The Zapruder Film: Genuine or Fake?
The Zapruder film, together with most of the other surviving video material, can be found online. The Mary Ferrell Foundation website lists the films that were taken in Dealey Plaza, and gives links to their locations on YouTube. Individual frames of the Zapruder film can be examined at :
- and http://www.jfkassassinationgallery.com/thumbnails.php?album=92.
David Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination (University Press of Kansas, 2003; ISBN 0–7006–1291–2), provides a detailed history of the famous home movie. Wrone’s book is let down slightly by the author’s speculations about the fine details of the assassination. This is more than made up for, however, by Wrone’s strong refutation of the seriously improbable hypothesis that the Zapruder film has been substantially altered to cover up evidence of conspiracy.
Why the Zapruder Film is Authentic
Several pieces of documentary evidence in the John F. Kennedy assassination appear to have been altered or forged, but there is currently no good reason to suppose that the Zapruder film is one of them.
Access to the Zapruder Film
Its chain of possession is well documented, and provides no opportunity for conspirators to have gained access to the film before it had been copied and those copies had been widely distributed.
The Zapruder Film Matches Other Evidence
There are no obvious contradictions between the Zapruder film and the rest of the photographic evidence, including the three other home movies that depict the shooting.
Any photograph or film could have contained clear evidence that the Zapruder film had been altered, but no unambiguous examples of inconsistencies have yet been demonstrated. Several have been proposed, but there are straightforward explanations for all of them: they are either the by–products of poor–quality photographic reproductions, or the result of wishful thinking.
Hundreds of photographs and several home movies recorded various aspects of the motorcade’s progress through Dealey Plaza. They form a consistent body of evidence.
Access to Other Photographic Evidence
It would not have been possible to be certain that all such contradictions had been eliminated. Conspirators did not have access to the whole of the photographic evidence, and thus could not have known whether any alterations to the Zapruder film were at risk of being revealed. Nor could they have known how many photographs and other movies would consequently have needed to be altered to make them consistent with the forged Zapruder film.
The investigating authorities made little effort to identify photographers or to obtain photographs and movies, many of which were not made public until long after the assassination. Some images may still remain hidden, such as those from an unidentified woman who appears to have been pointing a still or movie camera directly at President Kennedy as he was shot in the head, just a few yards in front of her.
Concealing Evidence Within the Zapruder Film
Altering the film would have been a very inefficient way of concealing the evidence contained within it. The Zapruder film was one of the few items of photographic material that came to the attention of the authorities very soon after the assassination. Rather than take on the almost impossible task of altering the film, it would have been far easier simply to seize the film and make it disappear.
Zapruder Film Contains Evidence of Conspiracy
Finally, the most powerful and obvious point: the Zapruder film can hardly have been altered to cover up evidence of conspiracy, given that it contains almost irrefutable evidence of conspiracy:
- When combined with certain uncontroversial facts, the Zapruder film provides explicit disproof of the single–bullet theory: Kennedy’s reaction to his throat wound occurs earlier than Connally’s reaction to his back wound, which in turn occurs earlier than Connally’s wrist wound.
- Famously, the film reveals Kennedy’s sharp back–and–to–the–left movement in reaction to what can only plausibly be interpreted as a shot from in front.
If anyone did manage to alter the Zapruder film, they didn’t make a very good job of it.
Why the Zapruder Film is a Fake
As well as claims of discrepancies between the Zapruder film and the rest of the photographic evidence, other allegations have been made.
The ‘Other’ Zapruder Film
One of the more far–fetched arguments for alteration is the discrepancy between the existing Zapruder film and an alternative version, which a handful of assassination researchers claim to have seen. This ‘other’ film is supposed to contain several elements that are not present on the familiar version.
It is difficult to imagine how such a film could be accessible only to a small number of well–connected enthusiasts. The film would surely either be locked away, well out of the reach of the curious, or it would be in public circulation. As with claims of sightings of UFOs and the Loch Ness monster, we might reasonably expect conclusive physical evidence to exist. The absence of such evidence to support these claims renders them invalid.
The most charitable explanation is that what the researchers saw was one or more of the many reconstructions that were filmed either by official investigators or by commercial projects such as Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK.
President Kennedy’s Car Stopped on Elm Street
The strongest evidence for alteration is the discrepancy between:
- a number of eye–witnesses who testified that the presidential limousine stopped on Elm Street at around the time of the fatal head shot,
- and the Zapruder film, which shows the car slowing down but not stopping.
The purpose of this particular alteration is supposed to be to cover up the complicity of the driver, a Secret Service agent.
As with all cases of apparent discrepancies between physical evidence and eye–witness evidence, a more reasonable explanation is that the witnesses were simply mistaken. This is especially so in this case, given:
- the serious practical difficulties any forgers would have faced,
- the film’s consistency with the rest of the photographic evidence,
- the fact that the car was moving directly away from most of the witnesses rather than past them, thereby making its speed more difficult to judge,
- and the fact that the car was closely followed by the Secret Service car, which partially obscured it from most of the spectators.
Other aspects of the case show that large numbers of witnesses can indeed be mistaken. Many witnesses claimed to have heard only one, two or three shots, which cannot be true if the assassination was a conspiracy; and many claimed to have heard or seen shots from the grassy knoll, which cannot be true if the assassination was not a conspiracy. At least one group must be wrong.
The Case for Zapruder Film Forgery
James Fetzer, ed., The Great Zapruder Film Hoax: Deceit and Deception in the Death of JFK (Catfeet Press, 2003; ISBN 0–8126–9547–X), puts forward the case for forgery. Much of the evidence and argument in the book is laughably weak, incongruously so given that Fetzer is a former professor of philosophy. The book’s credibility is not helped by the sad fact that one of its contributors appears to believe that the moon landings were faked. This sort of association of beliefs is liable to contaminate public trust in rational critical thinking about the JFK assassination.
Zapruder Film Alteration: Further Refutations
The Zapruder film alteration hypothesis is also refuted at:
- Josiah Thompson, ‘Bedrock Evidence in the Kennedy Assassination,’ at maryferrell.org.
- A collection of essays and reviews at http://www.jfk-info.com/moot1.htm, which includes Roland Zavada’s expert account of the technical reasons why the film cannot have been successfully faked.
- Jeff Carter’s review of Alexandra Zapruder’s book, Twenty–Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, at kennedysandking.com.
A Conspiracy Requires Plausible Evidence
Theories about the forgery of the Zapruder film range from:
- the just–about–plausible, though as yet unsubstantiated, idea that a patch was applied to a tiny area on a handful of frames in order to conceal evidence of damage to the back of President Kennedy’s head;
- to the outrageously implausible idea that the entire film is a fabrication.
Once it is acknowledged that a conspiracy took place, and that some evidence had been faked, such as the planting of the rifle and the bullet shells on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, it can be tempting to suppose that any of the physical evidence might have been faked. But it is still necessary to demonstrate how a particular instance of deception might plausibly have been achieved.
For example, the planting of the evidence on the sixth floor is not in itself implausible:
- the TSBD was occupied by several companies, not all of whose employees would have been able to identify strangers within the building;
- many of the employees were not inside the building at the time of the assassination;
- the presence of strangers would not have been noteworthy: it was common for delivery drivers, customers, and other non–employees to enter and leave the TSBD without hindrance;
- and the building had several rear entrances that were unlocked and unguarded.
As far as the medical evidence is concerned, the alteration of some of the autopsy photographs is not implausible, since any conspirators would have controlled all of the relevant photographic evidence, and would have had ample time in which to perform any alterations. For similar reasons, it is hardly unknown for investigating authorities to tamper with witness statements, as appears to have happened in the Oswald case.
On the other hand, the physical alteration of either the Zapruder film or Kennedy’s corpse would have had to be done within an infeasibly short period of time, and with incomplete access to all the information that would have been needed to avoid detection in the future.
Irrationality in JFK Assassination Research
The current state of the evidence does not justify the conclusion that the Zapruder film is a forgery. Of course, new evidence may emerge that will provide such justification. At the moment, however, that conclusion is the result of irrational thinking.
It is irrational to invent a conspiracy to explain every apparent discrepancy in the evidence. Not every such discrepancy even requires a specific explanation. Eye–witnesses can be mistaken, technical data can be incompetently assembled and analysed, and photographs can display unexpected visual effects. In any complex set of evidence, there are likely to be elements that do not match.
Cult–Like Behaviour Among Conspiracy Theorists
The desire to explain everything, whether in order to find an elusive smoking gun or to stake one’s claim to a particular area of study, is a harmful characteristic of much JFK assassination research. It has led to cult–like behaviour, in which anyone who fails to agree with every aspect of a particular explanation is damned as a heretic.
The Definition of a Conspiracy Theorist
‘Conspiracy theorist,’ when used as a derogatory term, usually refers to someone for whom a conspiracy is the default explanation for events, or at least someone who uses conspiratorial explanations for events when the evidence does not justify it. That definition applies to those who, on the current state of the evidence, conclude that the Zapruder film was forged.
The Credibility of Conspiracy Theories
As a general rule, conspiracies very rarely happen. In some types of event, such as the assassinations of political figures, conspiracies are not uncommon. In the case of President Kennedy’s assassination, it is almost certain that a conspiracy of some sort took place.
The important question is to define the extent of that conspiracy. The fewer people and institutions that are required to be involved in a conspiracy, the more credible that conspiracy theory is. In the absence of irrefutable evidence in their favour, theories that propose the alteration of the Zapruder film, or of the president’s corpse, expand the JFK conspiracy beyond reasonable limits.
Irrational Conspiracy Theories are Harmful
Such theories are actively harmful in several ways:
- they divert effort from areas that may produce genuine results;
- they oblige rational critics of the official explanation to deal with two sets of arguments: the lone–nut arguments and the paranoid theorists’ arguments;
- and they are useful to the print and broadcast media, which defend established institutions by claiming that the lone–nut explanation is more reasonable than the alternative: “OK, so there are lots of holes in the case against Oswald, but you should see some of the stuff those guys are saying.”
The last of these may be the most serious problem. The media gives little coverage to rational criticism of the official explanation, and tends to portray the JFK assassination debate as a simple conflict between:
- the lone–assassin hypothesis
- and outrageously impractical, almost paranoid conspiracy theories.
The media recognises that any reasonable alternative to the lone–nut hypothesis implies criticism of established political institutions. Consequently, it often treats the assassination in much the same way as it treats other forms of political dissent. Just as the media’s coverage of demonstrations tends to concentrate on the handful of idiots or agents provocateurs who throw bricks through windows, so criticism of the Oswald–did–it theory is often represented by the lunatic fringe. In both cases, little publicity is given to rational, critical ideas.
The similarity in each case extends to the target audience. The media’s misrepresentation of the JFK assassination is not aimed primarily at:
- those who are interested in the subject and are predisposed to think critically; such people will hardly be prevented from discovering the large amount of informed criticism that is widely available;
- nor at those who are inclined to identify with established authority; they are unlikely to look for critical ideas, or be persuaded by any they stumble upon;
- nor at that relatively small number of people who are liable to be taken in by the more unbelievable conspiracy theories.
Instead, the media’s message is aimed mostly at rational people who are aware that there is a controversy about the facts of President Kennedy’s assassination, but who have no particular knowledge of the assassination itself. By emphasising the less credible conspiracy theories, the media tries to discourage a sizeable part of the general public from exploring the subject.