HOLLYWOOD -- With all the controversy surrounding Oliver Stone's "JFK," you would think this was the first time anybody dared to make a movie dealing with the Kennedy assassination or questioning the Warren Commission findings. But in 1973, National General Pictures' "Executive Action" attempted to show how President Kennedy might have been killed by right-wing government conspirators.
At 91 minutes -- less than half that of "JFK" -- the film, starring Burt Lancaster, Will Geer and Robert Ryan, was a mix of documentary footage and newly shot scenes, a cinematic technique used by Stone with "JFK." Unlike Stone's film, though, "Executive Action" failed to create a stir.
The idea for "Executive Action" (the intelligence community term for an assassination of a head of state) was hatched in 1972 by actor Donald Sutherland, who appears in "JFK." Sutherland, who was to produce and star in the film, hired Kennedy conspiracy expert Mark Lane and Donald Freed ("Secret Honor") to write the screenplay. Lane, who wrote a 1966 best seller about the assassination, "Rush to Judgment," had reservations about the project from the beginning. "I didn't believe there could be a movie about the subject," says Lane. "There had been so much resistance from the media about 'Rush to Judgment' that I wasn't sure it could really be done the right way."
But Lane and Freed proceeded with their script, which, like Stone's film, implicated the CIA in the assassination of Kennedy. Lane said that the film was going to be subtitled "Conspiracy In America," with the first letter of each word highlighted in red, spelling out "CIA."
Unable to secure studio financing for "Executive Action," Sutherland took a role in another film and abandoned the project. It landed in the hands of producer Edward Lewis ("Missing"), who brought in blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and director David Miller, who had teamed on "Lonely Are the Brave."
Lane said that by the time Trumbo finished his rewrite, the film's hypothesis -- blaming the CIA -- had changed. "He didn't have the guts to stay with the position we took," says Lane, whose Kennedy assassination book, "Plausible Evidence," has sold over 100,000 copies. "Ironically, the only organization cleared by the film is the CIA."
Steve Jaffe, the film's associate producer and technical adviser, agrees: "Essentially, Trumbo did a rewrite that neutralized the fundamental conclusion that Lane and Freed had sought to portray in the film."
In addition to the script troubles, Jaffe says that it was almost impossible for the producers -- because of the film's sensitive material -- to get errors and omissions insurance, which protects filmmakers against lawsuits for libel or defamation. Eventually, after the producers submitted a document several hundred pages long that contained all their material about the assassination, Lloyds of London insured the film. Much of this material was published by the filmmakers in a densely worded, tabloid-style newspaper distributed to moviegoers.
Once the film went into production, Lane and Freed tried to point out certain parts of Trumbo's script they disagreed with, but found themselves barred from the movie set. "We were thinking about what we could do to stop the film from being released," says Lane, "but we figured altogether it was probably better to have it come out and start people thinking about the assassination."
Lane isn't really sure why "Executive Action" created little buzz while Stone's film has everybody talking. He thinks timing is one factor. "With 'Executive Action', it was too close to the assassination and people weren't ready to talk about it," he says. "It's been almost 30 years since the assassination and there's a whole new generation out there that really wants to know what went on."
"Executive Action" is available on Warner Home Video.