Interpreting the Zapruder film

55 years after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, we still have much to learn about the famous Zapruder film, which captured the incident in Dallas.

Warning: contains mention/images of graphic violence and may be disturbing for some readers.

By Serena Ypelaar

November 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy greets the public in the presidential motorcade as he heads toward Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository. As the car turns off of Elm Street, onlookers gathered along the side of the road cheer, clap, and wave to the President and his wife, Jacqueline.

The next few seconds would drastically change the future – and believe it or not, they were caught on film.

The Zapruder film (graphic content) preserves those moments when JFK was fatally shot, and it’s hence been scrutinized closely for decades. Abraham Zapruder was an ordinary U.S. citizen who happened to be in the right place at the right time, unknowingly documenting a tragic event that would go down in history.

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Screencap taken from the Zapruder film.

You might think there’s nothing of value to gain from watching the murder of a political leader, but in this context that couldn’t be further from the truth. Zapruder wasn’t to know that the U.S. government would seize his short film when the Warren Commission was launched to investigate the assassination – he was merely recording the event for himself, on a Bell & Howell home movie camera.

There are others who filmed the assassination, but I want to focus on Zapruder’s close-range footage for its interpretive value.

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Abraham Zapruder’s camera, which is now held in the U.S. National Archives. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I mentioned that viewing the murder was crucial rather than gratuitous – and now I’ll explain why. JFK’s suspected killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot dead by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before he could be extensively questioned or tried for the murder. This turn of events spawned boundless conspiracy theories, including ones in which Oswald was not the shooter, or that government(s) or other third parties were behind the assassination.

Oswald is alleged to have fired the shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. His own whereabouts and location have been intensely analyzed in order to place him at the scene of the crime: the source of the gunshots. To find and prove the source, the Zapruder film is an invaluable piece of evidence.

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President John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Source: Psychology Today

Analysts and scientists have hypothesized on the trajectory of the bullets entering and exiting President Kennedy’s body. While many have opposing views on their path and therefore their source location, the point is that without Zapruder’s film, the investigation would have relied instead on subjective witness testimony.

However, discrepancies were perceived between witness testimony and the film’s contents. In an editorial for the New York Times in 2007, Max Holland and Johann Rush assert that Zapruder’s film was initially misunderstood because it seemed to show only two of the three shots believed to have been fired:

The majority of witnesses in Dealey Plaza heard three shots fired. Lawmen found three cartridges in Lee Harvey Oswald’s nest … Yet Zapruder’s film captured only two shots clearly. As a result, the film has been scoured for evidence of another shot, presumably the first one fired at the president. Research has yielded contradictory findings.

But what if Zapruder simply hadn’t turned on his camera in time?

Holland and Rush state that Zapruder commenced filming but turned off his camera when waiting for the President’s limousine to come into view. They suggest that he didn’t turn it back on again until after Oswald had fired his first shot. Viewing the film as incomplete therefore answers a question that loomed large over the Warren Commission investigation: why did Oswald miss the closest shot but prove such an accurate sniper in the two shots following (at 190 and 265 ft. respectively)?

“About the time the car got near the black and white sign, I heard a shot,” a key witness, Amos L. Euins, had said. Holland and Rush argue that it was the sign itself that blocked Oswald’s view of Kennedy. Sure enough, in watching the Zapruder film we lack the first shot but see the next two – after the President passes near a large sign. Startlingly, of the three shots fired, Zapruder managed to document the two that found their target.

The film, we realize, does not depict an assassination about to commence. It shows one that had already started.

The Zapruder film is central to the historical record of Kennedy’s assassination, as is careful analysis. The angles from which one can interpret the film prove that despite its overwhelming value to those trying to understand the event, it provides only a limited (though crucially significant) slice of what happened that day, contingent on a man’s choices of when to record … and his inability to know what was about to happen.

 

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