#6) Zapruder Film (1963)

#6) Zapruder Film (1963)

Filmed by Abraham Zapruder

Class of 1994

This is an expanded and revised edition of my previous post, which you can read here. While I am maintaining my vow to never watch that disturbing footage again, I feel that my decision to keep that original post to its bare minimum shortchanged the film’s historical significance. As always – and this cannot be stressed enough – this post is about the film itself, and not the Kennedy assassination, which I have zero interest in doing a deep-dive on.

1941: 36-year-old Ukranian-Jewish immigrant Abraham Zapruder moves to Dallas, Texas with his wife Lillian and their two children Henry and Myrna. Zapruder emigrated to America from the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1920, residing in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan’s garment district.

1949: Zapruder co-founds Jennifer Juniors Inc., a dress manufacturing company. Zapruder’s office is at the Dal-Tex building on Elm Street in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, across the street from the Texas School Book Depository. 

1962: Zapruder purchases an 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic camera, a then-state of the art model.

November 22nd, 1963

  • President John F. Kennedy arrives in Dallas as part of an extended tour of the south; partially to smooth things over with Texas Democrats, and partially to begin his 1964 re-election campaign. A few days earlier, the path of the President’s motorcade through downtown Dallas was finalized and released to the public. The president’s car would drive from Love Field to the Dallas Trade Mart by way of Dealey Plaza, carrying himself, his wife Jackie, Texas Governor John Connolly, and Connolly’s wife Nellie. 
  • A big supporter of Kennedy, Zapruder considers filming the motorcade, but initially doesn’t bring his camera due to an early morning rainfall. Upon arriving at work, an assistant convinces Zapruder to go home and bring his camera. Zapruder initially plans to film the motorcade from his office window, but decides to capture the footage on Elm Street.
  • Approximately 12:15 pm: Zapruder leaves the Dal-Tex building to stake out a good observation spot for President Kennedy’s motorcade. He settles on a 4-foot concrete abutment on a grassy knoll in the center of Elm Street. Zapruder’s secretary Marilyn Sitzman volunteers to hold onto his coat to help him with his vertigo.
  • 12:30pm: Zapruder begins filming the president as his car arrives in front of the Book Depository and down Elm Street. In the 26.6 seconds (486 frames) captured by Zapruder, both President Kennedy and Governor Connolly are shot by an off-camera assailant. While Governor Connolly survived this attack, President Kennedy would be pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital a half hour later. Zapruder would later recall that he knew at that exact moment the President had been killed. 
  • 12:45pm: Amidst the ensuing chaos, Zapruder returns to his office, and is visited by Harry McCormick, reporter for The Dallas Morning News, and Forrest Sorrels, agent with the Secret Service’s Dallas department. After some discussion, Zapruder agrees to give the footage to Sorrels, on the condition that it only be used for investigation, and not public viewing.
  • 2:00pm: The three arrive at TV station WFAA to get the film developed. It is discovered, however, that the station does not have the right equipment to develop Zapruder’s footage. While at WFAA, Zapruder is interviewed on-air, giving his account of the assassination, calling it “terrible, terrible” and saying that he’s “just sick”.
  • 2:30pm-8pm: The film is developed at the nearby Eastman Kodak processing plant, and three copies are made at the Jamieson Film Company. Zapruder keeps the original film and one copy, while Sorrels takes the other two copies to Secret Service headquarters in D.C.

November 23rd, 1963: Zapruder meets with Life magazine editor Richard Stolley, and sells the rights to the footage for $150,000 (Life outbids, among others, CBS). Still traumatized by what he had witnessed (and additionally distressed from a nightmare he had that evening), Zapruder sells the film on the condition that the frames showing the actual murder be omitted from Life‘s printing. Zapruder donates $25,000 of the Life money to the widow of J.D. Tippit, a police officer killed by Dallas resident and former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald shortly after the assassination.

November 25th 1963: CBS News correspondent Dan Rather, who happened to be in Dallas on November 22nd, describes his viewing of the Zapruder film on-air, the first national report of the footage’s existence. Rather erroneously describes Kennedy’s head as having moved “violently forward” following the shot, although the actual footage shows the head moving backwards. This discrepancy is believed to be the germ from which several conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination arose. 

November 29th, 1963: Life publishes 30 frames from the Zapruder film in black and white. Later publications would include these frames in color, as well as additional frames.

1964: Abraham Zapruder gives his recollections of the day’s events to the Warren Commission, who ultimately determine that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in his assassination of the President.

January 29th 1969: New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw is brought to trial by local D.A. Jim Garrison for his alleged involvment in the Kennedy assassination. The Zapruder film is shown as evidence, its first public screening. Zapruder himself is brought in to testify on February 13th. Clay is ultimately found not guilty on March 1st. During the trial, attorney and conspiracy theorist Mark Lane obtains Garrison’s copy of the Zapruder film (subpoenaed from Life), and makes several copies. These copies start getting distributed on the black market, adding to the film’s notoriety.

February 14th, 1969: The Zapruder film has its US television premiere on KTLA in Los Angeles. The footage is shown in conjunction with news of the Clay Shaw trial.

August 30th, 1970: Abraham Zapruder dies of stomach cancer at the age of 65.

March 6th, 1975: The Zapruder film makes its national TV debut on ABC’s late-night program “Good Night America”. Public outrage over this airing leads to a royalties suit between the Zapruder family and Time Inc. (owners of Life).

April 1975: In a settlement, Time Inc. sells the rights of the footage back to the Zapruder family for $1.

1978: After years of hesitation, the Zapruder family finally agrees to have the original footage stored in D.C.’s National Archives and Records Administration. The family does, however, retain the film’s ownership and copyright.

October 26th, 1992: President George H. W. Bush signs into law the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (aka the JFK Act). This act automatically classifies the Zapruder film as an “assassination record”, and therefore government property. After some back and forth with the Zapruder family over ownership, the film is eventually purchased by the U.S. government from the Zapruders in 1999 for $16 million.

November 15th, 1994: The Zapruder film is inducted into the National Film Registry. In their annual write-up, the NFR calls the film “the most authoritative record” of the JFK assassination.

December 1999: The Zapruder family donates the film’s copyright (retained after the JFK Act settlement) to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, thus ending any ownership of the film by the Zapruder family. In the ensuing years, the Zapruder film has been digitized and made available on the internet, making it one of the most viewed and analyzed pieces of film in American history.

Further Reading: David Wrone’s 2003 book “The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination” is a detailed account of the film’s chain of evidence.

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