Nigel Turner's The Men Who Killed Kennedy premiered on England's Central Independent Television as a two-part documentary in October 1988. Three additional installments were filmed two years later, with a sixth episode added in 1995. Though the series was not widely seen in the United States at first, the first five installments were shown a number of times on the Arts and Entertainment cable channel (with Hilary Minster's narration replaced by the voice of Chicago broadcaster Bill Kurtis), and all six episodes have recently begun popping up (in somewhat edited form) on another cable station, the History Channel. Whether this is a good thing or not depends largely upon whom you ask.
Certainly, Turner's series is nothing if not controversial, even among conspiracy theorists, and even among those who served as some of the series' own sources of information. For example, when President (and former Warren Commission member) Gerald R. Ford and former Warren Commission legal counsel David W. Belin blasted The Men Who Killed Kennedy in the Washington Post in 1991 (in an article primarily about Oliver Stone's movie, JFK), none other than JFK assassination research pioneer (and on-screen interviewee for The Men Who Killed Kennedy) Harold Weisberg chimed in his agreement. "It took 27 years," Weisberg noted drily, "but David Belin, writing with Gerald R. Ford, has finally said one thing with which I agree: Nigel Turner's A&E series 'The Men Who Killed Kennedy' and Oliver Stone's current commercialization and exploitation of that great tragedy are both very, very bad."(1)
On the other hand, Gary Mack, one of two senior consultants for the first five episodes (and currently an archivist at Dallas' Sixth Floor Museum), is critical of certain aspects of the series as well as some of producer Nigel Turner's methods, but overall remains pleased with much of the finished product. Mack says:
Neither [senior consultant Robert] Groden nor I were aware of the Corsican hit team theory [which was linked to Mack's "Badge Man" theory, and played a large role in Turner's overall conspiracy theory], developed primarily by Steve Rivele. The original 1988 British broadcast named the three hit men and accused them of killing Kennedy. One, [Lucien] Sarti, was dead, but the other two were still alive.
One threatened to sue Central and had a good alibi. Central quickly produced a 30-minute "apology" program in which the "assassin" told his story. The guests included Groden, Robert Blakey, Howard Willens of the Warren Commission, and James Duffy. I was not invited. The moderator and all of the guests, except Groden, criticized Nigel for failing to do thorough research. Groden tried to emphasize the film's strong points.
The "apology" program, taped in Washington, aired only in England. Parts one and two of "The Men Who Killed Kennedy" were then re-edited to remove the accusations, but the show's credibility was damaged. That was the real reason ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS lost interest in purchasing US rights from Central, even though all four initially wanted the series.
While much of the original five-part production holds up well today, some is outdated or contradicted by new information. The version now appearing on the Arts & Entertainment and History channels was edited by Turner to include 6-7 minutes of commercial time in each part. The home video version, available only from A&E, is the full, revised British version.(2)
Researcher Dave Perry, who, along with Gary Mack, was a consultant for the Discovery Channel's recent episode of Unsolved History: JFK - Conspiracy, writes that
Nigel Turner is the only "documentary" film producer-director I know of to receive a censure from members of British Parliament. Because of his research ethics there was also an attempt to remove British Central Television's ITV franchise based upon "penalties [for] inaccurate broadcasters." This was back in October of 1988 when the first The Men Who Killed Kennedy was flush with new assassination theories. It turned out Turner's claims about three Frenchmen he accused as assassins fell apart almost immediately. The French government provided Turner with irrefutable proof of the November 22, 1963 whereabouts of his two remaining living "assassins." Turner's response could be considered typical of a tabloid film maker when confronted with historical facts. "We expected this. People have had 25 years to come up with alibis." When asked why he didn't bother to interview one of his alleged assassins (Saveur Pironti) he claimed he couldn't because he thought, "It was too dangerous."
Some investigators, such as author Anthony Summers, however, continue to believe the Rivele leads worthy of further investigation. Summers writes:
For those who wish to see no further progress in the Kennedy case, a much-trumpeted British television program . . . was a welcome event. Among its many follies, the program named as Gunman Two and Gunman Three two men whose names had come up during Rivele's discussions with [Christian] David, but who David had since specifically said were innocent. In the wake of the television program, one of the men produced a plausible alibi for November 22, and Rivele's exclusive story suddenly appeared -- however unjustifiably -- to have been exploded. Rivele's French publishers backed off, and no American publisher had been found as this book went to press. Rivele himself, disgusted with the Central TV fiasco, weary from years of non-stop investigation, turned to other work.(3)
"I have not touched the case since 1988," Rivele recently confirmed. "David was released from prison a few years ago and is alive in France. I assume that [witness Michel] Nicoli is still alive. David's letter to his lawyer [discussed in the documentary] was obtained (I don't know how) by two researchers (one in Dallas, one in Paris), who promised to make it public last spring, but evidently were frightened out of doing so. They still won't share the contents with me." "I believe that Sarti was involved," he says, "but apparently I was wrong on the other two." (Rivele has since become a successful Hollywood screenwriter; his credits include Oliver Stone's Nixon.)
Christian David, of course, is only one of literally several dozen convicted felons who have come forward with claims about John F. Kennedy's death over the years. Whether his tale merits any more credence than any of the others remains to be seen. Click here for a summary of Steve Rivele's story, as seen in The Men Who Killed Kennedy. Click here for some further information from Rivele's book, as yet published only in France.
Meanwhile, a recent book, Triangle of Death: The Shocking Truth about the Role of South Vietnam and the French Mafia in the Assassination of JFK, by Bradley S. O'Leary and L. E. Seymour, alleges that Christian David lied with regard to many of the details he gave Rivele, but that there is nevertheless a kernel of truth to his story. Only time will tell whether Nigel Turner's audience will embrace a theory that places the blame for Kennedy's death squarely on the government of South Vietnam.
The research community remains divided about another theory at the center of The Men Who Killed Kennedy: Gary Mack's "Badge Man" hypothesis. As Dallas researcher Greg Jaynes points out, the features of the "Badge Man" image are remarkably well defined, while the edge of the white concrete wall, located some thirty-seven feet closer to the camera than the theorized position of "Badge Man," is captured in Mary Moorman's famous Polaroid snapshot only as a sea of gauze and fuzz.
Of course, it is a photographic impossibility for objects further from the focal plane of the photograph to be in sharper focus than objects nearer to it. This strongly suggests that the image is an illusion resulting from photographic artifacts and/or light glimpsed through the trees in the background. One theory developed by Greg Jaynes holds that the image has an even more surprising explanation.
It was Gary Mack who was also responsible for the development of the theory that gunshots were preserved on a sound recording of the Dallas Police Department's November 22, 1963, radio transmissions. This theory has not fared well over the years, as several extensive, independent investigations ultimately concluded that not only are there no gunshots at all on the recording, but that it was made approximately one minute after the assassination, from a microphone on a police motorcycle parked a considerable distance away from Dealey Plaza.
JFK Online is proud to present some of the actual reports of the acoustical investigations, complete and unedited, alongside links to other pertinent reports and evidence.
Mack remains supportive of the story of witness Gordon Arnold, who passed away in 1997, having held firm to his pledge to permit no further public interviews beyond his filmed appearance in The Men Who Killed Kennedy. Many researchers, however, continue to be skeptical of Arnold's story, not only because he waited fifteen years to come forward with it, but particularly because no eyewitnesses corroborate his startling tale (is it really possible that all of those spectators who stormed the grassy knoll soon after the assassination could have overlooked, for example, a crying policeman robbing a uniformed spectator at gunpoint in broad daylight?) and no photographers clearly captured Arnold or his alleged confrontation with the police on film.
Another controversial witness featured prominently in the documentary is deaf-mute Ed Hoffman. Some are quick to point out that Hoffman's story seems to have undergone a number of major and dramatic changes over the years, while others are quite sympathetic and supportive of Hoffman's tale.
Yet another highly controversial witness who plays a large role in Turner's series is Beverly Oliver, who may or may not be the famous "Babushka Lady" captured in numerous films and photographs in Dealey Plaza. Some researchers remain supportive of Oliver's claims, while others are more critical. A portion of Oliver's story in her own words is also available online.
What all of these witnesses have in common, of course, is their insistence that one or more shots originated from the grassy knoll. Listening to such witnesses, in fact, it seems inconceivable that there wasn't someone firing from such a location (though astute viewers will notice that these witnesses disagree strongly about precisely where on the knoll the alleged gunman was located). A different perspective is presented in an article by Jerry Organ, who believes no shots at all were fired from the knoll.
Of course, The Men Who Killed Kennedy presents a great deal of evidence in support of the possibility that one or more shots came from the knoll area. For example, Robert Groden narrates one of his enlarged and stabilized versions of the home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder, which many people believe indicates a shot from the knoll. There are several problems with this, however.
For one thing, as Groden himself has noted in his book, The Killing of a President, the President's head is initially thrust forward for a fraction of a second, just prior to the more famous backward motion. This forward motion is invisible to the naked eye when the film is projected, but is clear and measurable in frame-by-frame studies.
Another problem noted by Gary Mack(4) is that if one assumes the backward motion to have been caused by a gunshot, the trajectory indicated by this motion is incompatible with a shot from the grassy knoll, which would have actually been at an angle perpendicular to the President's limousine.
The bottom line, as acknowledged even by some conspiracy theorists (such as Dr. David Mantik, featured in a new entry of The Men Who Killed Kennedy, "The Smoking Guns") is that the laws of physics require every action to have an equal and opposite reaction, which would mean that any gunshot responsible for a motion such as the backwards snap of John F. Kennedy's head in the Zapruder film would have likewise generated enough force to propel the gunman backwards with equal violence. No handgun, shotgun, or rifle is capable of generating such force.
Or, as Dr. Mantik puts it, "I do not believe that a frontal shot, with any reasonable sized rifle or bullet, could produce the observed head snap -- too much energy is required."(5) The world-famous "back and to the left" head snap is simply irrelevant.
The Men Who Killed Kennedy also places great emphasis on the initial impressions of the physicians who attempted to save the President's life at Parkland Hospital in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. While many conspiracy theorists agree that the testimony of these witnesses deserves consideration, other researchers point out that the Parkland testimony is by no means as conclusive as some would have us believe.
The fact of the matter is that the rear of President Kennedy's head is clearly visible in several frames of the Zapruder film subsequent to the head shot, and, as has been noted by such commentators as ardent conspiracy theorist David Wrone, the back of the head appears completely intact. Wrone observes, for example, that in two particular frames of the film, frames 337 and 338, exposed a little over one second after the fatal shot, "The back of President Kennedy's head, neck, shirt collar, and suit coat are seen in surprisingly sharp detail. There is no blowout of the back of the head. No hair is out of place on the back of his head; there is no blood on the back of the head, nor on his collar, neck, or jacket."(6)
Explored at some length in The Men Who Killed Kennedy is the theory developed by researcher David Lifton (though, oddly, Lifton is not interviewed or credited within the program) that President Kennedy's body arrived for autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital in a condition quite different than that in which it left Parkland. Lifton's theory has not garnered many supporters from the ranks of conspiracy researchers, though it does have a small and loyal following.
Ironically, one of Lifton's strongest detractors is Dr. Cyril Wecht, coroner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and considered one of the world’s leading experts in forensic pathology -- and one of the most vociferous critics of the Warren Commission there has ever been. In fact, Dr. Wecht can be seen in The Men Who Killed Kennedy, passionately denouncing the government's handling of the assassination investigation and vehemently insisting that the end result is nothing less than a cover-up.
Wecht was one of the very first individuals with whom Lifton shared his body alteration theory, way back in 1971,(7) and Wecht is almost contemptuous in his dismissal of the hypothesis. "Lifton gets away with crap, and no one challenges him," Wecht says. "I could assemble a whole team of the best surgeons in the country and still not be able to accomplish in a day what Lifton says was done in a few hours. I have never bought his stuff. It can't be done."(8)
Click here for a critical analysis of Lifton's overall theory. Click here to see what a practicing physician has to say about the medical issues raised by Lifton's claims.
One segment of The Men Who Killed Kennedy that has drawn a great deal of criticism from even devout conspiracy theorists is that dealing with claims that the man murdered on national television by Jack Ruby may not have been the real Lee Harvey Oswald. These allegations rely largely on the recollections of mortician Paul Groody, whose account has been the subject of several noteworthy studies, including an article by conspiracy theorist M. Duke Lane and a series of articles by Tracy Parnell.
Even those who approve of much of the information presented in the first five installments of Turner's series tend to look less favorably upon the sixth. This is especially true of the segments dealing with Tom Wilson and Lt. Col. Daniel Marvin. While Marvin has a small coterie of believers (click here for articles by Marvin summarizing his story), most are more skeptical. For example, researcher Allan Eaglesham was actively assisting Marvin in preparing a book until he found Marvin changing elements of his tale that were being challenged. (Click here for Eaglesham's commentary on more recent allegations by Marvin.)
Unlike Marvin, whose story has not quite faded away, self-proclaimed photographic expert Tom Wilson has been categorically denounced as a fraud by virtually everyone.
The bottom line: The Men Who Killed Kennedy contains a tremendous amount of intriguing information, but most researchers seem to agree it needs to be approached with the same skepticism one would apply to any other source.
November 2003 AddendumThe Men Who Killed Kennedy has three new installments. Viewers interested in the story of Judyth Vary Baker, the subject of The Men Who Killed Kennedy: The Love Affair, can click here for John McAdams's detailed essay. I have also posted a detailed listing of some of the many claims Judyth has made, as well as some information on Martin Shackelford, one of Judyth's most vocal advocates.
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1. Harold Weisberg, "Lonely Man in the Middle," The Washington Post, reprinted in Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992), p. 266.
2. Gary Mack, newsgroup post of May 19, 1998.
3. Anthony Summers, Conspiracy (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 526.
4. Gary Mack, newsgroup post of January 9, 2000.
5. David W. Mantik, M.D., Ph.D., "Special Effects in the Zapruder Film: How the Film of the Century was Edited," anthologized in James H. Fetzer, Ph.D., ed., Assassination Science (Chicago: Catfeet Press, 1998), p. 264.
6. David R. Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003), p. 182. Wrone goes on to insist that the view of JFK's head is clear enough to determine that there was no entry wound on the rear of his head, thus proving there must have been a conspiracy. Even a cursory study of the published autopsy photographs, however, is sufficient to demonstrate that the entry wound was far too inconspicuous to be seen in the Zapruder film.
7. David S. Lifton, Best Evidence (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988), pp. 497-98.
8. Gerald Posner, Case Closed (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 297.
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