolerable when necessary, and only permissible when they work." James Farrington (Burt Lancaster), a black ops specialist, is also among the group: He shows Ferguson and others that a careful assassination of a U.S. President can be done under certain conditions, and refers to the murders of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley as examples. He calls this "executive action".

In a desert, a shooting team is doing target practice at a moving object. One of the shooters says they can only guarantee the operation's success by slowing down the target to 15 miles per hour.

The lead conspirators, Farrington and Foster, discuss preparations for the assassination. Obtaining Ferguson's approval is crucial to the conspirators, although Farrington proceeds to organize two shooting teams in anticipation that Ferguson will change his mind. Ferguson, meanwhile, watches news reports and becomes highly concerned at Kennedy's increasingly "liberal" direction: action on civil rights, Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, nuclear disarmament. The deciding moment comes when he's watching an anti-Kennedy news report on the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam. It is followed by Kennedy's October 1963 decision (National Security Action Memorandum #263, Oct. 11) to withdraw all US advisers from Vietnam by the end of 1965, effectively ending America's direct involvement in the Vietnam War. Ferguson tells Foster he now supports their project.

While the motives of the man in the white suit are clear, the film attempts to cast light on the murky paranoid fears of the conspirators through dialogues between Foster and Farrington. They are primarily concerned about the future of America and the security of ruling-class white people around the world. Foster forecasts the population of the third world in 2000 at 7 billion, "Most of them yellow, brown or black. All hungry and all determined to love; they'll swarm out of their breeding grounds into Europe and America." He sees Vietnam as an opportunity to control the developing world and reduce its population to 550 million: "I've seen the data," says Foster, adding that they can then apply the same 'birth-control' methods to unwanted groups in the US: poor whites, blacks and Latinos.

The scene of the shooting is well described. As news of the assassination reaches the conspirators they describe the effects. Later on in the film Farrington and his assistant discuss the fallout from the assassination, especially how to deal with the fact that Oswald has survived. Farrington contacts night club owner Jack Ruby. Jack Ruby stalks and then kills Oswald.

While the real assassins leave Dallas the conspirators work to cover up their handiwork. They discuss the political fallout in DC, concerned about retribution from Robert Kennedy and the "believability" of the plot. One states that "Bobby Kennedy is not thinking as Attorney General but as a grieving brother. By the time he recovers it will be too late." The Conspirators agree that people will believe in the story because "they want to believe the story". Soon after Farrington's assistant calls one of the conspirators - Farrington has died of a heart attack at "Parkland Hospital". The Conspirators are now insulated from the link to the group who committed the killings.

Their work is not quite finished - At the end of the film a photo collage is shown of 18 witnesses: all but two of whom died from unnatural causes within three years of the assassination. A voice-over says that an actuary of the British newspaper The Sunday Times calculated the probability that all these people who witnessed the assassination would die within that period of time to be 100,000 trillion to one.[3]

Conspiracy theory in the film[edit]

The film postulates that Lee Harvey Oswald is being steered to become the conspiracy's patsy. The conspirators use a double of Oswald to shadow him in the weeks leading up to the assassination to leave behind a trail that the authorities can easily follow and link Oswald to the crime. It is also mentioned that Oswald's Russian defection is known to the conspirators. The film makes no explicit link to US government agencies and the conspiracy, although the professionalism of Farrington's shooting team seems to indicate they have worked for the government on special assignments. The film implies that most of the law enforcement and government agencies were not involved, but just grossly inept: No special measures were taken for the president's safety in Dallas; there is no communication between the FBI, CIA and Secret Service on possible security risks. The head of the Secret Service White House detail stays in Washington during the visit. This explanation helps understand why the authorities were so keen to pin the blame on Oswald, the rogue assassin, who is "served up" by the conspirators to the authorities as an easy escape from any accusations of their own negligence or indifference to Kennedy's safety.

The post-assassination conspiracy is also covered in the film. Farrington tells the head of the shooting teams, who at this point don't know who their target is, that after this job he and his men will never have to work again. All the assassins are black ops professionals trained never to talk about operations they are involved in. Each one is offered $25,000 per year for the next five years provided the operation's cover isn't blown. If the cover remains intact in five years time (1968) "every man jack of them" (Lancaster) will receive a further $100,000 into their Swiss bank accounts. The head of the shooting teams (Ed Lauter) then tells Farrington: "You just told me who we're going to hit."


Roger Ebert gave the film two stars, calling it "a dramatized rewrite of all those old assassination conspiracy books".[4] Ebert stated, "there’s something exploitative and unseemly in the way this movie takes the real blood and anguish and fits it neatly into a semi-documentary thriller."[4] He added that "Executive Action doesn't seem much to want to entertain" and called Miller's direction "colorless".[4] In a positive comment, Ebert wrote: "It has the power, of evoking what will probably remain, for most of us, the most stunning public moment of our lives: the moment when we first learned that the President had been shot."[4]

Comparison to similar films[edit]

Executive Action is one of at least four American films to present a dramatization portraying the Kennedy assassination as a conspiracy (the others being Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK; the 1984 William Tannen film Flashpoint, starring Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams; and Neil Burger's 2002 pseudo-documentary Interview with the Assassin).

Despite many similarities of the plotline to JFK, Executive Action presents a far more direct and unemotional account of the Kennedy assassination than Stone's film. The film is presented in an almost-documentary style and was filmed on a small budget[5] despite the presence of two big Hollywood names, Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. Another unique attribute is that the story is told entirely from the perspective of the conspirators. This film was also the last movie for Ryan, who died of cancer four months before the film's release.


Released two weeks before the tenth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, the film opened to a storm of controversy on the depiction of the events shown. It then was unceremoniously yanked from many theaters in its first and second weeks of showing because of the bad press. Many television stations also refused to run trailers for the film, including WNBC-TV in New York City. The film was never seen again until the late 1980s and early 90s after legal release to TV and Video.

Home media[edit]

Executive Action was released on DVD on October 23, 2007 in the United States and Canada.


The original music is by Randy Edelman.


  1. ^ Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Da Capo 2000 p 276
  2. ^ a b Marx, Andy (January 2, 1992). "'Executive Action' dealt with same theme as 'JFK'". The Vindicator (Youngstown, Ohio). p. D4. Retrieved May 26, 2013. 
  3. ^ The number given in The Sunday Times article on February 26, 1967 was in fact 100,000 trillion to one. In response to a request by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 for a copy of the actuarial study, the legal manager for the Times replied that the article was "based on a careless journalistic mistake and should not have been published. This was realized by The Sunday Times editorial staff after the first edition — the one which goes to the United States and which I believe you have — had gone out, and later editions were amended … We asked [the actuary] the wrong question … what were the odds against fifteen named people out of the population of the United States dying within a short period of time … [instead of] the odds against fifteen of those included in the Warren Commission index dying within a given period," which they said would have been "much lower." HSCA Hearings, vol. 4, p. 463–465. Robert M. Musen, vice president and senior actuary at Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, estimated that the odds of 15 people out of 2,479 in the Warren Commission index dying within a three-year period, assuming a median age of 40, would be 98.16 percent, or one out of 1.2. Assuming a median age of 35, the number would be 57.09 percent, or one out of 1.75. Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History (2007), p. 1013–14.
  4. ^ a b c d Ebert, Roger (November 20, 1973). "Executive Action". RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital. Retrieved December 15, 2014. 
  5. ^ Box Office Information Online

External links[edit]