Caught on Film
While literally hundreds of millions of miles of film and videotape has been shot over the last century, very little of it provides any impact or lasting memory. However, occasionally a piece of celluloid is produced that captures some significant historical event in real time, creating a type of time capsule that transcends the years. It may be only a few seconds in length, but it provides us with a glimpse of history in the making, which is pretty cool. Unfortunately, most of these events are tragic in nature, but each is important to our understanding of the past and, as such, worth remembering. So here’s our list of the top 10 pieces of celluloid that have made film history.
10. Japanese Surrender Ceremony
In contrast to the fiery spectacular footage of the Battleship Arizonaexploding (which we’ll get to later)—effectively capturing the opening salvoes of America’s involvement in World War II—another far more sedate piece of footage captures the war’s final moment, shot just three years later in Tokyo Bay, Japan. Taken on September 2, 1945 by an unnamed Navy photographer, the footage shows the arrival of representatives of the Japanese military and government onboard the battleship Missouri—then securely anchored in Tokyo Bay—to surrender to the allied powers. Though only a few minutes in length and about as exciting as a high school graduation ceremony, it shows a remarkably anticlimactic ending to the bloodiest war in history, which in itself makes it among the most important pieces of celluloid in history.
What’s especially interesting about it is the contrast between the Japanese and allied representatives. Whereas the Japanese are decked out in their most dazzling formal best—complete with medals, derbies, and tuxedos—the allies are dressed in their everyday uniforms that would be considered too frumpy for a trip to Walmart. Apparently the allies wanted to portray the surrender ceremony as no big deal and to that end managed to keep it about as exciting as macramé. One still gets the chills from watching it, however, especially once one considers the extraordinary historical significance of the moment and how the Japanese managed to somehow look proud even at the moment of their country’s greatest humiliation.
9. Apollo 11 Landing
One might imagine that landing on the moon would make for some spectacular film footage, but one would be wrong. Mounted on the bottom of the descending lunar module, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sat Eagle One down on the surface of the moon that July day in 1969, all one could make out as the vehicle drew close to the surface was a blurry white screen and little else. It’s the narrative that accompanies the footage, however, that makes it exciting.
Having trouble finding a landing spot and only seconds away from having to scrub the landing due to fuel constraints, the voice of the astronauts counting off the remaining distance to the surface is spellbinding—even if one can’t see much. The payoff comes from the cloud of dust and the emerging shadow from the landing pads as the Eagle finally sets down on the lunar surface, marking man’s first physical contact with another planet and making the wait worthwhile. While some might argue that footage of the men actually walking about the surface is more deserving of notice, we submit it was the perilous and historical nature of the descent itself that is the stuff of legend.
8. Hindenburg Explosion
Aviation disasters were rarely caught on film—especially in the early days of flying—but what happened on May 6, 1937 changed all that. As the German dirigible Hindenburg—then making its maiden flight of the 1937 season—approached the mooring mast at Lakehurst, New Jersey, hundreds of spectators and ground crew were astonished to see flame suddenly erupt from just forward of the massive ship’s tail and quickly engulf the entire vessel as its 8 million cubic feet of highly flammable hydrogen ignited. Within twenty seconds it was all over, with one of the greatest air ships of all time reduced to a fiery tangle of collapsing aluminum girders, and all of it caught on four different cameras—the footage of which is often spliced together to give a sense that it was all part of a single piece of film.
Most imagined at the time that none of the 97 passengers and crew onboard could have survived such a fiery disaster, but remarkably most managed to escape the flames and run to safety as the vessel gently settled to the ground. What makes the footage especially significant, however, is that it records the end of an era in aviation history—the use of dirigibles as passenger carriers. As a result of the disaster, airships were deemed unsafe and overnight an entire industry died—all because of a bit of static electricity and an untimely tear in a hydrogen cell.
7. Patterson Bigfoot Film
Undoubtedly one of the most controversial bits of celluloid in existence is the sixty seconds of footage Roger Patterson (1933-1972) shot of what appears to be a seven-foot-tall hairy primate near Bluff Creek, California on October 20, 1967. The footage, which starts out very shaky because Patterson was initially running towards the creature with the camera on, eventually settles down enough to provide twelve seconds of the most remarkable footage in zoological history.
While other photos and snippets of footage have been made of “Bigfoot” before and since, none are as clear or have been studied as extensively as Patterson’s footage which clearly shows—depending upon one’s predilections—either a “guy in a monkey suit” or a massive primate unknown to science. What’s perhaps most unique about the footage is that it appears the creature has large pendulous breasts—causing some to nickname her “Patty” as a result—which would seem to be a bit of unwieldy over-engineering were one intent upon orchestrating a simple hoax. Additionally, fakes are usually easy to spot, making the fact that the footage is still being hotly debated today a good argument for its authenticity.
6. Iwo Jima Flag Raising
When marines and sailors went about the fairly routine task of raising a flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, they unwittingly found themselves immortalized—not just for their deeds, but for their excellent sense of timing and composition. In effect, when they raised a second flag over the summit (the first flag raised earlier was considered too small and was replaced by a larger one) they unwittingly became part of one of the most recognized photos in history (or, at very least, of World War II). Unfortunately, three of the men in the photo would be killed in action over the next few days, but the three survivors would go on to become unexpected celebrities for their bit of impromptu flag raising.
The photo, taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal (1911-2006), was not without its controversy, however. Later asked if the photo had been staged, Rosenthal—misunderstanding that the query was for the famous shot and not the later group shot around the raised flag—admitted that it had been, diminishing the photo’s pedigree. Fortunately, a film camera set up next to Rosenthal and operated by Marine Corp photographer Bill Genaust (1907-1945) was filming at the same time and from the near identical angle, demonstrating Rosenthal’s photo to have been truly spontaneous, thereby restoring its luster. In any case, the Rosenthal photo and Genaust’s footage are clearly among the most important pieces of visual history ever recorded and deserve to make this list.
5. Ronald Reagan Shooting
As with the Zapruder film (we’ll get to that soon), America almost got to witness the death of a second sitting president when on the morning of March 30, 1981, a gunman by the name of John Hinckley opened fire on newly elected president Ronald Reagan and his entourage as they left the Washington Hilton Hotel. The incident, which was captured by several news cameras but was probably caught best by the crew from ABC, shows Hinckley—in a delusional effort to impress actress Jody Foster—unleashing a volley of shots, most of which managed to find targets including, due to an errant ricochet, the president himself.
Though it was initially believed that the president was not hit, once the motorcade sped away from the scene, Reagan began complaining of chest pains and coughing up blood, the result of taking a single round to the lung. Quickly rushed to George Washington Hospital to undergo emergency surgery, he recovered and returned to full time duties a few weeks later. The same could not be said for his press secretary, James Brady, who received a head wound that left him an invalid for the rest of his life. Hinckley was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity—a verdict that did not sit well with the White House—and he remains alive and well to this day, years after several of his victims had passed on.
4. Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster
When the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1985—killing all seven astronauts onboard—an entire nation was on hand to witness the event, making it one of the few videos of a major event shot live and witnessed by literally hundreds of thousands of people as it happened. What made it even more memorable—aside from the fact that it ended the life of the young and exuberant Christa McAllife (the first teacher in space)—was how unexpected it was. After having watched dozens of rocket and shuttle launches over the previous two decades, people had become complacent about the dangers inherent to launching rockets, but the sudden explosion of Challenger as it arched its way into a perfect Florida sky changed that perception forever.
The cause of the explosion was determined to be a faulty “O” ring design on the solid fuel booster rockets that allowed hot plasma to escape and scorch the massive fuel tank it was attached to. Quickly redesigned, the accident at least had the benefit of making the shuttle safer as a result. Not necessarily a fair trade for the lives of seven astronauts, but at least their families could find some solace in the fact that their deaths were not in vain.
3. Battleship Arizona Explosion
Of all the sights and sounds of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, none are as unforgettable as that of the 30,000 ton battleship Arizona blowing up as a result of a bomb hit in her forward powder magazine. The blast, which killed more than 1,000 men (nearly two thirds of the men onboard her), was somehow captured on 8mm film by an Army doctor visiting a nearby hospital ship, who somehow had the presence of mind to start filming the attack in its earliest moments. Filming a formation of Japanese bombers as they slowly approached battleship row and dropped their deadly ordnance, he somehow managed to capture the precise second the fatal bomb exploded deep within the battleship’s interior.
What the footage shows is a spectacular fireball spewing upwards from the forward area of the ship, incinerating everything and everyone inside the hull forward of midships and even causing the superstructure itself to rise thirty feet into the air before collapsing into the raging inferno below it. The blast not only killed most of the crew, but also took the lives of both the ship’s captain and an admiral, Isaac C. Kidd. Perhaps one of the most spectacular and violent pieces of film footage ever recorded, it has since been colorized, bringing out more details and making the footage even more horrific, if such were possible. The gutted hulk of the Arizona remains where it sank to this day, serving as a monument to those who died onboard her and reminding everyone of the importance of being prepared.
2. World Trade Center First Aircraft Strike
There are literally thousands of photos and numerous film and videotapes of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, all of which manage to capture the destruction from every conceivable angle. However, there is only one that shows the precise moment the entire nightmare began. In one of those cases of being in exactly the right place at precisely the right time, French cameraman Jules Naudet was filming a group of New York firefighters responding to a car fire as part of a documentary when the men heard the sound of a low flying jet passing overhead.
Realizing that the plane was flying entirely too low over Manhattan, Naudet had the presence of mind to pan his camera in the direction of the airliner just in time to capture it slam into the 94th floor of the north tower at over 400 miles an hour, killing all 92 crew and passengers onboard along with hundreds of people inside the building. The footage was soon being shown around the world and quickly came to be considered one of the most spectacular and historically (as well as forensically) important pieces of footage every shot. Of course, the later second plane strike on the south tower and the collapse of both structures are equally horrific and important, but there was only one bit of film that captured in graphic detail how it all began, making it the premier piece among a sea of 9/11 footage.
1. JFK Assassination
Perhaps the most gruesome piece on this list is that captured by Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder (1905-1970) on November 22, 1963. Hoping to get a close-up shot of the President’s motorcade as it wound its way through the Dealey Plaza that afternoon, Zapruder found a concrete pedestal in front of the Schoolbook Depository building from which he would have the perfect angle. What he caught in those 26 seconds of filming proved to be one of the seminal events of the twentieth century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as he was cut down by gunfire from the very building behind him, leaving an entire generation scarred by the event, the effects of which continue to linger to this day.
Of course, Zapruder wasn’t the only person to have captured images of the assassination that day, but his is the clearest and most graphic of the bunch. The most horrific frame is frame 313, which actually records the precise second the president is struck in the head—an event which occurred no more than thirty feet away from the man. It also captures the subsequent heartbreaking effort by Jackie Kennedy to crawl out of the car as it speeds away and her being saved from falling off the back of the vehicle by the quick actions of a secret service agent who managed to climb onto the back of the vehicle just in time. Zapruder subsequently sold the rights to the footage to Life Magazine for a purported $150,000—quite a substantial amount at the time—and it has since become enshrined in America’s traumatized collective memory and went on to become the basis for an entire cottage industry of conspiracy theories that have been going strong ever since.