History as an 'Act of Faith': Dallas, November 1963

The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Oliver Stone
Title: “History as an Act of Faith: Dallas, November 1963”
VTR: 1/15/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is probably the most controversial film maker/re-interpreter of the American past since D.W. Griffith, whose classic Birth of a Nation even now, after more than 75 years, still provokes enormous anger and debate.

Oliver Stone’s JFK has been in release only weeks as we record this program. But already – indeed, even months before his brilliant film was completed – his critics would have us see Mr. Stone only as a subversive distorter and de-valuer of our history as record. Well, a modern day Socrates comes to mind, too, if you will, subverting the Establishment with incredible skill and power, always urging our young to question, to doubt, to distrust accepted wisdom about our national past … this time with the murder of our young president as a particularly bitter case in point.

Indeed, the extreme and seemingly endless press attacks upon Mr. Stone lack only the hemlock to signal his critics’ determination to mute his message, to counter the doubts Stone’s film raises about the Warren Commission’s single-assassin theory with doubts about the film maker himself. Writ so compellingly large on film, his speculations are clearly anathema to those who themselves created, or at least embraced or repeated, the official version of Dallas, November, 1963.

So let me note right up front that as an erstwhile historian, I find myself enormously pleased that my guest has provoked such controversy. For with it he helps undermine, hopefully once and for all, the naïve notion that the record of the past, anyone’s account of what happened then, can ever be anything other than a reflection of what one believes now. As Charles A. Beard noted, all recorded history must be understood as but an act of faith … hopefully well and truthfully documented, of course, but essentially only what the purported historian (whether film maker, academic reporter, what have you) thinks of what someone else thinks, or saw, or heard, or believed.

And if, as Stone notes, the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination was a “stunning success as a mythical document,” then perhaps his counter myth, his astounding film, will cause all of us to think more – and more rationally – about what did happen in Dallas in 1963 … and, more importantly, why it happened.

Even more compelling is the extraordinary fear expressed now by the Lords of Print that Mr. Stone’s very command of his medium and its power – seeing is believing, after all – may give his creations (his “faction”: his mix of fact and fiction) an unbeatable advantage in the ongoing battle for our hearts and minds. Not without reason, they fear Stone and his film. For his power, its power, is enormous. And even as these Lords of Print fear and deplore the very skills of this celluloid Pied Piper, perhaps finally, they will also recognize and concede the power that they themselves have so long wielded: the power to create the past in their own imagery … as Oliver Stone does in his. Demanding responsible use of his medium will, perhaps, warrant more responsible use of theirs.

But now I want first to ask Oliver Stone whether his print critics haven’t, indeed, rather much hit the mark in their concerns that Academy Awards rather than Pulitzer Prizes may become our accolades to the new historian. What do you think?

STONE: Well, I think that – and I’ve said this before – I think that the journalist community failed in 1963 to examine in detail all the discrepancies that
were … became apparent in the following year when the Warren Commission was released. And I think that they accepted the cover story that Oswald did it alone a little too readily. In my movie, when the character played by Donald Sutherland is in New Zealand and he sees the wire story immediately that Oswald, the biography of Oswald … everything is sort of neatly laid out … that cover story was existent at the same time in Egypt, in China, in Japan; you could have found it anywhere in the world. It went out right away. Hours within his arrest. That right away set off the alarm bells in Fletcher Prouty’s head, who … the character on which X is based. And I would think that if we had been a little less naïve, I guess, the press, at that point in time, that they would
also … these are men, after all, who had been in … who had lived through the 1930’s and the 1920’s, when there were coup d’etat’s, when there were world revolutions, there were wars … these people, I think, really missed the boat … they didn’t look inside their own country because they didn’t think it could happen here in America, that a president could be killed by his own government, or by a coup d’etat.

HEFFNER: But it can happen here, and these are men now still writing, and writing about your film in a, in a very negative fashion … so they were young men …

STONE: Yeah …

HEFFNER: … and they weren’t “true believers.” Why were they, if you’re correct … why were they taken in by the cover story?

STONE: Well, you know, you’re asking me a very, very difficult question. You know it was certainly a good cover story, because Oswald had an immediate biography that was immediately available. They had the Russia … the Russia business, this man had been there … I think he had a profile as a Communist in Russia, he had one in New Orleans, and he had one in Dallas, as a Communist. Subsequent investigation has revealed that in New Orleans, on the contrary, he seemed to be being used by an anti-Communist group. He was … he was … he was given a profile as an anti-Communist, but at that point in time, what was quickly available to us was a picture of a solitary lone nut Marxist. And as we now know, he wasn’t even a very good marksman. And no one at that point questioned, you know, how could he do the shooting job that he did? The … as you know, the FBI tried, with Olympic caliber marksmen, to match his shooting feat and failed.
HEFFNER: Well, now, you’ve suggested that … that press people today are … some of them, many of them, in fact, have worked over the film and Oliver Stone, and I’m asking you again, because you maintain that they missed the boat then …

STONE: They …

HEFFNER: … to use your expression. How do we explain it? Was it that Camelot had dazzled them and they didn’t want to besmirch it? Was it that they didn’t want to dig into the Kennedy past? What was it that led them to be so much less critical than journalists are today?

STONE: Well, we didn’t … I mean, there’s so many questions and answers to that … we didn’t question the CIA in the 1960’s … we were, we were all … the James Bond novels were very popular. The CIA was looked upon as a heroic organization. For somebody like Jim Garrison in New Orleans to come out and say that the government killed its own leader was shocking and horrifying. And the press turned on Garrison with all its power and destroyed his credibility. Dan Rather was under such a spell, it seems, that he, he saw the Zapruder film … whatever, two days or a day after the assassination, and he described President Kennedy as being propelled violently forward when he was hit. How blind could he be? Is, is that the power of the sort of the event that Oswald was presented to us hours after that killing … he was presented to us as a fait accompli, and we bought into it because we had to believe that one person is responsible for this tragedy like a car accident. And then, of course, being killed two days later is an extremely convenient historical exercise because The New York Times headline on that day said, “The Assassin of the President Was Killed.” They didn’t even say the “alleged” assassin of the president was killed by Jack Ruby … they said “the assassin.” So, right away, because of the fact that Oswald was killed immediately, it was perfect … it fell into place.

HEFFNER: Now, how do you feel about the fact that there are so many who make of you the historian of this period? Do you want to be that?

STONE: I mean, I think that … well, hardly. I, I’m not a historian in the sense of having all the facts … I don’t. I admit to that, and I have constantly said that from the beginning. I’ve been attacked for it. I only have a certain amount of facts and the rest is speculation. I called my … the film a counter myth. It’s essentially a hypothesis of fact and speculation, and I’ve been faulted again and again by … for not having more facts. Well, I … my response to that is, then, let’s unlock all the files that we can get our hands on, including the House files on the assassination, the CIA files, the FBI files, the Office of Naval Intelligence files and the Army Intelligence files. Let’s get them out, and then maybe I can have more facts, and we can all have more facts on which we can intelligently deal. But they will not deal with that issue. Nor will they deal with the discrepancies that my film raises. They … all they do is attack me for speculating. At the same time, they don’t deal with the many … the two dozen discrepancies that we show in the Warren Commission. Such as: How Oswald got the job at the Book Depository. Who was Ruth Payne? Why is Margaret Oswald … two days after her son’s arrest, is saying that her son is working for American intelligence? How does he get into Russia and out of Russia, and does not get debriefed, although 25, 000 American tourists are debriefed coming back from the Soviet Union? How does he … what is his relationship in New Orleans to Guy Banister, or in Dallas to George DeMorenshield? There, there, there are at least two dozen of these questions that no one in the press has dealt with.

HEFFNER: But now how do you deal with the criticism that you are such a master of celluloid that you have become, literally, a Pied Piper … that your skills as a film maker take what you call speculation and make it, for millions and millions and millions of people, particularly younger people, a fact. If not a fact, something much, much stronger than a speculation. How do you deal with that?

STONE: As a criticism that I’m … I’m not selling the movie as a fact.

HEFFNER: No, no, no … I, I understand that. How do you deal, though, with their criticism … if you could stand aside and say, “Look, this fellow Stone has made this superb film …

STONE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … and it is. It’s a very convincing film …

STONE: Right.

HEFFNER: And they are saying that “he now is wielding a weapon, using a medium that doesn’t deal only with facts as we can say they are facts, but deals with speculation in a dangerous way.

STONE: Oh, I think that’s nonsense. I think the average movie goer, who sees a few movies a year, knows that it’s a movie and, and realizes where I’m speculating. Where I am speculating I’m very clear … the dialogue says, “What if … maybe … possibly.” Jim Garrison in the courtroom says, “Let’s speculate on what happened that day in Dealey Plaza.” The viewer is not unintelligent, and can see the difference between what is fact and what is speculation … in my opinion.

HEFFNER: Look, I love your film. I think it’s magnificent, and I think with one exception, perhaps, I loved all of them, but I can’t accept and I wonder if you really mean that the average moviegoer can distinguish or does distinguish …yes, can, but does take the time and the intellectual effort to distinguish between what they see in your films, and what they then come to believe is reality. They’ve had no other exposure to this.

STONE: Well, listen, they’ve … my, my critics have had 28 years to sell the American public on the Oswald did alone mantra. Which they’ve done … the newspapers, the Warren Commission, the TV’s have told us for 28 years that Oswald did it alone. And the American people were not brainwashed by that. That’s interesting, that they resisted it. They didn’t believe it in 1964; the polls show they didn’t buy it. And as the years have progressed, there’s been fewer and fewer people … 11% was the last quote I got that believed that Oswald did it alone. Times/CNN poll … 75% believed there was a conspiracy … 50% believed the CIA did it, and 18% believed the military did it. If you take … if you realize that the CIA and the military …. not necessarily disassociative that they could work together … you have 68% of the American people are saying that the American government killed its own leader. That’s a pretty significant belief that, or let’s say undermining of the priesthood’s … the media priesthood’s belief that Oswald did it alone. In … it also goes very far towards really saying that our government is … is from a far less … is far less … is far less trusted by the American public than heretofore.

HEFFNER: Well, you and I know that. You and I know that since Watergate and a great … with the assassination and then Watergate and then the other assassinations, and so many other things that you can tick off, our government is not believed. Do you believe that our government, you say put together the military and the FBI and the CIA, that they killed the president?

STONE: Well, I’m saying … well, what we … the movie says is that there are elements in the government that did it. And it’s very, you know, we’re not that precise … the one area where we deal with it a little more specifically is where the Donald Sutherland character talks about it, and he does say, it is a conspiracy with no fact. There is nothing on paper, everyone has a plausible deniability, and he points to a possibility where one phone call … he says, only at the most secret point, only at the most secret point is there, a connection is made. And that is the phone … there’s a phone call from a higher up, let’s say an Allen Dulles type, that goes to a mid range technician … that … we show that on the film … that technician puts into operation a plot … let’s say … call it a cellular plot … like a terrorist cell in Beirut, or a guerilla warfare cell in Vietnam. You’re a mechanic, you go, you’re given orders, you don’t even know who you’re working for, you don’t know who your boss’s name is, you have nothing on paper … so it is not … my critics say, how can there be such a conspiracy of so many people. It doesn’t work that way, it’s not like 4,000 people have a convention in Miami Beach and agree to kill Kennedy. It is really secret and probably could involve as little as five to six people, or maybe 10 people.

HEFFNER: But there are two basic levels on which your critics operate … one is what are the facts of the matter in terms of the Kennedy assassination … who did it, and why …

STONE: Yes.

HEFFNER: … but the other one is – and this comes up again and again – the sense of “dis-ease,” that a film maker has at his disposal the skills and the resources to put together pictures that don’t even claim to be totally factual in a way, and here they and I would contradict your point about the American people are wise enough, we know enough and we’re clever enough to know that’s not reality. I mean, for instance, if you read Gone with the Wind or if you see Birth of a Nation … don’t you think that those amazingly powerful media presentations are capable of leading people to believe that’s the way it was?

STONE: I guess you’re right. I’d say so.

HEFFNER: Then doesn’t Oliver Stone’s JFK lead us, of necessity, to
believe …

STONE: Well …

HEFFNER: … that’s the way it was.

STONE: I suppose you could argue that, but I guess nine million Americans have seen the film in the last four weeks, and many of them have told me, “Well, I believe part of what you say,” or “I believe all of it,” or “I believe none of it.” So, I mean, each person is quite capable of going to a movie and making up their own mind.

HEFFNER: Of course … I’m sorry … go ahead.

STONE: I was just thinking, as a parallel argument, one could point to the very funny Zapruder film, which is, of course, we show it in the movie five or six times. That is a piece of film that is extremely powerful. It’s, it’s … it is a clock for the assassination. It shows you very in detail what happened. And that piece of film is somewhat parallel to my own story with my film … has been for the last 28 years … been denied completely by the government and by the newspapers. Denied in the sense of … first of all, locked away for 12 years by Time Life, and barely shown … it was subpoenaed by Garrison. But what you see is … they constantly keep reminding you … is not what you actually see. In other words, Kennedy … he may be leaning forward here … but there’s 1.6 seconds that has to occur before Connolly gets hit, and you can see it on film, and it’s ridiculous. But on paper, you can justify that it takes 1.6 seconds for this bullet to exit Kennedy’s throat and then make this crazy turn and tumble around and then go through Connolly. But on film it doesn’t work. And then, the final head shot, frame 313, you see Kennedy shoot backward like that … shot coming, I think, obviously from here … and they spend … on paper they will convince you that this shot came from back here, but Kennedy went backward when he got hit. So … they have taken the power of film and they’re saying that this, this is not what you see, but this is the exact opposite of what you see.

HEFFNER: Listen …

STONE: And that’s interesting as a strange sort of … I guess that they just have a thing about film … I guess they don’t like film because …

HEFFNER: Because why?

STONE: … film goes right to the point … there’s no … you can’t lie on film.

HEFFNER: Birth of a Nation …

STONE: I guess you might …

HEFFNER: … you would say lied on film, right?

STONE: I’m not familiar with that film that much. I mean … you’re talking about the Ku Klux Klan scenes …

HEFFNER: Yeah, I’m talking about the feelings generated by that film … the anti Black feelings generated by the book Gone with the Wind, it created …

STONE: Yes.

HEFFNER: … or helped foster a notion toward our Black community that certainly stood in the way of any real actions, until the Kennedy, June 1963 Civil Rights speech …

STONE: Yes … yes.

HEFFNER: … so I, I guess what I’m getting at is … first point about the accuracy of the point that you’re trying to put across, or the speculation that you offer. Secondly, the power of the film. You know, when I have press people in here, and I do many times on The Open Mind, mostly they’re saying nobody’s in here but us chickens … don’t talk about our power … after all, the American people know better … they know what they read is just what one reporter or one editorial writer believes or says. And now here are the two media really pitted against each other.

STONE: Yeah. No, there’s no question that the media has been an enemy to this movie …

HEFFNER: Print media.

STONE: … the print media … The New York Times … well, no, CBS News has attacked the film twice, editorialized about it … Dan Rather has, in the middle of programs, attacked the film without even having seen it. He called it hokum. Mr. Rather has a stake in the assassination, I think, because he made his career out of it. But … we’ve been attacked by … on Nightline I had a rough time … I had an argument with Ted Koppel recently about that … I said, you know … he, he accused me of mixing my restaged footage with my documentary footage … and I said, “Well, you do the same thing,” and he said, “How’s that?” And I said, “Well, you have a Nightline on the KGB, and you put, you put Oswald’s fake diary on the screen as if it were real. Oswald never wrote that diary … even the Warren Commission said so. You bring out two witnesses, Priscilla Johnson and Richard Snyder, both of whom are questionable, both of who have CIA and State Department ties, and they tell you what you want to hear, so, you know, don’t tell me about your objectivity.”

HEFFNER: But you see, to point fingers at each other … and that sure as hell has been what’s been done … is to leave the American people at the mercy of whoever is the more skilled custodian …

STONE: I like … Norman Mailer … Norman Mailer said, “at least Stone … if the Warren Commission is bullshit, at least Stone had the advantage of superior bullshit.” His is a thorough, a thorough metaphor.

HEFFNER: Well? Not true?

STONE: Well, I say Norman did not come out and say that the film was bullshit … but he said that it’s certainly superior and if it is bullshit, it’s superior bullshit to Mr. Warren.

HEFFNER: Any uneasiness on your part about the power of the medium that you wield?

STONE: No, not enough … I think that, you know, films should go further. I mean, I think they will … I think with the new techniques we’re going to get … we’re going to use everything … sound, picture, states of consciousness. What’s interesting about the movie, which nobody points out, because it’s all about the politics … is as a piece of movie, it’s one of the fastest movies that goes right to the mind … it’s like shhhhhh, splinters to the brain … we … we have 2,500 cuts in there, I would imagine. We had 2,000 camera setups. We’re, we’re assaulting the senses with … in a sort of a new wave technique … we admire MTV editing techniques, and we make no bones about using it. We want to get to your … get to the subconscious, get to the dream life and, and certainly seduce the viewer and into a new perception of the reality … what occurred in Texas that day. To be in the … do you remember the old You Are There television
series …

HEFFNER: Yes.

STONE: Which we all. I think we all loved in the ’50’s … where they put you into the spot. Well, this is what we are trying to do now, but with superior techniques.

HEFFNER: That’s the point. Suppose …

STONE: Suppose I’m wrong … you’re saying

HEFFNER: No, no, no … not suppose you’re wrong. Suppose another Oliver Stone … if, God willing, we could conjure up one … comes along and uses those even more advanced techniques that you’re talking about …

STONE: Yes.

HEFFNER: Aren’t we then going to be caught between the technicians, the film and print technicians … who are simply massaging our minds to make their own faulted points … and you concede …

STONE: Yes.

HEFFNER: … the points that anyone makes … must be faulted for that moment.

STONE: Well, in any given year, with 300 movies, I … you know, probably 280 of them are, are bad … you know, and I think the audience has to make their own mind up, and it’s a democracy and they’re quite capable of doing it. And kids are, too. Don’t think kids are as ignorant or naïve as we think they are.

HEFFNER: You say “ignorant” or “naïve,” and I would simply make the point … and I think you’ve just made it a hell of a lot better than I could … that we are susceptible to manipulation … maybe not manipulation … we are susceptible to being worked over … to having our brains massaged … you said … talked about all the techniques …

STONE: I think it’s the way of life … I mean it’s the towel … we get up in the morning, and your wife or your lover makes the point and tries to massage your brain to buy her or buy him something, or you go to your office and you’re immediately assaulted by 14 phone calls, and 14 different people want 14 different things out of you … it’s the nature of … I mean, we are always being pulled and tugged … this is life. I don’t know that movies are supposed to be some kind of sauna bath escape from reality.

HEFFNER: No sense of responsibility, then, that either the press, the printed media, or the print media or the film media should have in terms of going beyond certain boundaries in manipulating, using their capacity to convince us … the viewer, the reader?

STONE: Well, hopefully …

HEFFNER: You’ve complained about what these guys have done for 28 years.

STONE: … hopefully there is a responsibility to the facts. We had a … we had an excellent research staff, which went over with a fine tooth comb all the facts as we know them. And as I said before, the agreed upon facts are still … it’s still … there’s so much unagreed upon facts in this case. But we, we went over it with a fine tooth comb, and we, we tried to be responsible to the facts as we know them. The speculation, that’s obviously my own, but it also is supported by people like Fletcher Prouty and Jim Garrison and Peter Dale Scott … that the motive … the possible motive for the murder was that it was Kennedy’s winding down of the Cold War. But that is obviously theorizing. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., also agrees with the premise. So it’s not that crazy and out there. But as to the rest of it … the facts of Oswald, the facts of the … I mean, we did the best we could … as I said, we exercised a self appointed responsibility.

HEFFNER: You will concede that there are many people who would say, and then they document to their own satisfaction … that some of the facts are not, are not so. That some of the things that are presented as facts … such as …

STONE: Such as?

HEFFNER: … I … I’m not challenging what you do …

STONE: There has to be a specific …

HEFFNER: … I’m just saying whether it is what has happened to an individual who is pictured in a certain way, whether someone was indeed murdered or committed suicide or whatever might be the fact …

STONE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … there are differences in the evaluation.

STONE: Differences in the evaluation, but when we show David Ferrie dead, that was the crime scene at that point, and the coroner did say that it looked like a natural death. Which we showed in the movie. We have Jim Garrison walking through the apartment, and in his mind, we go to black and white, I think, four times, four cuts, with him imagining, speculating of … with … of David Ferrie being … having pills forced down his throat. Now that’s a … and I just want to point out that that is a speculation, but we also know from the autopsy that there were contusions on the inside of David Ferrie’s mouth.

HEFFNER: You talk about four cuts … I’ve just gotten one cut, which means I thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind … Oliver Stone …

STONE: Goes to fast.

HEFFNER: … you’re right. Thanks very much.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about this program, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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