JFK in Film and TV

It’s always interesting to see how film makers present historical figures to their audience. John Kennedy a was good looking and charismatic American leader and after watching the TV mini series Kennedy I thought I’d take a closer look at how JFK has been portrayed in film and TV.

Kennedy

Strolling through St Annes not long ago I dropped Liz off at the hairdressers and wandered into a nearby shop that sells secondhand books, DVDs and CDs. It was there I spotted the DVD of a mini series from the 80’s called simply Kennedy with Martin Sheen playing the part of John F Kennedy. The DVD box set had been on my shelf for a while until one cold and wet evening when I thought it was time to pour a small port and settle down to watch it.

The first episode opens on election day revealing the Kennedys at their compound in Massachusetts with Bobby and Ted and their volunteers manning the phones trying to get the latest info in from the election count. The series goes on to follow the Kennedy administration through various issues including civil rights, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, problems with US Steel, the Cuban Missile crisis and finishes with the President’s death in Dallas.

Sheen captures the president’s clipped Boston accent pretty well and Blair Brown who plays Jackie has an uncanny likeness to Jackie herself, especially when she dons the First Lady’s pink suit for the trip to Dallas. Nothing controversial is included although the film does show how J Edgar Hoover kept close tabs on Kennedy’s private life and how Bobby apparently made many efforts to keep the President from compromising himself.

This series had me hooked from the beginning and I could feel the excitement the Kennedy team felt themselves when they knew that JFK had won the election.

Martin Sheen was much shorter than the real JFK and that brought to mind the closing lines from William Manchester’s book Death of a President. One of the Dallas doctors who fought to save Kennedy looked at his lifeless body and thought what a big man the President was, bigger than he had previously thought. Yes, says Manchester, the President was indeed a big man.

JFK

After watching the mini-series over a couple of days I thought that I’d settle down to watch the Oliver Stone movie JFK. Oliver Stone’s film focuses on Kennedy’s death rather than his life. It follows the investigation of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison and his attempt to investigate the assassination. Kevin Costner plays Garrison and the film opens with the shooting in Dallas and Garrison watching the events unfold on TV. Stone uses the Garrison investigation as a framework on which to hang various theories, the main one being that the ‘military industrial complex’ was responsible. The film is well put together and expertly combines archive film with new footage as well as different film types, 16mm and 35mm, black and white and colour as well as square and wide screen film.

The centre of the Garrison investigation is New Orleans where Oswald visited and the various contacts he had there including David Ferrie, a strange individual active in the anti-Castro community who had lost his hair and wore a wig and Guy Bannister, an ex-FBI agent who ran a private investigation business. Located in the same building as Bannister’s office was one used by Lee Oswald for his fake Pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba committee.

Jim Garrison himself has a small role as Earl Warren, the chairman of the Warren Commission which investigated the murder at the behest of President Johnson.

The finale of the film involves the showing of the 16mm film of the assassination, shot by Abraham Zapruder, to the jury. Garrison tried to show that local businessman Clay Shaw was part of the conspiracy but failed.

I’ve always found the film totally engrossing but it proved to be controversial, however the film did lead to the JFK Assassinations Records Act which enabled the release of the remaining assassination documents held by the US government.

Even if you don’t have a conspiracy theory or even a viewpoint about the death of JFK this is a powerful and interesting film and well worth watching.

PT 109

PT 109 is an account of John Kennedy’s time as commander of a Patrol Torpedo Boat in World War II.  The young Kennedy was enrolled in the US Navy and was sent to the Solomon Islands to take over his command. He had suffered for a long time with a bad back and had to get his father Joe to use his influence to get him into the war. Kennedy completed his training in 1942 and after a short period as an instructor, he was finally assigned to PT Boat 109.

While on patrol one night PT 109 was hit by a Japanese destroyer which cut the torpedo boat in two. Two crew members were killed but Kennedy led his remaining crew, including one severely burned man, on a long swim to Plum Pudding Island. It took the crew four hours to swim the 3.5 miles to the island and Kennedy himself had to tow the injured man by clenching a strap in his teeth.

Later when help had still not arrived, JFK had to take his crew on second swim to another island where they met a native who took a message carved on a coconut shell to the Allied forces and they were eventually rescued.

Kennedy was played by Cliff Robertson whose casting was personally approved by President Kennedy and the film was released in the summer of 1963. I saw the film on TV a few years ago and I’d have to agree with those who weren’t overly impressed by it.

In real life the Kennedy brothers were highly competitive and Joe Kennedy junior, after hearing of his younger brother’s exploits in PT Boats, volunteered for a dangerous mission which led to his death in England flying an aircraft filled with explosives.

Thirteen Days

Thirteen Days was a 2000 film about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and stars Bruce Greenwood as John F Kennedy. In 1962 U2 flights over Cuba doing photo reconnaissance, spotted the build up of missiles sent to the area by the Soviet Union. Kennedy created an executive committee to deal with the emergency and the meetings were recorded. The film was based on the 1997 book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow so it was therefore pretty accurate. The odd thing about the film is that the star is not the JFK character played by Greenwood but Kennedy’s assistant Ken O’Donnell played by Kevin Costner and the film seems to be saying that it was O’Donnell who motivated the President and saved the day and not the President himself, which was clearly not the case.

Many in the military wanted a full-scale invasion of Cuba but Kennedy himself hung on for a diplomatic solution.

Bruce Greenwood didn’t do it for me as JFK but Thirteen Days is an interesting film and well worth watching but I feel I got a better sense of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the TV series Kennedy.

Documentary

Having watched all this about John F Kennedy, I thought it might be time to take a look at the real JFK. In my VHS collection I have quite a few documentaries about him, some date back to the 1960’s and on the 25th anniversary of his death in 1987, many of these films were shown on television and I recorded a lot of them on my very expensive video recorder. One was called Crisis which looked at how the President handled the civil rights issue in the USA. Another was about the election of 1960 including Kennedy’s selection as the Democratic candidate. He competed in the primaries against Hubert Humphrey and when Kennedy utilised his entire family, brothers, sister and his mother, Humphrey complained that he wasn’t just fighting one man but an entire family. The film shows Kennedy at an election meeting with his family all shaking hands and smiling to the public.

One last film I watched was in Channel Four’s Secret Lives season. This episode from 1997 was written and directed by Mark Obenhaus and based, I think, on research by Seymour Hersh who afterwards published The Dark Side of Camelot. It showed former secret service agents talking about Kennedy’s affairs and numerous liaisons with prostitutes. The agents were forced to explain away the women as ‘secretaries’ to those around them who were not in the know. They also talked about Kennedy’s meetings with a man they nicknamed Doctor Feelgood, Max Jacobson, who was apparently treating JFK with amphetamines. In later years after the death of JFK, Jacobson lost his license.

Of course, in this short blog post I cannot hope to get close to the real character of JFK. To journalist Hugh Sidey he talked about the aristocrats of Victorian England who defended the principles of law and democracy on a weekday but retired to their country mansions at the weekend for wife swapping parties and other hedonistic diversions. Sidey explained that after Kennedy told him that, he felt he finally understood the real character of the President.

Whatever he did in his private life, as president, John Kennedy averted a nuclear war and spoke what I think were some of the most memorable phrases ever spoken by any politician. Let me leave you then with these words, delivered at the American University in 1963, a matter of months before his death. Talking about the Soviet Union he said:

So, let us not be blind to our differences but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.


As usual I’ve tried to find video links that do not start with an advertisement although it isn’t always possible.

For the full text of JFK’s American University speech, click here.


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An Airliner, An IRA Bomb, and John F Kennedy

It’s a wonderful summer in the UK and school holidays have started so a lot of people will be wanting to fly away for their summer break. Wherever people are going though, they must be eager to avoid the Ukraine. I’ve not seen the news much lately and like many people I’m struggling to understand what happened. Why shoot down a commercial airliner? Was it a mistake? Did somebody think it was a military flight? Who did shoot the plane down and what will be done about it?

Things like this, needless death and destruction, are deeply upsetting. I remember years ago watching the New York Twin Towers terrorist attacks, 9/11 as it is now known, unfold before me on television and I’d forgotten really just how shocking it was until I picked up a DVD of Oliver Stone’s film World Trade Centre recently. I bought it at a car boot sale and watched it one night after a late shift and the scenes of people glued to their TV sets reminded me of myself, back in 2001, unable to move away from the TV screen.

Courtesy wikipedia

Courtesy wikipedia

One sad aspect of these atrocities, particularly the 9/11 attack in New York was that they are based on religious hatred, More than that, they are based on mistaken religious hatred because as far as I know neither the Koran nor the Bible incite murder or hatred. The Bible asks us to love our enemies, not so easy in the case of Osama Bin Ladin I admit but hopefully, in the next world the Almighty will grant his soul the compassion and understanding for others which he did not possess in this world.

A long time ago I used to have a small shop in the Corn Exchange in Manchester. It was called Armchair Motorsports and I used to sell all sorts of Motorsport memorabilia. When things weren’t doing too well I accepted an offer from a guy I knew in a similar business and sold up. He didn’t use my unit at the Corn Exchange, as it was only rented and anyway, he had his own premises. Just as well because some time later the IRA planted a bomb outside and blew the building up. The thing is, what I thought to be something of a blow was in fact a good thing. If I hadn’t sold the business I could have been going to work that day and been injured or even killed. Tragedy, world tragedy, sometimes makes you look at your own life and think just how lucky you are compared to some.

For you regular readers, you will know how I like to tie up my blogs with something faintly amusing at the end but this subject is a tough one in which to inject some humour so I thought rather than go down that route and fail dismally I’d finish with a few thoughtful and sober words from President Kennedy. Words spoken by him in a speech he gave shortly before his death and words which I think are important to this day.

Kennedy was looking for something with which to bring the Americans and the Soviet peoples together, to find some common ground, not an easy task in the cold war period. This is what he said and I think there is something here for everyone, whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Ukrainian Separatist or just an ordinary guy like me.

“So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

The Assassination of John F Kennedy

Dealey Plaza The 22nd of November 2013 was the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most shocking events of the twentieth century, the assassination of President John F Kennedy. I personally expected a deluge of TV documentaries about the assassination but in fact on UK TV there really weren’t that many. A re-showing of the Oliver Stone movie, JFK. A documentary about media response to the assassination which was really the media looking at themselves. But that was really it, there were no probing or investigative programmes, perhaps in 2013 it was far too late for that.

In 1988, twenty-five years after John Kennedy’s death, a veritable wave of documentaries were broadcast on British television, including a rare showing on channel four of the 1966 film of Mark Lane’s ‘Rush to Judgement’. On ITV a documentary by producer Nigel Turner called ‘The Men who Killed Kennedy’ was aired, claiming fantastically that assassins from the French underworld killed the President. That particular film, which had its merits despite its incredible conclusions, was similar to many other films, books, and articles, in that they all challenged the establishment view, framed in the report of the Warren Commission, that the lone killer was a man called Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1995, BBC TV’s ‘Timewatch’ gave us a view of Oswald that brought us full circle. Heavily influenced by the book ‘Case Closed’ by Gerald Posner, the film said look, Oswald really did it after all.  So, have you had your fill of conspiracy theories? Have you heard enough of CIA plots and Watergate and Iran-Contra? Enough of the ‘grassy knoll’, the Book Depository, and Dealey Plaza? Has perhaps our interest in the fate of President Kennedy been diminished by revelations of the apparently numerous indiscretions in his private life?

Whatever the truth of John Kennedy’s private life, his graphic death was the cataclysm of our age, imprinted on the minds of a generation by the flickering incarnation of amateur cine film. For many the case is not closed and has never been even remotely resolved despite two official investigations, the last of which -by the House Select Committee on Assassinations- concluded, ambiguously, that the President was killed “probably” by the result of a conspiracy.

So what are the facts of the assassination? Perhaps the only undisputed fact to emerge from the tragedy was that John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was shot in the head and killed. President Kennedy was hit by rifle fire in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, while riding in an open topped limousine, part of a motorcade that had just turned onto Elm Street by the Texas School Book Depository. Almost every other fact, every statement, every report, every document, every exhibit, every disclosure, is open to question.

Were there three shots or four? Were there more? Was the President shot from behind or from the front? Was he shot from the sixth floor of the book depository or from the so called ‘grassy knoll’?  Did  twenty-four year old ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald fire the shots? Was he alone or were there other assassins? Why did Jack Ruby, a local night club owner subsequently shoot Oswald? Was it to silence him, to stop him from telling what he knew? Did Ruby act out of rage or was he part of a conspiracy? Was he in the pay of the Mafia? Was the CIA involved? The questions are endless, the answers are few.

Image courtesy wikipedia

Image courtesy wikipedia

Lee Oswald was a young man with an extraordinary background.  He was not the ‘lone nut’ as described by the Warren Commission, the investigative body set up by President Johnson to examine the assassination. An ex radar operator at a top-secret US base in Japan, Oswald had spent years in Soviet Russia as a supposed defector. He was known to the FBI and had connections with military intelligence and the CIA. He appeared to be involved in left-wing Cuban politics and supported Fidel Castro. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald shot the President but failed to answer the important question -why? Why should a left-wing activist shoot a liberal minded president who in the words of his critics had gone ‘soft’ on communism and Cuba?

But as we examine the accepted elements of the murder more and more inconsistencies occur. The President was shot at 12.30 pm, but Oswald, who worked at the book depository, was seen by witnesses in the second floor lunch room as late as 12.15, which left him only fifteen minutes to ascend to the sixth floor, produce his rifle and take up position. Of course fifteen minutes might have been enough time for a cool and organised killer, but the President was actually due to arrive at a reception at the Dallas Trade Mart at 12.30, which meant he would pass through Dealey Plaza at about 12.25, giving Oswald only ten minutes to be in place, and he had no way of knowing the President would be late. Immediately after the shooting patrolman Marrion Baker entered the Book Depository, drew his gun and with building superintendent Roy Truly hot on his heels confronted a young man in the lunchroom calmly drinking a coke. Truly explained that this was Lee Oswald, an employee. Had Oswald rushed down from his ‘snipers lair’ on the sixth floor or had he been in the lunch room all the while?

image courtesy wikipedia

image courtesy wikipedia

Perhaps the strongest evidence linking Oswald to the murder was the supposed murder weapon, a 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifle, a World War II vintage carbine found on the sixth floor of the book depository at 1.22 pm, almost an hour after the assassination. The rifle had been purchased mail order by an ‘Alek Hidell’ and sent to Dallas post office box number 2915, rented by Oswald. When arrested, Oswald was carrying an identity card in the name of ‘Hidell’. To this day there is dispute over whether Oswald’s palm print was found on the rifle. All pretty damning you might think, but the officer who first found the rifle, Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman, identified it as a 7.65 mm Mauser, and was confident enough to make a sworn affidavit to that effect.

The day after the shooting, November 23rd, District Attorney Henry Wade also described the weapon as a Mauser at a televised press conference. How then does a 7.65mm Mauser become a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano? I personally know nothing about guns at all but I have seen enough war films to know that a Mauser is German, and stamped clearly on the side of the Mannlicher-Carcano are the words ‘MADE ITALY’ and ‘CAL 6.5’. And surely a police officer, particularly an American policeman, would know what he was talking about concerning guns?

Abraham Zapruder, a local businessman took his cine camera to work that day to film the Presidential parade but what he recorded instead was a Presidential murder. In doing so he contributed arguably the most important piece of evidence in the whole case. His film gave investigators a filmed record and a timetable for the shooting. Examination of the film by FBI experts revealed the time between the first shot to hit the President and the shot that struck his head was 4.8 to 5.6 seconds. It was first thought that there were four shots, one shot hitting Kennedy in the throat, a second completely missing and hitting the kerb, a third hitting Governor Connally also seated in the Presidential car, and a fourth shattering Kennedy’s skull. Given that it takes 2.3 seconds to operate the bolt action rifle, four shots will not fit the time frame for one assassin and one rifle so the Warren Commission came up with the so called ‘magic bullet’ theory, that the second of three shots hit both Kennedy and Connally. This view has been blasted from a number of angles, firstly the bullet itself emerged as almost completely pristine, while one which had passed through the flesh and bone of two human bodies would have been severely deformed. Secondly, in the Zapruder film Governor Connally is seen to turn around as Kennedy is hit then appears to be hit himself as he turns to face front again.

Expert riflemen were called in to test the murder weapon. They were unable to duplicate Oswald’s supposed feat of marksmanship and complained of difficulty operating the rifle’s bolt mechanism and even the trigger. The telescopic sight could not be properly aligned and had to be rebuilt with metal shims added to make it accurate, which means of course that the rifle was tested in a configuration not available to Oswald. Also, test firing was done at still, rather than moving targets. The assassin would also have had to track the President as he passed behind an oak tree, resight his target and then shoot. So did Lee Oswald really do the shooting? What about the shot to the Presidents head which knocked him back and to the left indicating a shot from the right front -the grassy knoll area? And what about the bystanders who rushed up the grassy knoll including a motorcycle patrolman who tried to ride his bike up there? They felt the final shot came from the knoll as did railroad workers on the triple underpass, as did Abraham Zapruder the amateur cine cameraman, as did Mary Woodward of the Dallas Morning News, as did Lee Bowers positioned behind the grassy knoll atop a 14-foot railroad tower, as did many others. So, if other gunmen were involved, who were they? Who paid them? Who organised them? Who stood silently in the wings and watched while the President was killed?

JFK movie poster

JFK movie poster

Oliver Stone’s blockbuster movie from 1991, JFK. was a recreation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation into the murder of the president and before filming had even been completed the US media had begun -if you’ll excuse the pun- to throw stones at Stone. In conclusion the movie offers us the theory that the American ‘military-industrial complex’ was responsible for the crime, the theory running like this; Lyndon Johnson took over the reins of the presidency following JFK’s death. He continued with Kennedy’s cabinet and Kennedy’s policies, all except one -Vietnam.

Not wishing to become embroiled in a guerrilla war in south-east Asia Kennedy had already ordered home from Vietnam one thousand troops. Johnson reversed that decision and thus began the disastrous American adventure that was the Vietnam War. Extreme right-wing elements opposed to John Kennedy’s policies of peace ‘removed’ Kennedy in favour of Johnson. Sound fantastic? To be fair to JFK, everything presented as fact was factual, and everything that was conjecture was presented as such, but the real life investigation by Jim Garrison concluded that the CIA were the real culprits.

After the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by Cuban exile brigades during which the CIA had attempted to force Kennedy into committing American troops into the assault, Kennedy had vowed to splinter the CIA into “a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds”. The CIA had become almost autonomous from the elected government, pursuing its own policies around the globe. It had developed a capability -revealed during the 1970’s in senate hearings- known as ‘executive action’, a capability of political assassination. The ‘company’ as the CIA calls itself, was involved with mafia hoodlums to murder Fidel Castro. Castro is alive and well today, but did the CIA collude with the mafia to murder its own commander-in-chief, the President of the United States?

Jim Garrison’s investigation came to nothing but in 1991 lawyer, writer, and JFK investigator Mark Lane was involved as defence attorney in a libel case instigated by CIA man and ex Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. The hub of the case was a newspaper article claiming Hunt was in Dallas on the day of the President’s murder. Hunt denied this, claiming to be in Washington at the time. In court Lane introduced testimony that indeed placed Hunt as part of a CIA team in Dallas on the day in question. Leslie Armstrong, forewoman of the jury said afterwards “Mr Lane was asking us to do something very difficult -he was asking us to believe that John Kennedy had been killed by our own government. Yet, when we examined the evidence, we were compelled to conclude that the CIA had indeed killed President Kennedy!”

A shocking and significant breakthrough in the JFK murder you might think? Leslie Armstrong went on to call for action to be taken by the proper authorities in the government. Nothing was done. The US Justice Department did not stir, nor has any other organ of the forces of law and order in the United States. The US media continues to ignore the countless revelations that have appeared in the years since John F Kennedy was killed, yet conspiracy theories are abundant in Europe and the UK. Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals have shown us the dark underbelly of the American establishment, could it be that some secret influence is at work, hidden from public perception, preventing serious examination of the crime of the century?

President Obama has recently been elected to another four years in office, and in accordance with US law they will constitute his last term. Obama’s presidency has been largely unremarkable but he still has a chance to offer something significant to his fellow Americans and to the world. He can appoint a special prosecutor and special investigators and direct the CIA and FBI to answer pertinent questions. Not about how many shots, or from what direction, or any of the other thousand and one questions regarding the minutiae of the assassination but who was responsible? Who gave the orders? Who really killed President Kennedy? Still, perhaps even that would be fifty years too late.

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