Zapruder Film: Revisited After 50 Years

    November 19, 2013

According to a recent poll by Gallup, 61% of Americans still believe that more people were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy than simply Lee Harvey Oswald. Despite the fact that this number is the lowest it has been in nearly 50 years, it still represents an overwhelming majority of the American populace, and a poll earlier this year by Public Policy Polling shows that it is still one of the most believed conspiracy theories to date. Us Americans have one man to thank for allowing us to conspire so hard: A Russian man named Abraham Zapruder.

On that fateful 22nd day of November in 1963, Abraham Zapruder, a supporter of Kennedy, took a short stroll from his place of employment at Jennifer Juniors, Inc., where he made dresses, to Dealey Plaza in order to bear witness to JFK’s visit to Texas. Upon his first visit to Dealey Plaza, however, Zapruder was not carrying his camera. In fact, it took a coworker’s pleas to record the event to persuade Zapruder to make a quick trip home to retrieve his Bell & Howell camera.

When he returned, Zapruder found a nice perch from which to view the procession and set up his camera. The 26 seconds of film Zapruder would record that day would go on to become the most famous 26 seconds of film in the entire world. When recounting what he had witnessed through the lens to local Dallas affiliate WFAA-TV, Zapruder could hardly contain his emotions: “As I was shooting, as the president was coming down from Houston Street making his turn, it was about a half-way down there, I heard a shot, and he slumped to the side, like this [Zapruder then demonstrates.] Then I heard another shot or two, I couldn’t say it was one or two, and I saw his head practically open up, all blood and everything, and I kept on shooting. That’s about all, I’m just sick, I can’t…”

One can guess how sought-after Zapruder was once word spread that he was the only person in existence with evidence of what happened. The first person to contact Zapruder concerning the film was Richard Stolley, and editor for Life Magazine. After viewing the film with two Secret Service agents the next morning, Stolley and Time offered Zapruder $150,000 for the film, a figure which translates to $1.15 million today – and also a figure that Zapruder could not afford to turn down.

Even though Time bought the rights to the film in 1963, it would be another 12 years before the film was viewed by an American audience. The first look the general populace had at JFK’s assassination was on Gerardo Rivera’s “Good Night America” show on ABC. Rivera had invited Robert Groden to the set to share the video with his television audience, a video which Groden only acquired through nefarious means – Groden was a film lab worker for Time and had made a bootleg copy of the video when he was charged with editing it to create a better quality version.

Even with Rivera being willing and Groden having the only private copy of the film in existence, America still came extremely close to not viewing the film: “The physical copy was available, but Time/Life had an ironclad copyright, and they threatened they would sue anybody who went anywhere near it.I had to sign a release whereby I would be financially responsible for the damages,” stated Rivera. Time never sued for airing the video, perhaps due to the sensational reaction the video received.

On the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, LIFE Magazine, owned by Time, Inc., is releasing a new book commemorating the event, “The Day Kennedy Died: 50 Years Later LIFE Remembers the Man and the Moment.” Not only does the book contain all 486 frames of the original Zapruder film, it also contains letters, telegrams, interviews, and further pictures from the John F. Kennedy administration.

The book by LIFE is an attempt to make the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination more than an individual moment in time, but rather a look at his entire presidency and the culture of the 1960’s. Such an attempt should be appreciated in an age where sensationalism has intruded upon every available media outlet and has ultimately led to less critical thinking in contemporary society.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]