What Does the Zapruder Film Really Tell Us?

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris deconstructs the most famous 26 seconds in film history

One frame of the Zapruder film has long been considered too graphic for public view. (Zapruder Film © 1967 (Renewed 1995) The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)
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Umbrella Man consists of Morris talking with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, one of the first and most respected of Warren Commission critics. Thompson has had an extraordinary, colorful career. I met him when he was my freshman philosophy professor at Yale and he was working on The Lonely Labyrinth, his landmark analysis of the gloomy Danish anti-rationalist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. But after the release of the Warren Commission report, Thompson turned his incisive intellect to the question of ballistics and its relation to the Zapruder film.

“The Zapruder film serves as a clock,” Morris points out. One can measure the time it took for the three assassination shots (one missed) to be fired—which the Warren Commission concluded was slightly under six seconds—and then calculate how long a single shooter would take to shoot, reload, resight, shoot again, reload, resight and shoot again. Thompson concluded that Oswald wouldn’t have had the time to get off all three shots himself and—after working with Life’s copy of the Zapruder film—he published his findings in Six Seconds in Dallas, one of the first strictly forensic books critical of the Warren Commission, a book even Bugliosi speaks respectfully of, though he disagrees with it.

Morris recalled for me the dramatic moment in the course of the nearly seven hours he spent interviewing Thompson on camera when the former professor handed him a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle identical to the one Oswald was alleged to have used, and demonstrated the slow and complicated process of reloading and resighting that Oswald would have had to have undertaken to get off three shots in six seconds.

Thompson eventually became so intrigued by unsolved mysteries that he left a comfy job in academia behind to become a private eye (his memoir is called Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye). He has spent the last 37 years working, often successfully, for defense lawyers in tough cases.

“So here is Tink,” Morris says, taking us back to Thompson’s Life magazine days, “hunkered down over the Zapruder film looking at it frame by frame by frame. And he notices there is a man, a bystander among the crowds waiting for the Kennedy motorcade—and he’s holding an umbrella. And indeed he looks really out of place.”

“Because the sun is shining.”

“The sun is shining. As I say to Tink, in my film, ‘it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood,’” Morris says in a wry Mister Rogers imitation.

“And the Umbrella Man became an icon of conspiracy theorists?” I ask. “They believe that when he raised the umbrella it was a signal for the assassins?”

“As in all of these theories, there are multiple versions, there are variants. There’s the version where the umbrella was a signal to the co-conspirators. There’s another version where the Umbrella Man himself is one of the assassins...with the umbrella.”

“A weaponized umbrella?”

“A covert weapon capable of firing—I’m not sure where this word came from but Tink uses it—a fléchette. I don’t even know what a fléchette is.”

“Well, you know, there was a famous assassination in London where a Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was supposedly assassinated by the KGB with a poison fléchette triggered by...” I was going to say “by an umbrella” when Morris interrupts impatiently.

“What is a fléchette?”


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