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‘Rush to Judgment’ Ready to Provoke Once Again
The seminal JFK assassination documentary is re-released in conjunction with 60th anniversary of president’s death
It was the first major documentary to seriously raise questions about the official story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
And nearly six decades after its release, it remains one of the most compelling – especially notable for on-camera interviews with key witnesses whose stories were ignored or downplayed by the Warren Commission, several of whom rarely (or never) appeared on screen again.
Now, as the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination arrives, “Rush to Judgment” is in the limelight once again. Following a 4K digital remastering, the documentary led by lawyer/Warren Commission critic Mark Lane and filmmaker Emile de Antonio is receiving its first significant release in more than 35 years, including theatrical screenings around the country in November.
Considering the tsunami of JFK assassination analysis that has followed in its wake, it is easy to forget or dismiss the importance of “Rush to Judgment.” But when it arrived in 1967, there’d been only a handful of books questioning the Warren Commission’s conclusion that inconsequential Lee Harvey Oswald, on his own, took down the very consequential JFK.
The only major documentary about JFK’s assassination at that point was “Four Days in November,” which closely followed the mainstream narrative of the day, using a mostly archival approach to craft its story of the public-facing events immediately surrounding the death of the president.
Contrast that with the attack of “Rush to Judgment,” which opens with Lane noting that accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s was unable to mount a defense for himself.
“If he had lived, of course he would be entitled to counsel. I think he is entitled to counsel now,” Lane says. “I think all of America now is entitled to have counsel for Lee Oswald, so we can find out actually what took place on November 22.”
Lane’s comment aside, the film doesn’t attempt to present a coherent theory on the president’s killing. It just seeks to poke holes in the official story of Oswald’s guilt.
The value of this tack quickly becomes evident, particularly with the benefit of decades of hindsight, and in comparison to the dozens and dozens of JFK assassination documentaries that have arrived in its wake over the years.
With its mire of conflicting evidence – and the inherent messiness and ambiguity in interpreting that evidence – the assassination story resists easy distillation generally, and certainly not in two hours of celluloid.
But the case’s myriad mysteries can certainly still benefit from close scrutiny of primary sources. And “Rush to Judgment” offers that opportunity in 2023 just as potently as it did in 1967.
‘Theater of Fact’
The film was born of a collaboration that in some ways seems unlikely, and wasn’t without its difficulties. There was Lane, the bespectacled, civil rights lawyer and legislator who was earning a reputation as one of the Warren Commission’s earliest – and most strident – critics. And then there was De Antonio, the rumpled, antiestablishment film director who was a few years from really coming into his own in the world of socio-political documentaries. Whatever their differences, they were aligned on the idea of pushing back on the Warren Report.
Lane had been hired by Marguerite Oswald in 1964 to help defend her son, and his 1966 bestselling book “Rush to Judgment” provides the template for the movie. De Antonio already had one doc to his credit (“Point of Order!,” about the Army-McCarthy hearings), but in the coming years he would lead several notable films about American strife and cultural change, including “In The Year of The Pig” (1968), which scrutinized U.S. involvement in Vietnam and was nominated for an Academy Award.
“Rush to Judgment” was shot in 1966, primarily in Dallas. Its budget was about $60,000, raised mostly through private financing, including supporters in England, de Antonio told Film Comment in a lengthy 1967 interview.
He claimed with another $100,000, he and Lane could have made a film as detailed as the Warren Report, while boasting of twenty eight hours of raw footage. Lane and de Antonio had a “terrible time getting money,” used a “very low budget” crew and didn’t pay themselves, de Antonio said.
Money wasn’t the only hurdle faced by the production. An informant tipped the FBI to the pair’s plans before they even made it to Dallas, as revealed by this document. The same document details how Dallas Police officers were tracking the film team’s moves by speaking with potential interviewees.
In the Film Comment story, Lane and de Antonio speculate that the police scared people away from talking with them. Lane even felt he needed to use an alias in the city, because his reputation in the JFK case preceded him.
“We were fairly certain our phone was tapped, and we had some fun with that,” recalled the film’s editor, Dan Drasin.
Despite the strife of various sorts, Lane and de Antonio collaborated well during the production, said Drasin, who described them as “both colorful personalities, to say the least.”
“My recollection is that they worked pretty harmoniously together, each respecting the other’s role in the process,” he said to JFK Facts.
“Mark and I both intentionally wanted to be spare, unsparing, didactic,” de Antonio told Film Comment. “It's a kind of Brechtian cinema, it's the theater of fact, it's the theater of argumentation, it's the theater of judicial investigation, the theater of attack on the establishment and government. This is a very hot potato.”
The philosophy espoused in that mouthful aligns with de Antonio’s burgeoning approach to documentaries designed to stir the stew – and keep the burner turned to high.
“He targeted issues when they were acute, rather than waiting for tempers and memories to mellow,” wrote Nora Stone, a filmmaker, author and documentary film historian who penned an insightful 2019 piece on “Rush to Judgment” for the journal Media Industries.
If you’ve seen black-and-white interviews in other more recent documentaries, Youtube or TikTok with S.M. Holland (who viewed the assassination from the Triple Underpass), Lee Bowers (who worked in the railyard behind the grassy knoll), or Orville Nix (who filmed the assassination from the opposite perspective of the more famous Zapruder film), they were likely cribbed from “Rush to Judgment.”
The same applies for clips with many others who were in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963, or had interactions with Oswald or Jack Ruby before or after the assassination.
But before it gets to the witnesses, the film makes its intentions clear with a sterling – and pointed – quick-cut edit of Oswald in custody at Dallas Police Headquarters. We see Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade spelling out his name: “O-S-W-A-L-D.” The accused delivers the now-familiar quotes: “I’m just a patsy!” and “I emphatically deny these charges.”
Oswald leans into a reporter’s question about how his eye was injured: “A policeman hit me.” Wade again: “He says he didn’t do it.” Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry: “Very arrogant. He denies everything.”
The montage still feels fresh. But in 1967, the impact would have felt like getting woken up by a billy club. In fact, of all the aforementioned clips, only Oswald’s emphatic denial even made the cut of “Four Days in November,” which toed the line of the official story (and was nominated for an Academy Award).
Next up is Lane. Stationed in what appears to be a law office library, he speaks directly to the camera: “This film is a brief for the defense. Let us examine some of the preconceptions of the Dallas Police and the FBI.”
Most of what follows is Lane interviewing witnesses, one after another. All raise doubt about the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald orchestrated and executed the assassination on his own – even if, in some cases, the witnesses don’t doubt the government’s story themselves.
Abraham Zapruder’s home movie – which in 1967 was still eight years from being seen by the public – isn’t on repeat, as is the case in so many JFK docs that followed. Missing too, are flashy graphic reenactments of the shooting. There’s no heavy-handed music, wafting with implication. With the exception of newspaper editor Penn Jones Jr., there are no expert theorizers. Generally, the cinematography and editing give the impression of an in-depth TV news program, rather than a grand piece of cinema.
Railroad man Bowers talks about seeing two men milling around behind the picket fence atop the grassy knoll before the shooting.
Holland traces his experience that day overlooking the assassination and says there were four shots fired, not three as stated by the Warren Commission: “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “There was definitely a shot fired from behind that picket fence.” He says it point-blank, no histrionics.
Another railroad worker, Richard C. Dodd, essentially mirrors’ Holland’s account, and says government agents questioned him that day about what he saw. But he was never deposed by the Warren Commission.
Asked by Lane about the omission, Dodd replies, “I don’t know about that” with a wry expression that indicates that he does have a fairly good idea about that.
Beyond Dealey Plaza
The action also moves beyond Dealey Plaza. A noticeably uncomfortable Acquilla Clemons claims she saw two people involved in the fatal shooting of Officer J.D. Tippit, neither of whom looked like Oswald. There’s Napoleon J. Daniels, who says Jack Ruby easily slid by a cop into a basement entrance of Dallas Police Headquarters, where the nightclub owner would shoot Oswald minutes later.
Collectively, there is little of the breathlessness that we tend to see in more modern assassination documentaries. In an area before cell phones, before video cameras, and just as home movie cameras were becoming more common, the witnesses are decidedly not media-savvy, and generally appear fidgety just being interviewed. This has the effect of making their stories more impactful.
Some don’t even seem to understand the implications of what they witnessed. Nix, whose 8mm film captured the tail end of the assassination, is a memorable example. He says that on Nov. 22, he thought the gunfire came from the picket fence area, and further claims that the government, which used his movie to help establish the timing of the events, returned his film with some frames possibly missing. Then Nix tells Lane that it was proven that the shots came from the Book Depository.
Lane, who over his years working the JFK case wasn’t opposed to heating up a thermostat, generally comes off as measured, even genteel, during his probing of witnesses. He rarely even addresses the connotations of what’s being discussed, though it’s usually self-evident.
All of this is not to say this film is without flaws, particularly as a considered piece of history. It barely touches upon evidence that implicates Oswald. More than a few follow-up questions go unasked. A couple of the witnesses are notably less convincing than others.
Still, it retains its power to raise eyebrows.
“It does very effectively capture that tone of suspicion, even paranoia, that exists even today,” said film historian Dan Streible, who teaches at NYU's Martin Scorsese Department of Cinema Studies and co-edited “Emile de Antonio: A Reader.”
While it does not appear that “Rush to Judgment” was widely reviewed by the mainstream press upon its release, it did receive some kind notices.
Even the New York Times, which – to put it mildly – is not viewed as friendly to conspiratorial thinking when it comes to the JFK assassination, reviewed the film somewhat positively, with its Bosley Crowther writing that it “distinctly builds up an impression that the Warren Commission was lax in its investigations and that many critical questions remain to be explored officially.”
The New York Daily News, meanwhile, commended the “deliberately cold, unobtrusive style” of the movie.
“It is one thing to read written testimony, but quite something else to observe witnesses' facial reactions to questions and hear testimony from their own lips. The camera – as they say – never lies, so it is hard not to believe these sober-sounding, sober-faced eyewitness accounts.”
Not all media were as convinced. The San Francisco Examiner said that the film “adds little or no fuel” to arguments for alternative theories. “Lane has apparently closed his mind to the crushing evidence pointing to Oswald's guilt,” it concluded.
Box Office Blues
The Examiner’s review was in line with the box office reception: poor. “Rush to Judgment” failed to land an established distributor or a U.S. broadcaster, though an edited version did air on BBC Two. Stateside screenings were minimal and scheduled in a patchwork fashion.
“Although ‘Rush to Judgment’ seemed likely to succeed because of the wide appeal of its subject matter and its association with a bestselling book, the weak institutional framework for releasing documentaries in theaters worked against its appeal,” wrote film historian Stone.
Its prospects were further hurt, Stone asserted, because the filmmakers were not necessarily aligned on its promotional strategy. De Antonio was concerned with box-office receipts, a TV home and prospects for his next project, while Lane was more focused on raising skepticism about the Warren Report.
She discounted the theory – espoused by de Antonio – that the film’s disappointing commercial performance could be attributed to censorship or intimidation.
Students of film history and the assassination will probably agree that the new restoration is long overdue. The movie was last officially released – on VHS – in 1986, and that was a significantly shortened version. It was bypassed in both the DVD and Blu-ray eras, while escaping the streaming revolution until now. This is the first time the original cut has been made broadly available since 1967.
The 4K digital remastering was initiated by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sourced from an archival 35mm theatrical release print. The center specializes in film archives, and holds all of de Antonio’s materials, including his films, outtakes, scripts and correspondence – even, as requested by the filmmaker’s will, his cremated remains.
And no, it’s not holding any unseen “Rush to Judgment” footage, said Amanda Smith, a film archivist for the center. Pushed on the idea that students of the assassination would be extremely interested in examining any material that didn’t make the final cut, Smith assured JFK Facts that if it survived, it likely would have been received there.
“The fact that we have the man’s body here, leads me to believe we have everything,” she said.
How to Watch
The film is being released by boutique Canadian distributor Films We Like, whose cofounder Ron Mann considered de Antonio a mentor and friend. It will be available for rental ($4.99) and to buy ($9.99) on iTunes and Vimeo starting Dec. 5.
But first, it’s receiving (mostly) one-night screenings at theaters around the U.S. and Canada, primarily on Nov. 22. To put a point on it: This sort of release strategy isn’t commonly deployed for ’60s-era black-and-white documentaries.
Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin, Texas-based theater chain widely admired for its deft curatorial touch, has scheduled the film at eleven of its locations throughout the country. Alamo Drafthouse programmer Jake Isgar told JFK Facts it’s “remarkable to see a document of people processing the moment.”
“With so much exhaustively written and documented on the assassination and its lasting socio-political repercussions, seeing actual people give non-media trained reactions makes the whole moment feel less mythic and more tangible,” Isgar said.
Other bookings include Nov. 21 and Nov. 22 shows at the Texas Theatre in Dallas, where Oswald was famously arrested sixty years earlier to the day.
It all amounts to a level of availability for the film that eclipses what it received in 1967 – and a fresh opportunity to dissect and deliberate one of the most provocative pieces of media ever produced about one of history’s greatest mysteries.
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