When Abraham Zapruder aimed the telephoto lens of his Bell & Howell home movie camera, he hoped to capture something to show his grandchildren. Instead, he gave the nation a visceral close-up of one of its most horrific moments.
For years, conspiracy theorists have played and replayed bootleg copies of Zapruder's 26-second film of Kennedy's assassination. Now anyone can buy a digitally enhanced videotape for $19.98 at a local video store and watch the murder at home.
Some suggest Zapruder's family and the video producer are trying to profit from the crime. But the family wants the film to be available to historians and others who frequently request access, and they also hope to recoup the estimated $350,000 cost of enhancing and preserving the film, said James Silverberg, the family attorney.
The 45-minute video, called Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film, consists of a 40-minute preamble and six separate showings of President Kennedy's head exploding when hit by a bullet.
Among tourists visiting Dallas' Dealey Plaza, the Zapruder film still provokes strong reactions.
"I don't think it should go on sale, just out of respect and consideration for [Kennedy's] family," said Pamela Tate of Glenwood Springs, Colo., visiting the scene of the crime for the first time Sunday. "It kind of cheapens the situation."
Dale Strickland of Los Angeles, standing about 100 feet from where Kennedy was shot, said the film should be made public.
"I'm kind of surprised it's taken this long to become available," Strickland said. "I don't know that it really tells you anything, but how can you restrict something like that from the public, with what we believe about the dissemination of information?"
After Zapruder made the film on Nov. 22, 1963, Life magazine bought rights to the footage for $50,000. ABC's Goodnight America first showed the film on television in 1975, and bootleg copies have abounded.
The original copy of the film sits in a gray, metal file cabinet at the National Archives, in a room kept at a frigid 25 degrees to preserve the celluloid.
Last year, the federal Assassination Records Review Board declared that the American public owns the film. The government and the Zapruder family are negotiating payment. The government has offered $3 million, and the Zapruders have asked for $18 million.
Robert Groden sells his own assassination books and videos from a spot near the infamous Grassy Knoll, from where some believe a second gunman shot Kennedy. The official explanation is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, shooting the president from the Texas School Book Depository.
Groden, who previewed the new video for Dealey Plaza visitors n a television set atop a garbage can, said the picture is improved over earlier versions.
"The clarity and the sharpness are absolutely exquisite," Groden said, just as Kennedy's skull was ripped open by a rifle shot. A woman in the crowd gasped and hurried away.
Despite being "gruesome, shocking and vulgar," it's probably the most important film clip in the nation's history, said Waleed Ali, executive producer for MPI Home Video of Orland Park, Ill., which made the video.
"Parents should be cautious about showing it to children under the age of 11 because it is disturbing, but this needs to be out in the hands of the people," he said.
Written by David Koenig