When Time-Life bought the Zapruder film rights the day after JFK's murder, a company executive said the footage was so horrific that the 22 second film would be locked away forever. As of a few weeks ago, however, you could pick up a digitally enhanced, more horrific than ever version for 20 bucks at the corner video store. (Time surrendered its rights in 1975, the year Geraldo Rivera first broadcast the film on television.)
Most people already know the imagery--after all, Oliver Stone presented it in Panavision--and probably regard it as a valuable "clock" of the assassination, one that created problems for the Warren Commission. Among other things, the film led to a "magic bullet" thesis to account for a lot of wounds from three rapid shots and, later, to the "neurospasm" and "jet effect" theories to account for JFK's "head snap" reaction to the final shot. Assassinologists have argued for years that the Zapruder film alone confounded any lone gunman thesis.
Many still think so, but in recent years a late-stage hard core of Z-film specialists has developed a different view. Watching dupes year after year, measuring prints with calipers, subjecting the movie to "vector analysis" and performing their own stopwatch experiments, these critics (including several academics) have discovered the film is not merely evidence of conspiracy but is also a part of the plot. That is, it's a fake--or, as one contemptuous critic describes it, "a cartoon."
How did the Zapruder film become, in one professor's phrase, "itself an instrument of conspiracy"? The film is known to have been copied at Washington, D.C.'s National Photographic Interpretative Center, though nobody knows when. In one conspiracist scenario, it was rushed to NPIC from the Dallas lab where Zapruder had left it. In five feverish hours, CIA experts edited and optically manipulated the film to mask what had really happened. Faked prints were rushed back to Dallas just in time to be given to Zapruder. When other Dealey Plaza home movies surfaced, they too were "collected" and altered to match. The result is "the hoax of the century."
But it hasn't fooled everyone. In their haste, the purported hoaxers left behind evidence of tampering. Back in 1975, Robert Groden, a conspiracist specializing in image trickery, argued in Rolling Stone that frames were missing. (The same Groden testified in the O.J. Simpson civil trial that the Bruno Magli photos were fake.) Groden thought 10 frames were gone, but the stakes on "missing frames" have since risen: One pair of critics now theorizes that three times as many frames were exposed as we see today, that two-thirds of the "original" film has been removed.
How can anyone tell? Among the many clues offered in Assassination Science, a 1998 anthology that devotes 200 pages to proof that the film is a fraud: People make supposedly implausible moves between frames, the "blink" pattern on the presidential limo's front lights is said to be uneven, the awful results of the head shot can't possibly have lasted only one frame (the horrible Frame 313). David Lifton, famous for his theory that JFK's body was surgically altered before the autopsy, has written elsewhere that portions of the head shot sequence look suspiciously dark to him and that some of JFK's "movements" may be special effects.
But other Z-film critics argue the film is almost entirely special effects: that the grassy background one sees is surely a repeated matte shot, because nobody in it moves; that the head shot sequence features an optical zoom to eliminate foreground figures and make it easier to manipulate; that the head shot itself is an optically collapsed version of two more widely separated hits. Oddly, there is even a claim that JFK's shocking head snap, among the biggest challenges to the lone gunman thesis, didn't happen and is a CIA special effect.
So what did the real Zapruder film reveal? To these researchers, it contained incontrovertible proof of conspiracy (more shots, say), but just what that proof was depends on which conspiracy each believes in. A few theorists believe the lost footage showed an assassin actually shooting JFK. No, not Black Dog Man, who looms indistinctly over the grassy knoll in other Dealey Plaza imagery and who may or may not be seen on the Z-film at Frame 413. The assassin these theorists have in mind is William Greer, the driver of JFK's own car, who purportedly braked, drew his gun, and delivered the coup de grâce in the middle of the motorcade.
Perhaps the original Zapruder film still exists. Texas' Hunt family may have a copy, according to a man who claims he picked it up for them; or maybe there's a copy at NBC, where one woman says she watched it. But the real question about the film--in this context, the inevitable question--was raised by longtime conspiracist Harrison Edward Livingstone in his 1995 book, Killing Kennedy.
"Is it possible," asks Livingstone, "that Zapruder was a plant?" Livingstone's theory is that "the masterminds" behind the murder wanted a film they could alter. Otherwise, he writes, the whole sequence of events is just "too convenient."