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Americas

How the JFK Zapruder film 'revolutionised' Hollywood

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2013-11-23

Shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas the world learned of the existence of an amateur video that captured the tragic event. The ‘Zapruder film’ went on to profoundly influence Hollywood, according to a French film historian.

The ‘Zapruder film’, a 26-second video capturing the precise moment John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, is perhaps the most widely known amateur footage in the world.

The film was kept under wraps for years, with only about half of the frames reproduced for the famous Warren Commission Report in 1964. First aired on network television in the mid 1970s, it has since given the public a rare front row seat to one of the biggest and darkest scenes of the 20th century.

When local tailor Abraham Zapruder began filming Kennedy’s motorcade with his 8mm home movie camera he could not have imagined that the footage would later be seared into the collective consciousness and contribute to conspiracy theories that immediately began to swirl out of Dallas following the tragedy.

According to French film historian Jean-Baptiste Thoret, the film has also gone a long way towards shaping American cinema since it surfaced. He says it has become – deliberately or unintentionally – a Hollywood “template” that film makers return to again and again.

“Realistic” drama

Of the 477 frames in the Zapruder film, the most controversial is number 313. Long censored for its graphic nature, it captures the precise moment the third bullet said to have been fired from the Texas School Book Depository burst the president’s skull apart.

In fact, its censoring helped fuel speculations about a plot that included multiple shooters, and is the subject of a key sequence in Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-fuelled 1991 film JFK.

While the graphic frame was out of the public eye for years, it nevertheless found its way into the mind of film directors, Thoret notes in his book “26 seconds that tainted America” (26 secondes, l’Amérique éclaboussée, Rouge Profond). The film historian draws a direct line between frame 131 and the bloody finale in Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic “Bonnie and Clyde”.

Penn, who incidentally gave tips to Kennedy about how to behave on camera during the 1960 televised presidential debate, framed a violent shootout, spraying bullet wounds all over Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s bodies and shocking audiences not used to such scenes at the time.

An entire genre of horror films featuring “realistic” exploding heads would follow, tracing their inspiration back to Zapruder’s infamous frame 133, according to Thoret.

Gunman on the loose

While he doesn’t appear in any frame of the Zapruder film, the shadow of the presumed gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, loomed large over American cinema after the tragedy in Dallas.

The psychotic gunman as villain made his way into several films in the years following Kennedy’s assassination. One clear example is in the 1971 movie “Dirty Harry”, in which the police inspector played by Clint Eastwood tracks down the “Scorpion Killer” – a lone gunman who preys on innocent victims from the rooftops of San Francisco.

In some films, like “The Domino’s Principle” (1977) and “In the Line of Fire” (1993), even leading men like Gene Hackman and John Malkovich play the role of an obsessed killer with a gun.

Document reveals hidden secret

Numerous official and unofficial investigators have dissected and reconstructed the Zapruder film in order to understand Kennedy’s fatal shooting and to test different theories.

The widely held idea that the frames contained some detail that could help prove or disprove there was a conspiracy to kill the president has also made a lasting impression on Hollywood, Thoret notes.

Since the Warren Commission Report was published, Hollywood has spun out many films where documents – that take several different forms – prove to be the key to solving a mystery.

In Brian De Palma’s 1981 film “Blow Out”, a sound technician played by John Travolta hears a gunshot in an audio recording. The shot is the catalyst that reveals a conspiracy to murder a presidential hopeful and make it look like a car accident.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 “The Conversation”, a secretly recorded exchange between a man and a woman provides a clue to a twisted murder plot.

The paranoid thriller

Far from providing a single, incontestable version of what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963 the Zapruder film has led to multiple and conflicting interpretations of the events, and even to speculation about conspiracies involving Cuba, the CIA and Texas oil magnates.

Screenplays based on massive but invisible conspiracies - “The Parallax View” (1974), “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), “Enemy of the State” (1998) and “State of Play” (2009) - have since flooded Hollywood studios.

The lasting influence of the Zapruder film on Hollywood is such that Thoret wonders how the second, major American trauma – the September 11, 2011 attacks – will transform the industry with its own set of shocking images.

Date created : 2013-11-22

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