The Zapruder Film
By Jerry Organ


Prior to 1963, peacetime Presidents of the United States travelled freely through American cities. Such visits and crowd contact was especially useful during the run-up to a presidential election. During the 1960 election, JFK often campaigned atop the rear seats of open convertibles driven slowly through major cities. But with the next election — and the prestige of the Presidency now on his shoulders — Kennedy had taken a more subdued approach in what would be his last motorcades.

Still, even if JFK never sat atop the rear seat anymore, there would be plenty of fine photo opportunities for amateurs who turned out for an early campaign-swing through Texas in late November of 1963. Not to mention the appeal of First Lady Jackie, enjoying her first campaign trip since 1960.

In Dallas, many, including professional AP photographer Jim Altgens, considered the open area of Dealey Plaza to offer the best photo opportunities. By time the motorcade reached Dallas' most historic juncture, there were some three dozen photographers in position. But only one was filming from the President's side as the shots rang out.

The Zapruder Film

Millions have seen Abraham Zapruder's graphic 26-second strip of silent, 8-mm Kodachrome II Safety Film. It helps to be prepared for what is shown.

Zapruder's own first impressions of the assassination touched on the comic. He thought the President was "pretending" to be hit when the car emerged from behind a sign between Zapruder and Kennedy. He told the Warren Commission:

"I saw the President lean over and grab himself like this (holding his left chest area) ... for a moment I thought it was, you know, like you say, 'Oh, he got me,' when you hear a shot. You've heard these expressions. And then I saw — I don't believe the President is going to make jokes like this, but before I could organize my mind, I heard a second shot and then I saw his head open up and the blood and everything else came out."
Zapruder could only recall two shots, with the fatal head shot causing him to realize the loud reports were actually shots being fired at the President. He told the Warren Commission of a recurring nightmare, in which the film plays out until the fatal head shot snaps him awake: "The thing would come every night — I wake up and see this."

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Since 1949, Abraham Zapruder had operated his "Jennifer Juniors, Inc. of Dallas," manufacturing women's and young ladies' clothing. In 1963, the company ran out of the fourth and fifth-floors of the Dal-Tex Building at 501 Elm, across Houston Street from the Depository. With his two children, Henry and Myrna, now grown and with young children of their own, Zapruder purchased a Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series 8-mm camera, Model 414 PD in 1962 in order to record his grandchildren's activities. Fortunately for history, it was one of the best-quality home cameras then available.

Aware that the President would be passing by his building, Zapruder decided to leave his camera home when November 22, 1963 dawned overcast with showers. As the morning turned sunny, "Mr. Z," as he was called by his employees, was coached into returning home for the camera by his secretary Lillian Rodgers. Towards mid-noon, Zapruder choose a foot-foot-high concrete abutment at the west end of the Bryan Colonnade's steps, next to the Grassy Knoll.

The elevated perch would turn out to be one of the best vantage points in Dealey Plaza, but it meant a challenge to Zapruder's vertigo. He asked his receptionist, Marilyn Sitzman, to climb up behind him and steady him as he filmed. His camera fully-wound, Zapruder's camera captured events at a steady 18.3 frames-per-second. The first 132 frames (7-seconds) show the lead motorcycle escort headed down Elm.

Realizing the Presidential party was not immediately behind, Zapruder stopped filming to conserve film. His next sequence would begin with the Presidential Lincoln already on Elm and run uninterrupted for 354 frames. Its 19-seconds would capture the most dramatic and horrific single event of the century.

Key Developments

Although the film is silent, jiggles made by Zapruder attest to distractions; some have sought to interpret these as gunfire indications. Zapruder himself screamed "They killed him, they killed him!" as he filmed Mrs. Kennedy climbing out of the gory backseat. Somehow, Zapruder kept the camera to his eye even as other photographers jumped for safety; or, like Altgens, were too shocked to press the shutter.

Showing even more presence of mind, Zapruder immediately returned to his office and locked the camera in a small safe. A Dallas Morning News reporter named Harry McCormack notified Forrest Sorrels, Agent-in-Charge of the Dallas Secret Service field office, that Zapruder might have filmed the assassination. The two met Zapruder at his office, not really knowing the true importance of his remarkable film. Sorrels left after a promise of a copy for his agency's use.

Zapruder then went with McCormack to the News building, hoping to develop the film there. From there they went to the paper's television branch, WFAA, only to be told the station's lab was set up for black & white 16mm newsfilm. Although losing what would have been TV's greatest news exclusive, WFAA did a live interview with Zapruder himself, barely 90-minutes after the assassination.

On Zapruder's behalf, WFAA contacted the Eastman Kodak Company on Manor Way, who agreed to process his film right away. Kodak employee Phil Chamberlain recalled there was only three reels of camera film available to make first-generation copies. Later that afternoon, Sorrels received two of the copies at Zapruder's office. That evening, one of Sorrels' copies was on its way to Secret Service Chief James Rowley in Washington.

The other of Sorrels' copies was loaned to the FBI, who — unable to dupe the film locally — sent the film to the FBI lab in Washington, where second-generation copies were made. The first-generation copy was returned to Dallas on November 26th.

Enter LIFE

Zapruder still had poccession of his original film and first-generation copy when contacted by Life magazine's Pacific Coast regional editor, Richard Stolley about 11:00 on the evening of November 22nd. Stolley had been tipped off by Harry McCormack, the reporter who had first met with Zapruder. Stolley arranged a meeting and viewing for the next morning at Zapruder's office. As others from the press clamored outside, Stolley negotiated one-on-one with Zapruder, agreeing to pay $50,000 for print rights. With that and assurances that Life would not unduly exploit the graphic nature of the film, Stolley sneaked out the back door with the original and first-generation print.

The original went to Life's Chicago printing plant, where the aborted November 24th issue was now being reworked. The copy print went to Life's New York offices, where it so revulsed publisher C.D. Jackson that he ordered Stolley to secure from Zapruder the remaining motion picture rights. The final agreement, worked out on the day of President Kennedy's funeral, called for Zapruder to receive $25,000 immediately, with installments of $25,000 to be paid annually for a total of $150,000.

Two days later, Zapruder donated the initial payment to the survivors of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer slain by Oswald. Fearing criticism of profiteering, Zapruder left the impression that the $25,000 was the total amount he had received for the film. It would be some time before the full extent of the Life agreement came out. Although the $150,000 total (equal to a half-million today) may seem excessive, Life (the CNN of its day) had paid $500,000 just a few years earlier for the exclusive story of the Gemini astronauts and their wives.

The Film Emerges

The magazine did honor Zapruder's exploitation concerns — while protecting its own commercial interests — by never selling broadcast rights. The public would not see it projected until February 13, 1969, when a subpoenaed copy was shown at the Clay Shaw trial, an event recreated in the JFK movie. This copy became the source for the poor-generation bootleg copies that became a staple on the college lecture circuit, much to Life's chagrin and as Abe Zapruder had feared.

On March 6, 1975, the Zapruder film finally made its American TV premiere on Geraldo Rivera's talk show Good Night America. A month earlier, the film had first been shown on TV in Australia. In April, wishing to avoid the appearance of "suppression," Time Inc. returned the film and all commercial rights to Abraham Zapruder's heirs for one dollar. Since 1978, the original has been kept in "courtesy storage" under conservation-conditions at the National Archives.

In 1992, reacting to public pressure in the wake of the JFK movie, Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, which authorized the government to seize crucial records of the assassination. On August 1st, 1998, the government took possession of the Zapruder film already in its vaults. Compensation issues with Zapruder's heirs were resolved in 1999, resulting in a multi-million package for the family.

One project the Zapruders did manage to deliver was the 45-minute video "Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film" released in late 1998, a compelling look at the film's history and the preservation efforts of the National Archives. In January 2000, the Zapruder family gave its first-generation copy, made on the afternoon of the assassination, to the Sixth Floor Museum. This was the film the family would allow duplication for commercial use and may be the most-seen version ever.

The family, required by the government to turn title over to a public institution, assigned the film's copyright to the Museum, trusting their judgment as to its use. Unfortunately, this is the same museum that allowed a webcam in the Sniper's Nest window. It is hoped that caution — and respect for the President's family — will prevail. If the initial sentiments of a good-many Texans in 1963 had been heeded, Jack Ruby would have been pardoned and the Depository building razed.

The Head Snap

Much debate has centered on what the Zapruder film shows, particularly the "backward" head movement supposedly indicative of a shot from the Grassy Knoll, thus ruling out Oswald's "Sniper's Nest" to the President's right rear. For decades, this evidence of a frontal assassin was presented as conclusive to lecture and TV audiences. In 1991, the graphic head explosion served as the startling climax to Oliver Stone's JFK.

To this day, millions remain unaware that such forthright evidence of a second gunman was undermined almost from the beginning. In 1965, researchers using a frame-by-frame comparison discovered the head went violently forward between Zapruder frames 312 (last frame before impact) and frame 313 (head explosion). The subsequent backward motion is much more slower and thus more distinctive in live-action viewing.

The Zapruder film, and head snap

The forward head movement, along with the explosion forward of skull and brain material is entirely consistent with a shot from the Sniper's Nest. By frame 313, the Grassy Knoll was perpendicular to the President's head; an impact would have exited through the left side of the skull, but autopsy X-rays and photos show no skull or metal fragments in the left hemisphere, much less a gaping exit wound.

So, why did the head execute such a seemingly massive rearward movement immediately after being pushed forward by the bullet's impact? Simple: it had no place else to go. Frame 312 shows the chin already pressing against the chest (a reaction to the throat wound that Oswald had inflicted five seconds before). The bullet's impact, coming from the rear, drove the head forward until it compressed against the chest, causing an immediate (though less violent) recoil to the rear and left.

Other theories, consistent with a lone assassin, include:

I call it the Compression/Recoil Theory. The initial forward movement of the head was confirmed by the Nix film; that the rearward recoil also went left was captured in the Muchmore film and Moorman photo.

The Single-Bullet Theory

President Kennedy was not the only man seriously injured in Dealey Plaza as the limousine proceeded down Elm Street. His host, the Governor of Texas John Connally, was also struck by a bullet as he sat in a jumpseat in front of JFK. Connally was hit near the right armpit; as the bullet then coursed along the muscles near the fifth rib, its pressure caused the rib to implode, sending bone splinters that caused his right lung to collapse. The bullet emerged near the right nipple tumbling onward to pass through the Governor's right wrist. Its remarkable journey ended when it embedded itself into the left thigh.

That same day, Connally's surgeons announced that his injuries were caused by a single bullet. Initially, most thought the Governor's wounding accounted for one of the three shots thought to have been fired. Since the final shot had fatally struck the President's head seconds after Connally had been shot, it was reasoned that the first shot had struck Kennedy passing through his throat and that the second shot had struck Connally.

But analysis of the Zapruder film showed the President and Governor reacting very close together. And just one bullet had been recovered at Parkland Hospital; on whose stretcher it wasn't sure. As well, there were reports that at least one of the shots likely missed, causing spray to explode off the pavement and sending a lead fragment down to the mouth of the Triple Underpass where witness James Tague was superficially injured on the cheek.

During the 1964 Warren Commission investigation, Assistant Counsel Arlen Spector (now a prominent US Senator) developed the Single Bullet Theory as a forthright attempt to reconcile the known medical and ballistic facts. Spector suggested that since Connally was seated in front of Kennedy and slightly lower due to being in a jumpseat, the two were aligned to have been wounded by the same bullet. Where did the bullet that emerged from JFK's throat go if not into Connally? Only lead fragments from the head shot were found inside the limousine.

Trajectory and photographic analysis by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 (the height differential between the two men was 8 cm) seem to bloster the Spector's theory. As well, its Medical Panel dismissed charges that the bullet had left behind so much lead in Connally's chest that it couldn't have been the nearly-whole "Pristine Bullet" recovered at Parkland; what was thought to be "lead" on Connally's X-rays turned out to be photographic artifacts.

In 1992, Failure Analysis Associates, Inc. disclosed the important evidence of Connally's lapel flipping outward for one-eighteen of a second at Zapruder frame 224. Failure Analysis' re-creation of the assassination using 3-D computer modeling confirmed a single bullet track was possible through both men at Z224, the moment of the lapel-flip. Using the Governor's wound sites and position at wounding, Failure Analysis projected the bullet trajectory backwards, leading through the President's neck. The resulting cone, reflecting a margin of error, included the Oswald window.

Some have suggested that since the Governor held onto his hat until after the fatal head shot, his wrist injury was caused by a fragment from the skull impact. However, closer inspection of Zapruder frames prior to the head shot reveals the Governor's Stetson hat involuntarily held aloft by a bent wrist, proof of paralysis. The shattering of Connally's radius bone did not affect the muscles and nerve that allow the fingers and thumb to oppose each other. Failure Analysis revealed a violent upward flip of the Governor's right arm for over one-third of a second just after frame 224.

The Zapruder film remains the primary historical documentation of the assassination. By sheer luck, a man with good presence-of-mind and a decent camera just happened to choose one of the best vantage points in Dealey Plaza to record the murder. While the film is shocking and graphic, there is much to commend — and always more to debate.

copyright 2000 Jerry Organ. All rights reserved.


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