What is the Zapruder Film?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The Zapruder film is an 8mm color home movie shot in Dallas, Texas by an Ukrainian immigrant named Abraham Zapruder, a businessman who specialized in women's clothing. The film begins with shots of a young girl's birthday party, but it is the next 26.6 seconds of footage which makes the Zapruder film one of the most important pieces of evidence in political history. Using a Model 414 PD 8 mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series film camera, Zapruder captured the most complete footage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas' Dealey Plaza known to exist.

The Zapruder film contains documents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The Zapruder film contains documents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Abraham Zapruder originally did not plan on filming the president's motorcade as it passed his offices at the Dal-Tex building. His secretary suggested that Zapruder retrieve his camera from the office and film the once-in-a-lifetime event. Zapruder shot the film from atop a concrete stairwell, with his secretary holding him steady from behind. The relevant portions of the Zapruder film begin with the appearance of several escort motorcycles and the first limousines in the motorcade. The filming suddenly stops, perhaps because Zapruder realized the president was not present in those lead vehicles.

The Zapruder film includes 26.6 seconds depicting the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The Zapruder film includes 26.6 seconds depicting the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

When filming resumes, the president's open-air limousine can be seen moving slowly down the street. The president and the governor of Texas, John Connally, can both be seen waving to the crowd. Shortly before the limousine passed under a large traffic sign, the first shot was apparently fired, causing Zapruder to jerk his camera reflexively. When the limousine passes back into view, the president is clearly seen clutching his throat. At this point, Zapruder reacts again to the sound of a second shot.

A few frames later, the Zapruder film shows the other passengers in the limousine, including the president's wife Jackie Kennedy, attempting to comfort the president and the governor. At frame 313, the Zapruder film shows a spray of blood as a third shot hits John F. Kennedy directly in the head. At that point, Mrs. Kennedy tries to climb out of the back of the limousine but is pushed back by a secret service agent. The Zapruder film ends with the limousine speeding through an overpass towards the hospital.

Within hours of the assassination, news of the footage shot by Abraham Zapruder sped through media outlets and investigative agencies all over the country. Zapruder himself took the camera and its undeveloped contents to a local television station as he granted his first interview. The original film was immediately processed by a local Kodak developer and several copies were made available to investigators. Zapruder himself kept the original footage and three copies, with the intention of selling future rights. Eventually the owners of Life magazine acquired publication rights to the Zapruder film for $150,000 US Dollars.

The actual Zapruder film was not shown in its unedited form to the public until the mid-1970s. Zapruder was a Kennedy supporter, and he did not want the bloody head shot captured in frame 313 to become an indelible image in sensitive viewers' minds. That particular series of frames, however, would eventually become a source of contention for investigators of the assassination. Kennedy's head movements as seen in the Zapruder film could be construed as the result of a shot fired in front of the motorcade, not from Lee Harvey Oswald's position above and behind. For this and many other reasons, enhanced versions of the Zapruder film have been scrutinized by professional and amateur criminologists alike.

Some claim the Zapruder film has either been edited to remove evidence of a conspiracy, or altered through sophisticated film techniques in order to "paste in" shots of the motorcade over Zapruder's original crowd footage. At times the reactions of the witnesses in the background do not seem to match the actions of the limousine's passengers. The proportional sizes of objects and people in the background also appear larger than the motorcade's passengers, which could be the result of enlarging the background to mask out a composite shot of a different motorcade.

Critics of the Zapruder film also point out a number of incongruities with the movements of the limousine's passengers. The driver is seen turning his head at an impossibly fast speed, and the wounded governor can be seen flipping his hat even after suffering a broken wrist. These and other anomalies appear to indicate the original Zapruder film footage may have been doctored by film experts to remove incriminating images or to bolster an established but fictional time line of events.

The original camera Zapruder used to capture the historic footage is now in the custody of the National Archives, and copies of the film itself can be found in a number of places online.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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the CIA so totally killed him!

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