Five decades after shots rang out from the Texas Book Depository, the US on Friday will honour President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination is often said to mark the death of American innocence.
Kennedy was the fourth US president to be killed in office, but the first whose death was caught on film and replayed repeatedly to a shocked nation.
An acclaimed orator and the first president of the television age, his death part-way through his first term at the age of 46 froze him in time as a great symbol of promise never realised.
As the world pauses to mark the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy, now is the time to reflect on some of the films that either reference the assassination, or have an intriguing connection to the events in Dallas 1963.
WAR IS HELL (1963)
The film that was screening in the Texas Theatre when Oswald was arrested. It was part of a double feature that afternoon with Van Heflin’s Cry of Battle. Oswald had sneaked into the theatre after shooting dead Officer Tippit several streets away, but was spotted by nearby shoe store owner John Brewer who alerted police to his suspicious activities. As the police arrested Oswald in the theatre he muttered ‘Well, it is all over now.’ At that moment on the screen appeared actor Baynes Barron, who was born the same day as JFK. May 29 1917. The Texas Theatre will re-screen WAR IS HELL exactly 50 years on ‘in honor of the theatre’s employees and others who played a role in the assassin’s arrest.’ (The Arkansas Gazette) Admission prices will reflect those of 1963. 90 cents.
Made nine years before the JFK assassination, it had widely been cited as a film Lee Harvey Oswald had viewed in the lead up to the events in Dallas. Directed by Lewis Allen – it is a terrific 75 minute thriller about an assassin, played by Frank Sinatra, who takes hostages in a family house that overlooks the train route of the visiting President. Further research in the subsequent years cast doubt on whether Oswald had view this film. It is now commonly accepted that he had instead viewed We We Strangers, in October of 1962 – a film about overthrowing the Cuban government.
The Tall Target (1951)
Made in 1951, it is the story of an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln at a train stop. The strange connection to the future JFK assassination is that the man who attempts to foil Lincoln’s assassination is a discredited detective played by Dick Powell. His character name … John Kennedy.
Executive Action (1973)
A formidable film with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, that was released in cinemas 10 years after the JFK assassination. Documentary-style look at those who are conspiring to kill JFK. The film starred Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Ryan died later that year. The film created controversy with its contesting of aspects of the Warren Commission report. It led to a short cinema run in America and in some cases the complete refusal to screen the trailer on television. Its trailer was explosive, the voiceover proclaiming “At this point in time can you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F Kennedy by himself? Don’t make your decision until you see Executive Action.”
The first film to show the majority of the famous Zapruder film. The fatal headshot is repeated, in close up, as Kevin Costner (as District Attorney Jim Garrison) repeats the phrase ‘back and to the left’ five times. Oliver Stone’s three hour+ film gathered 8 Oscar nominations, winning for Best Cinematography and Best Editing. The film included a cameo appearance by Jim Garrison himself, portraying Earl Warren, after whom the Commission’s report is named.
The most recent entry into the JFK canon of films – Parkland takes its name from the hospital where JFK was pronounced dead. (It was also where Lee Harvey Oswald and his killer, Jack Ruby, were pronounced dead) Parkland attempts to intertwine multiple stories from the unforgettable week of 1963; the FBI’s handling of the case, Oswald’s family reaction to his arrest, the Parkland Hospital staff’s valiant attempts to save the President’s life, Zapruder’s psychological scarring from his famous home movie. Running at 93 minutes, Parkland feels like we are experiencing Nov 22 – Nov 25 1963 in fast forward, never digging deep enough for an emotional connection. Stars Jacki Weaver as Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden and Zac Efron.
Rhett Bartlett is an acclaimed film writer based in Melbourne.