The JFK Image So Awful I Had To Cover My Screen: Two Weeks With the Zapruder Film

What it's like to watch a president assassinated over and over and over

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Bettmann / CORBIS

President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and Texas Governor John Connally ride in a motorcade from the Dallas airport into the city shortly before JFK's assassination, Nov. 22, 1963.

Frame 313.

That’s the most famous of the 486 frames in Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second film of JFK’s assassination. The frame where the President’s head explodes in a fountain of red gore.

I saw it for the first time this month when I began editing a video about how LIFE magazine acquired the footage the day after the shooting. When the image hit the screen, my entire body shuddered in a visceral “No.” My hands shot up to cover it. I had no idea it was going to be so brutal—or that in making this video, I’d have to watch that moment over and over.

When LIFE magazine first published the film as a series of black-and-white still images, editors left out Frame 313 out of respect for the grieving Kennedy family. Most Americans didn’t see the actual film until ABC aired the full footage more than a decade later, in 1975. To me, it seems old-fashioned that the public was prevented (or some might say protected) from seeing the film, in the way parents try to shield their children from scary things. But after experiencing the shock myself—even 50 years later—I better understand that decision. This was the President, whose death drew howls of despair from every corner of the country. To see it was just too much.

Fifty years later, there are plenty of people who have watched the Zapruder film countless times: federal investigators, conspiracy theorists, fans of Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” anyone with access to YouTube. Nowadays you can see any number of horrific, real executions and assassinations on video. And it invites the question: How, in a culture so accustomed to (and entertained by) violent imagery, does this particular video still have the power to shock us? Is it because it was real? Because he was ours, and taken from us before our eyes?

Richard B. Stolley, the LIFE editor who procured the film, recently told TIME, “I’ve seen that film now perhaps a 100 times in my life. The impact, remarkably, has never diminished.”

Having seen it nearly 100 times in the past two weeks, I can only agree.

I’m not one for violence on screen, real or not. I wince and hide my eyes whenever someone raises a gun on TV or in a film. But no matter what horror or historic heft a film holds, the act of editing is clinical. You suppress your feelings as you wield your dissection tools. In my dark office, I flipped the film back and forth. One frame clean, the next a mess. Tap the left arrow, and his head is whole. The right; it is shattered. I figured out how to work with it. Whenever I encountered that one frame, I’d hold up my palm to cover the play window.

I wasn’t alive when JFK was alive. I didn’t know or love him the way so many Americans did. But after repeatedly watching the footage of him being shot, I realized I wasn’t just reacting to frame 313. What really burrowed into me was the haunting image of his wife crawling across the back of the car for help. And what I felt turned from shock and revulsion to plain old grief; that consuming, inescapable ache of wanting to reverse what has happened, but knowing that you can’t.

Click here for an extended look at the film and how Richard Stolley acquired the rights for LIFE. 

9 comments
john_rambo
john_rambo

She was crawling on the back of the car to pick up a piece of his skull.

ddavel544
ddavel544

There is more than enough ample evidence proving this assassination was NOT the work of just one man! Special Agent in charge, Emory Roberts, deliberately waved off the two secret service body guards away from the Presidents limo to provide the real shooters a clear shot. This is seen in the following video link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01M8LFTAVQI
'JFK Assassination - Secret Service call off and Headshot Angles'

Maxwells
Maxwells

Another disturbing aspect is what Jackie was trying to do, and it wasn't escape as some has claimed.

AlMitchell
AlMitchell

It's the same sentiment that kept publishers and media from reproducing "The Falling Man" photo after 9/11.  Some images capture such a deep and visceral shock.  A book that is out of print but is a good source for such photos is "The Instant It Happened".

jbchittick
jbchittick

This Valerie reporter does not know her material. Mrs. Kennedy was reaching for a large piece of the President's skull and brain that was blasted back onto the car trunk. As soon as she recovered it, she went back to her husband and tried to place it over  the large exit wound at the back of his head. She was not "crawling across the back of the car for help". The Secret Service Agent wanted to protect the couple.


RobertMorrow
RobertMorrow

If you want to get quickly “up to speed” on the JFK assassination, here is what to read:

1) LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination by Phillip Nelson

2) The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ by Roger Stone

3) JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters by James Douglass

4) Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot

5) The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh

6) Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty by Russ Baker

7) Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson by Jablow Hershman

8) Operation Cyanide: Why the Bombing of the USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III by Peter Hounam (LBJ engineered the attack on the USS Liberty)

9) Inside the Assassinations Records Review Board Volume 5, by Doug Horne

10) Watch "The Men Who Killed Kennedy - the Guilty Men - episode 9" at YouTube -

best video ever on the JFK assassination; covers well Lyndon Johnson's role

11) Google the essay “LBJ-CIA Assassination of JFK” by Robert Morrow

11) Google “National Security State and the Assassination of JFK by Andrew Gavin Marshall.”

12) Google “Chip Tatum Pegasus.” Intimidation of Ross Perot 1992

13) Google “Vincent Salandria False Mystery Speech.” Read every book & essay Vincent Salandria ever wrote.

14) Google "Unanswered Questions as Obama Annoints HW Bush" by Russ Baker

folksteady1
folksteady1

The little-known, but most important clue to the JFK assassination can be found by searching Youtube for "Folksteady."


Hans-JoachimMarseille
Hans-JoachimMarseille

@ddavel544I'll simply counter that nonsense with suggesting a visit to the John McAdams website about the Kennedy Assassination. No, I will not provide a link.... use your critical thinking skills and figure it out.

donsutherland
donsutherland

@RobertMorrow Where can i get the best deals on tin foil hats???  Please, read Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History and stay in the real world....not conspiratorial nonsense.