What is the most influential film of all time?
If you trust the 846 cinema experts polled by film magazine Sight & Sound magazine, you might pick Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo—which won the periodical’s most recent vote for the best movie of all time. Old-school purists might still choose Citizen Kane, runner-up in that poll, for its cinematic virtuosity and denunciation of overreaching American ambition. Other obvious candidates include The Godfather, which held the top spot in a recent list compiled by the staff of The Hollywood Reporter, or The Wizard of Oz, which leads the ranking of influential aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
Or, if you prefer to let money do the talking, you will select Avatar, which generated a stunning $2.8 billion in box office receipts. Or you can follow the lead of ABC, which recently picked Star Wars as the most influential American film. If you are uncomfortable with Hollywood’s dominance of this list, you can always champion Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game or Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Those are all fine movies, but my pick for the most influential film is a different one—and has nothing in common with any of these cinema classics. In fact, my choice is an amateur movie made with a handheld camera. This film only lasts 26.6 seconds.
Abraham Zapruder, who worked across the street from the Texas Book Depository building in Dallas, had not even brought his Bell & Howell camera to work on Nov. 22, 1963. He had decided against filming President Kennedy’s motorcade because of rainy weather that morning. But the skies cleared, and his assistant encouraged Zapruder to return home and bring back his high-end home camera.
This spur-of-the-moment decision allowed Zapruder to capture the only footage of President Kennedy’s assassination that offers a clear view of the event. Indeed, Zapruder’s choice of location was uncanny. When the first bullet hit the motorcade, the presidential limousine was almost exactly in front of Zapruder’s position. He had the ideal vantage point to witness—and document—one of the most tragic events of modern American history.
For these reasons alone, the Zapruder footage has earned its place in cinematic history. But its influence extends beyond the film’s role in documenting the Kennedy assassination, or its notoriety as evidence for both the Warren Commission and generations of conspiracy theorists. The Zapruder footage also anticipated the viral news videos of the current day. Nowadays bystanders around the world follow in Zapruder’s footsteps by capturing breaking news stories with a handheld device even before the professional journalists show up. In addition, the Zapruder film broke through taboos and conventions dictating what is appropriate for audiences to see.
At the time of the Zapruder film, the Production Code that regulated Hollywood movies prohibited the depiction of blood during a gunshot scene. If you look at old Hollywood gangster films, you will find the camera focusing on bullets hitting walls, furniture, windshields and other objects, but rarely do you see their impact on soft tissue. The Code didn’t specifically prohibit the depiction of a bullet hitting a human body, but directors rarely tested this loophole. Certainly the kind of stomach-churning moment of violence captured by Zapruder could never have been shown in movie theaters at the time of the Kennedy assassination.
And this victim wasn’t a Hollywood actor playing a role, but one of the most beloved world leaders of the 20th century. Almost as horrifying as the damage inflicted by the bullet is the sight of the first lady crawling on to the back of the limousine convertible immediately after the shot, perhaps in an attempt to escape, or help a Secret Service agent climb into the car, or—most disturbing hypothesis of all—to grab for part of her husband’s head before it falls away into the street.
How could news networks put this footage on television? CBS News was fortunately exempted from having to make that decision. Despite the network’s determination to get the film from Zapruder, CBS lost a bidding war to Life magazine, which paid $150,000 for the film. As a result, the world’s first introduction to the Zapruder film came in the form of frame-by-frame photographic images. These appeared in the Nov. 29, 1963, issue of the magazine, originally in black-and-white, but Life published color images a week later. The only accommodation to the public’s sensibilities was the omission of a single frame—the one (frame 313) that documented the moment of impact.
For a while, few people were allowed to see the film in its entirety. Author Don DeLillo notes that this footage “was sold and hoarded and doled out very selectively.” Yet the images were emblazoned in the minds of the public—even before the entire film was broadcast on television in 1970, people had already assimilated its horrific perspective. We all viewed the president’s shooting from the standpoint of Zapruder’s lens. I’m hardly surprised that director Oliver Stone incorporated the actual Zapruder footage into his 1991 film JFK. Although his movie played fast and loose with historical facts, Stone realized that our perceptions of the assassination were inseparable from the images captured by an amateur videographer back in 1963.
Can it be mere chance that Hollywood taboos of on-screen violence collapsed in the aftermath of the Zapruder film? Over the next several years, Hollywood directors pushed for greater realism in the depiction of gunshots and other violent encounters. Arthur Penn’s film Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—by coincidence, filmed in and around Dallas, not far from where Zapruder made his movie—changed the rules on what you could show in a cinematic shot-out. The following year, Hollywood scrapped the Production Code that had set rules for onscreen violence since the ’30s, and replaced it with a rating system.
But by then, the public’s tolerance for violent images had been changed permanently. The graphic coverage of the Kennedy assassination—and the live transmission of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald a few hours later—had set the tone for journalistic reporting on the Vietnam War. Violence was no longer hidden from public view, but highlighted and promulgated as part of the dominant cultural memes of the day.
And did this desensitization spur reciprocal violence among those exposed to these images? Shortly after the Kennedy assassination, two high-profile mass murders horrified the public—and each had a Texas connection. Perhaps the most eerie is the case of “Texas Tower” sniper Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people and wounded 32 others at the University of Texas at Austin in August 1966. This was the first campus massacre by a crazed shooter, but hardly the last. And just two weeks before Whitman’s assault, Richard Speck had made headlines when he killed eight student nurses in Chicago. I note that Speck had just moved from Dallas where he had lived for most of his life. These were the two most prominent mass murders in America during the middle decades of the 20th century. Both happened just a few months after the Kennedy assassination, and each was perpetrated by a young male with Texas ties from the same generation as Oswald.
Of course, any high-profile crime can produce copycat responses. But we’ve learned in recent years that intensive media coverage of a shooting adds to the risk. Certainly the Zapruder film played a key role in turning this tragic event into a platform for viral images. And were there copycats? I note that no high-profile political assassination had taken place in the U.S. during the two decades before the JFK shooting, but in the following two decades they were frequent news events—with Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Gerald Ford (twice), George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan finding themselves as targets for unhinged shooters.
Perhaps all of these calamities would have ensued even without the Kennedy assassination, and Abraham Zapruder on hand to document it. But when I try to pinpoint a turning point in our attitudes toward violence—whether on film, in journalism, or in real life—I keep going back to Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. Everything changed in the aftermath of that moment—captured in frame 313 of Zapruder’s home movie.
And even today, when events such as the Paris terrorist shootings take place, we are living in a world in which almost any one of us might be called upon to be an Abraham Zapruder, documenting and sharing world-shaking news and blurring the line between journalist and participant. Even Citizen Kane and The Godfather, for all their merits, can’t claim that distinction.