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Episode 7.7: "JFK: DOA" (part 7), featuring historical journalist Max Holland

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

“America’s Bloodiest Home Video”

(Paranoid Planet Podcast, Episode 7.7, Chapter 2)

A frame from the movie Parkland

(Abraham Zapruder films the Kennedy motorcade)

* * * Watch a clip from the film Parkland * * *

That was an excerpt from the film Parkland, written and directed by Peter Landesman, and based on the book Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi. Parkland offers a play-by-play summary of the events of November 22, 1963, as seen through the eyes of civilians and government agents who got wrapped up in the excitement of President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, his sudden and gruesome murder, and the confusion and grief of the hours that followed. Its many characters include a Dallas business owner named Abraham Zapruder (played by Paul Giamatti), who filmed the president’s murder with his super-8 camera, and Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (played by Billy Bob Thornton), whose job it was to obtain copies of Zapruder’s film to determine who shot at Kennedy and why.

A frame from the Zapruder film

Abraham Zapruder was not the only person who brought his film camera to Dealey Plaza. Marie Muchmore, Orville Nix, Charles Bronson, Tina Towner, Robert Hughes, Mark Bell, Elsie Dorman, and George Jefferies each filmed portions of Kennedy’s motorcade through the Houston and Elm intersection. Zapruder’s version, however, was no doubt the closest, the clearest, and the most gruesome of the amateur films taken that day, capturing in bloody detail the fatal explosion of the President’s right temple. While modern audiences are used to seeing gore on screen (thankfully, it is rarely real gore), the Zapruder film was considered so gruesome by those who first viewed it that it was not shown on television for over a decade.

A frame from the Muchmore film

(Abraham Zapruder is standing on a concrete abutment, top right of picture)

It would, however, be distributed widely in the form of low-quality bootleg copies, produced illegally from the original film owned by Time-Life, the media corporation that had purchased Zapruder’s film the day after Kennedy’s assassination. It was one of these lower-quality copies of the film—stolen and enhanced by video technician Robert Groden who handled the film while working for a Time-Life subcontractor—that was first aired to a national audience by sensationalist journalist Geraldo Rivera in 1975, who used it to argue that Kennedy’s death blow came form a second assassin. Millions of people were soon convinced that JFK’s body collapsing “back and to the left” proved that a shooter on the infamous “grassy knoll” had killed the president, not from the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Oswald’s rifle was later found. This apparent proof of a frontal shot, and Time-Life’s longstanding refusal to show the film in its entirety (except in photographic format), smacked of a widespread cover-up. For others, it was simply a proof of Time-Life’s professional discretion and the paranoid musings of conspiracy theorists.

Robert Groden and comedian/activist Dick Gregory on

Good Night America with Geraldo Rivera (March 1975).

While it is well-established that Hollywood studios are primarily profit-seeking machines who frequently distort, simplify, and mythologize historic events with heroes and villains tailored to suit popular expectations, home movies are a whole other can of worms. Filmed in the spur of the moment, often haphazardly by individuals who are stressed, disoriented, or not especially trained to use such technology, home movies often create for their viewers as much confusion as they seek to remove. As our guest Max Holland frequently argued, all amateur videos of the Kennedy assassination are incomplete perspectives.[1] While they can give us some insight into a particular constituent part of the events of that day, they also all miss key details, either because these fall outside their timeframe or visual field, or because their poor resolution (by today’s standards) leaves too much room for interpretation, or simply because of the limited point of view of the person making the film. They are also all silent films, which makes it impossible to establish with absolute certainty when and how many shots were fired.

The Zapruder film is a 26-second 8mm colour film that shows Kennedy’s limousine moving slowly down Elm street, with the President and Texas Governor John Connally, seated in front of him, reacting to getting shot in the upper body at almost the same time, and then President Kennedy suffer a massive head wound before the limousine speeds off and disappears under a concrete underpass. It has been and remains one of the most controversial pieces of evidence in any discussion of Kennedy’s murder, not so much in terms of where the shots originated and how many struck their mark (these questions could be addressed by other ballistic and medical evidence), but the duration of the assassination sequence and the timing of each shot. If there were too many shots fired, or if some of these happened too close to each other in time, it would make it less likely that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired all of them even if they all came from the same general direction. This, in fact, is what several conspiracy believers have argued—including Josiah Thompson, Oliver Stone, and our past guest Paul Bleau—based on a misreading of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that the shooting sequence lasted 5.6 seconds. Other conspiracy believers—like Jack White, David Mantik, James Fetzer, David Lifton, and Douglas Horne—have claimed that Zapruder’s film is itself an elaborate hoax, edited in secret in the hours and days after the assassination to make it look like JFK was killed by a lone assassin and hide evidence that three or more snipers fired six to twelve shots from different directions.

But there are many factual and logical problems with these claims. Here is a short list of counter evidence:

First, the Warren Commission committed an error in calculating the time it took for Oswald to fire three shots at President Kennedy. Assuming that the first shot would be the most accurate, they believed (wrongly) that the first bullet struck Kennedy in the neck and exited his throat to then strike Governor Connally—what many conspiracy theorists derisively call the “magic bullet theory”, despite replicable evidence that the two men were struck by the same projectile. It is also most likely that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the head was the last bullet fired, and so the Commission assumed that the second bullet fired by Oswald was deflected (possibly by a tree) and missed the limousine altogether. However, new research by Max Holland and Frank DeRonja—which we discuss in this episode—makes a strong argument that the first bullet, which was fired earlier than the Commission assumed, was the one that missed the limousine, probably due to striking a traffic mast.[2] The real timeframe for the assassination, therefore, expands from a tight 5.6 seconds to between 8 and 11 seconds—plenty of time to fire three shots using a bolt action rifle. It should be made clear, however, that the Warren Commission never said that 5.6 seconds was the maximum time Oswald had to fire three shots, but rather the minimum based on the reasonable assumption—now proven false—that the second shot was the one that missed.

Image taken from the sniper's window on 27 November 1963

during a Secret Service reconstruction of the assassination

(notice the traffic mast obstructing the assassin's view of the vehicle)

Second, many of the eye-witnesses to the assassination, including Abraham Zapruder and other bystanders located close to the limousine, gave TV and radio interviews, signed sworn affidavits, and were deposed for the Warren Commission before they had any chance of seeing the Zapruder film in part or in whole. And yet, their testimonies corroborated key elements of the film that conspiracists claim were later changed (e.g., the large exit wound on JFK’s right temple, the forward snap of his head, and the forward-moving spray of brain matter).

Abraham Zapruder describes Kennedy's head wound to WFAA newsman Jay Watson

Thirdly, the chain of custody for the original film was never broken. Mr. Zapruder, at the urging of his lawyer and Agent Sorrels, remained in possession of the original film until he sold it to Life magazine’s Richard Stolley on November 23, the day after the assassination. Until then, Zapruder kept it in his office safe or carried it for Agent Sorrels to a local TV studio and to a nearby Kodak factory to produce copies for the FBI and Secret Service.[3] The Assassination Records Review Board also discovered in the 1990s that Mr. Zapruder had kept a first-generation copy of the film in his possession and never told anyone about it.[4] All of this makes it virtually impossible that the original film was any different than the one that can now freely be viewed on YouTube.

Finally, due to the nature of the camera, lens, and film used by Zapruder that day, the original video contains areas of double-exposure in the sprocket hole area, a part of the film that is not generally seen when projecting a super-8 film using a home projector, but which serve as a fingerprint of each frame’s authenticity to those who know what to look for. These areas of double exposure—colloquially called “ghost images”—do not appear on second generation copies, including all of the illegal bootleg copies made by Robert Groden, Mark Lane, or their acolytes. Moreover, the film sold to Time-Life by Mr. Zapruder was studied closely in 1998 by Roland Zavada, a retired film expert from Kodak who produced a detailed report for the Assassination Records Review Board. Zavada showed that it would have been virtually impossible to remove, resize, or switch film frames, or to replicate these “ghost images” using 1963 technology, without being detectable later. The film that was held by Time-Life, and whose copyrights now belong to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, is unquestionably an out-of-camera original.[5]

Source: Patrick Taylor: "Zapruder Film Trilogy".

Whether or not the motion of Kennedy’s body “back and to the left” proves anything about the existence of a second shooter is an issue we’ll need to keep for another time. For now, let us conclude by saying that JFK conspiracy theorists have a strange and contradictory relationship with the Zapruder film. On one hand, it is one of their primary go-to sources to try to disprove the Warren Commission’s lone gunman scenario. On the other hand, they frequently dismiss the film as a malicious forgery whenever it seems to support the lone-gunman theory. If the Zapruder film is genuine, then it is hard to use it as proof of any specific conspiracy. If it is a hoax, then we shouldn’t trust any of it any more than a peace treaty signed by Hitler. If it is both genuine and a hoax, then logic is a figment of our imagination.

The problem with hoax-based conspiracy theories, whether they are about the Moon landing, the Holocaust, flat Earth, Matrix-type simulations, shape-shifting lizards, or massive evidence fraud like this one, is that they too often rest on logical contradictions and/or a blanket rejection of a myriad verifiable facts. Once one leaps onto the slippery slope of global scepticism, no foundation remains on which to establish a reliable objective truth. When nothing is what it appears to be, the only truth left is in the eye of the believer, and the whole enterprise of truth-telling becomes little more than self-delusion.

Michel J. Gagné, 2023

This essay is adapted from Chapter 17: “America’s Bloodiest Home Video: Is The Zapruder Film Authentic?”, from my book Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination (Routledge, 2022).

[1] See for example JFK: The Lost Bullet. dir. Robert Stone. National Geographic Channel, 2011. [2] Frank deRonja and Max Holland: “The Final DeRonja-Holland Report (‘A Technical Investigation Pertaining to the First Shot Fired in the JFK Assassniation’),” 9 May 2016 [PDF]. [3] “Richard B. Stolley Remembers the Zapruder Film,” Entertainment Weekly, January 17, 1992; Josiah Thompson: “Why the Zapruder Film is Authentic,” November 20, 1998, JFK Assassination Research Materials. [4] “Chapter 6, Part II: “Clarifying the Federal Record on the Zapruder Film and the Medical and Ballistics Evidence,” Chapter 6, Part II of The Assassination Records Review Board Final Report, 1998. National Archives: JFK Assassination Records, [5] Roland J. Zavada: “Analysis of Selected Motion Picture Evidence,” Kodak Technical Report 31842OP, 25 September 1998. Internet Archive.

Documents related to this episode: *

1. The Parallax View (Paramount, 1974). Dir. Alan J. Pakula. Feat. Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels.

2. Parkland (Exclusive Media Group, 2013). Dir. Peter Landesman. Feat. Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, and Bitsie Tulloch.

4. JFK: The Lost Bullet. dir. Robert Stone. Feat. Max Holland and Frank DeRonja. National Geographic Channel, 2011.

6. Max Holland: “The Truth Behind JFK's Assassination,” Newsweek, 11/20/2014.

7. Washington Decoded. Ed. Max Holland.

8. Max Holland: Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. University Press of Kansas, 2012.

9. Max Holland: The Kennedy Assassination Tapes. Knopf, 2004.

10. Max Holland: Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis (Foreign Relations and the Presidency, Volume 11). Texas A&M University Press, 2012.

11. All The President’s Men (Warner Bros., 1976). Dir. Alan J. Pakula. Feat. Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Warden.

* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.

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