The Zapruder Film

The invention of film not only revolutionised the face of mass entertainment, but changed the way we record history. We no longer had to rely on the accounts of witnesses to understand historic events; we could see them happen for ourselves. More importantly, as the home movie gained popularity and became more affordable, it became more likely that we could record history for ourselves.

One of the most prominent examples of this is, of course, the infamous Zapruder film; 26.6 seconds of silent footage which captured the assassination of American president John F. Kennedy in full colour. Because of its graphic nature, we do not include the footage here, however it is easily found online should you wish to view it.

Today, over fifty years after the event, the film still has an immense impact. Only 32 people recorded that moment, whether on cine film or in still photograph format, and it was arguably the first event of such tragic importance to be recorded in this way.

On that fateful day in November 1963, the television cameras were not rolling as the president’s motorcade came through Dealey Plaza in Texas. This part of the route was not considered important enough, so the media crews were either riding at the back of the procession or waiting at the Dallas Trade Mart for the president’s arrival. Only one professional photographer, Ike Altgens, stood in the Plaza, and although he took two famous photographs during the assassination, they don’t show the full sequence of events.

It was Abraham Zapruder’s amateur film that achieved this. A 58-year old garment manufacturer and an admirer of President Kennedy, he had taken up a prime position atop a four-foot concrete pedestal, with his secretary holding his coat to steady him.

The camera he used was top of the range for the time; purchased only a year earlier, it was an 8 mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series Model 414 PD. He had actually left it at home that morning, thinking that the weather would not be good enough to film the motorcade, but his assistant insisted he return home to retrieve it.

As the procession turned onto Elm Street alongside Dealey Plaza, Zapruder began filming; using standard 8mm Kodachrome II safety film, running at 18.3 frames per second, he exposed 486 frames, focusing on the president’s car throughout.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Zapruder was rushed away by Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels to have copies of his film made. Alongside films made by two other witnesses, Orville Nix and Marie Muchmore (neither of which captured the full sequence in such detail), it would be used by the Warren Commission as part of the official investigation.

Media interest soon followed, and publication rights were sold to Life magazine for $150,000, equivalent to over $1 million in today’s money. Stills from the film were published at the time, but at Zapruder’s request these initially excluded the most graphic frame, numbered 313, which captured the fatal shot. The film was not shown in full to the public until the 1970s.

Zapruder would never film anything else, or own another camera.

The rarity of the Zapruder film is in stark contrast to tragedies of more recent years; it has become almost routine to see footage of tragic events as they unfold, and to see them replayed on 24-hour news broadcasts filmed from myriad different angles, whether by a witness with a smartphone, a media professional or a security camera.

As an icon of a rapidly fading age, it stands as a reminder of just how important cine film could be.