A Nightmare on Elm Street
A friend of mine just returned from a business trip that eventually took him to the southwest. Circumstances took him to Dallas, and he found himself driving through the city one day when he suddenly realized that the land just on the other side of a railway trestle he was driving toward was Dealey Plaza. He pulled on the steering wheel and parked. Being as much a JFK assassination buff as I am, he had to see the place in person.
Phillip got out of the car and walked around. His first reaction was, "How small this place is!" Dealey Plaza turned out to be about an acre's worth of territory. Talking with a vendor selling his own self-published Kennedy assassination book from a booth in the Plaza, he learned that his reaction to the tinyness of Dealey Plaza is in fact the most common reaction to the size of arguably one of the most importation historic sites of the 20th Century, where the American Nightmare began and when faith in government had its roots. Phillip says that you can walk out into the middle of Elm street and position your skull in the exact spot where Kennedy was hit.
I plan to find out for myself. Next November, I am going down to Dallas with Phillip to see for myself, and stand in Dealey Plaza on the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination.
Why is the Kennedy assassination such an enduring mystery? Why are the majority of Americans still unconvinced by the Warren Report? Why are some people (such as myself) prone to obsessive brooding on the subject and reviewing of the material? You've seen these types of people in Woody Allen and Brian DePalma movies, and in Slacker. Asocial, stunted people who speculate on the case to the exclusion of all else. Well, believe it or now, their number seems to be decreasing. In the past five years or more there have been a great many pro-Warren Commission books, and very few conspiracy theory books. Gerald Posner's is the leader, but there have been many others, by Thomas Mallon, Jim Moore, and Gus Russo, among many others.
But the conspiracy buff still has his toys. Coupled with Image of an Assassination, a disc about the Zapruder film and its history, and Oliver Stone's JFK, the BBC doc The Men Who Killed Kennedy is an orgy of Kennedy buffdom.
The key plot points and mysteries are many and thoroughly examined in this set's five hours. Where did the shots come from? Who was Oswald? Why was Tippit shot and did his death have anything to do with the Kennedy shooting? What, if anything, happened to Kennedy's body in transit from Dallas to Washington, D.C.? Why was Oswald shot? Who was Jack Ruby? What is the Cuba connection, if any? What is the New Orleans connection, if any?
Produced for British television in 1988, and picked up by the A&E channel, Nigel Turner's film does not adhere to the equal time provisions of American television networks. It is a brief on behalf of conspiracy. Narrated by Hilary Minster, it's credited senior consultants are Robert Groden and Gary Mack, well known in the conspiracy research world.
Disc One, Episode One: The Coup d'Etat The first episode starts out with the events of November 22, 1963. Dr. Robert McClelland and Dr Paul Peters, doctors at Parkland hospital, and Aubrey Rike, the ambulance driver, are interviewed as the first to see the body of Kennedy after he was shot. The episode also spends a lot of time on the changes found in Kennedy's head between Dallas and Washington, changes allegedly designed to prevent an examination of Kennedy's wounds and the possible bullet routes. Dr. Cyril Wecht, an articulate forensic pathologist, expresses outrage at this, and Harold Weisberg, a prominent early critic, also pipes in. The show also chronicles the attempts to stop Dallas from continuing to investigate, orders coming right from President Johnson. Then there is Beverly Oliver. This woman breaks her silence of 25 years (she is also the basis for a character in JFK). A singer in the Colony Club next to Ruby's Carousel Club, she was also in Dealey Plaza that day. This is a remarkable coincidence, and her stories have been disputed. She had a dancer friend named Jada, and through her Oliver met Ruby with Oswald one night two weeks before the assassination. Jada gave an interview to the media right after the killing, and Oliver tells the viewer that Jada is now dead. Another witness who worked for the police department reveals that Jack Ruby called the police department the night before with a warning that if the cops didn't change the Oswald route for transfer the next day, "we are going to kill him." This episode concludes with a brief discussion of Mary Anne Moreman's famous photo, an image the producers suggest can solve the case.
Disc One, Episode Two: The Forces of Darkness Beverly Oliver returns, telling us that she saw the man who killed Kennedy. In Dealey Plaza, she was the famous babushka lady, unidentified until the late '80s. She was standing next to Moreman, and is seen from the rear in the Nix film. She had a camera too, and her film was seized. Meanwhile, photo analysts Jack White and Gary Mack found the famous Badgeman in the Moorman image through photo enhancement. To them, their work confirms the story of one Gordon Arnold, a young soldier who was in Dealey Plaza, and who may have been chased off by members of the assassination team. Up on the knoll in front of the fence, he may also have felt a bullet buzz past his left ear. Like Oliver's film, Arnold's film was also seized. Mack and White's work on the Moorman picture confirms that Arnold was on the scene. The producers spring a colorized version of the photo enhancement on Arnold who then reveals that if he had know about this image earlier in the day, an image that suggests to Arnold that he talked to the men who killed Kennedy, he wouldn't have given an interview. Ed Hoffman is also interviewed for the first time. He saw the men whom Arnold also saw, packing up and leaving. Over 50 witnesses said that the shots came from the fence. This is all fascinating stuff, despite the fact that some may not be able to get their mind around the possibility that White and Mack are reading images into their colorized photo enlargement.
At this point, episode two amazingly takes the show on a sudden leap. Writer Steve Rivele is introduced. He worked on the Kennedy case for three years. His conclusions, recounted in a book called The Men Who Shot Kennedy, which I've never seen, posit that a man named Christian David, a drug trafficker and intelligence agent, knew the names of the killers. In return for help in finding an attorney to help David escape being deportation to France, he revealed some info about the assassination. In May or June of 1963, David says, he was offered the contract to kill Kennedy in Marseilles. When David was deported anyway, Rivele still managed to interview him, in France. Three killers were hired by a man named Antoine Gavenige (the spelling may be off here; the program offers sparse name tags). Rivele was able to find out the name of the third man, because he was dead. It was Lucien Sarti, a Corsican drug trafficker killed in 1972 in Mexico City. Though conversations with another informant, Michel Nicoli, Rivele gets what he believes is the full story. In 1963 the three killers traveled from Mexico City three weeks before the hit, driven into America via Brownsville with Italian passports, where they were picked up by Chicago mafiaso who spoke to them in Italian. Then they were driven to Dallas and put up in a safe house. For several days took photos and arranged their crossfire positions. Two were in buildings behind the President, almost on the horizontal. "You can't understand the wounds unless you understand that one of the men was on the horizontal," says the informant. As an assassin Sarti was prone to wearing uniforms and he may have dressed as a cop? Rivele says that there were four shots, three hits, one miss, and two shots nearly simultaneous. The men got out of Dealey Plaza easily, and hide in the safe house for 10 days. At that point, they took a private plane from Dallas to Montreal, then to Marseilles. Rivele believes that gangsters Carlos Marcello, Giancana, and Trafficante, were involved, along with Carlos Gambino. A Marseilles gangster named Paul Mondeloni the coordinator. Rivele turned his information over to the DEA in 1987, which in turn handed it to the FBI, whereupon nothing happened. This is all shocking news, but Rivele's theories have been challenged by critics of the critics, who say that the other two men, still alive but unnamed in the program, had alibis for that time period, one of them being in jail.
Disc One, Episode Three: The Cover-Up Copyrighted 1989, this episode backtracks through the events of the day and concentrates on ignored witnesses and turf tussles between government agencies. Interviewed are FBI agent James Hosty, Dealey Plaza witnesses Bill and Gail Newman, who were closest to the President at the time of the shooting, and Mary Woodward, the closest journalist to the President. Many of the people in this episode, and the first one, were also interviewed for Larry Sneed's book No More Silence, an anthology of interviews with Dallas witnesses. L. Fletcher Prouty is brought on to say some of the things his surrogate X (Donald Sutherland) says in JFK. Brain removal is discussed by Paul O'Connor, a medical technician who worked on the body in an autopsy room crowded with 33 people, some of them mysterious civilians who gave orders to lead forensic pathologies Boswell and Humes. The three tramps are discussed. Charles V. Harrelson, who killed a federal judge in San Antonio, and who has admitted to killing five previous people (and who is also the father of actor Woody Harrelson) is offered up as one of the tramps and allowed to deny it (I've seen passing references but no details to a fact that all three tramps have been identified and Harrelson isn't one of them). Seth Kantor was a journalist who saw Ruby at Parkland Hospital, and he tells his story. Critic Larry Harris discusses Oswald. Finally there is the startling taped conversation between an FBI informant named Willie Somerset, a labor organizer, and a Georgia based racist named Joseph Milteer, broadcast here for the first time. Milteer seems to know an awful lot about the way the hit would actually come down (like Joe Peschi's Davie Ferrie in JFK). Kennedy, who might well have been killed in Miami instead of Dallas on the 18th of November, had his route changed as a consequence of that taped conversation. Groden says he found a photo of Milteer on Houston Street, and he is said to have called Somerset from Dallas that day. How the heck Milteer knew all this stuff is a mystery, and if only a coincidence, one of the greatest in history. He died in a house fire in 1965.
Disc Two, Episode Four: The Patsy Here we have an all-Oswald hour. The political position of the show is revealed by this episode's title. Six weeks before assassination, Oswald went to work at the Depository, while living in the Oak Cliff suburb, four miles out of Dallas (Oswald didn't drive). His kids lived at the opposite end, in oak cliff, in Irving, at the home of Russian speaking Quaker Ruth Paine, a mysterious woman the subject of yet another pro-Warren book by Thomas Mallon (Mrs. Paine's Garage). Buel Frazier is the man who drove Oswald to work on the morning of Friday, the 22nd. In the backseat were the famous curtain rods, a package about two feet long (the rifle was three feet long when dismantled). Frazier did not even know that the motorcade was going by the Depository. Did Oswald? By the way, did Oswald's room really need curtain rods? Was the packaging ever found on the premises? Next there is an interview with a cop who ran into Oswald in the lunchroom of the Depository. The show then goes on to treat the mysterious Tippet case, with its conflicting witnesses, and then Oswald's brief, media-hogging foray to New Orleans (where he was born), including interviews with the late Jim Garrison (the subject of a forthcoming biography by Joan Mellon). Garrison says, "That the re-writing of history made a villain out this young who wanted nothing more to be a fine marine is perhaps the greatest injustice of all". Oswald also went up to Clinton, Louisiana and drew some attention there. Several Clinton residents are interviewed. Finally, the 1981 exhumation of the Oswald's body is covered.
Disc Two, Episode Five: The Witnesses Originally the last of the episodes, and copyrighted 1989, this episode walks the viewer through the testimony of witnesses who were not called by the Warren Commission or whose testimony was altered (most of the interviews here and though-out the series were probably conducted by associate producer Susan Winter). Most of these people have popped up in the previous four episodes. New subjects include the photo of Oswald in the backyard, which many have claimed has been faked. Also, Oswald's line-up exploits are discussed. And the acoustic evidence that was introduced at the congressional House Assassination Committee hearings on the Kennedy case in the '70s wraps up the show. Thanks to the Committee, there are now two official conclusions to the case, one for and one against conspiracy. The show then touches on the "Vietnam theory" that is also found in JFK. "The biggest ally the conspiracy has had is the American media," says Groden, which may explain why this program was manufactured by the BBC.
Disc Two, Episode Six: The Truth Shall Set You Free Copyrighted 1995, and added to the package much later, the last episode strives for the grand overview, another version of what X was telling Jim Garrison in the park near the end of JFK. The previously camera shy Marina Oswald also now appears. First up is Tom Wilson, a former US Steel employee specializing in photonics, who in retirement turned his attention to photo analysis of the case, coming to the conclusion that the shooter hid in a drainpipe (a theory first introduced by small Texas town newspaper editor Penn Jones). Dan Marvin is a former Green Beret who may have been approached to perform an assassination on a Naval officer William Bruce Pitzer, at Bethesda, a man with inside knowledge of the case. Marvin turned down the assignment, and another Beret named David Vanick was approached, a man who vanished that day. Then, in November 1963, Pitzer, the head of the audio-visual unit at Bethesda, who had 16mm footage of the autopsy, was found dead in his office. Bill Turner, a writer for Ramparts, and author of the book Deadly Secrets talks about the patsyhood of Oswald and his escapade in Mexico City. Atlanta writers Lamar Walton and Tom Hardin make the Cuban connection and suggest that Robert Kennedy's participation in that aspect of the Kennedy assassination brings a special poignancy to the proceedings.
VIDEO: NewVideo/The History Channel /A&E Home Video have done a fair job with The Men Who Killed Kennedy. It actually looks better on disc then it did when broadcast on television, but it looks pallid and is riddle with specks. The single sided dual-layered discs present a full frame image (therefore it is not enhanced for widescreen televisions) that by necessity blends new interview footage with black and white archival TV news images, the Zapruder film, and some rarely seen home movie footage and still photographs. The first five episodes look as if they were shot on 16mm; the last episode is video, and looks much sharper.
SOUND: What the box calls the Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, is perfectly fine for this interview-bound documentary epic. Some of the archival footage has sound that is beyond improvement, however.
MENUS: The animated, musical menu starts off with radio or television correspondents describing the action at Dealey Plaza, and then the stirring theme song of the show, which sounds like the Quaker march once used on CBS news programs. Scene selection offers six chapters for each 51-minute episode. The whole package lasts 300 minutes, or five hours. You can play the show episode by episode, or "play all" three in order on each disc.
PACKAGING: A folding digipak keep case holds the two discs. The labels are red with sight lines printed on it. The image on the box shows Kennedy and his wife waving from the car that was soon to become his hearse.
EXTRAS: Supplements are minimal. The first disc has a timeline, through which you can click to remind yourself of what happened on key dates. There is nothing on he second disc.
Final Thoughts: The Men Who Killed Kennedy is a significant cultural event, and one wonders why it is not of importance in Kennedyian. Given the onrush of what can only called Pro-Warren Commission material it's perhaps understandable that the series would be lost in the shuffle. The History Channel is to be commended for making it accessible to the interested public.