l From the Film and Media
column in the May-June 1996 Perspectives
Beyond Words: Reviewing Motion Pictures
"Are movies accurate from the standpoint of history?"
That question, again. In order to buy time I cleared my throat, forgetting
the yellow cough button, which glared with reproach. From behind a thick
glass window a radio technician looked down at a pad of paper, shaking
his head. "Nowadays," I began, my voice dropping in poor imitation of the
questioner, "historians avoid the word 'accuracy,' for it implies a certainty
that is seldom warranted in human affairs."
"You mean, Dr. Carnes, that you can't say whether Pickett led a brigade
"Well, yes." I sighed. I had been here before, knew that it was about to slip
into the murky depths, but could not hold onto the words: "But, you see,
movies encompass such vast imaginative realms that historians can never
figure out where to post 'no trespassing' signs. At what point in Cecil B.
DeMille's Ten Commandments does his evocation of ancient
Egypt—its class structure, political system, family relations, music,
architecture, clothing, language, rituals—fall below some standard of
plausibility, especially when extant records are fragmentary and their
meanings contested? Or which of Denzel Washington's facial and hand
gestures or voice tones and intonations wrongly conveyed what Malcolm X
was about? From the great sweep of life to its most intricate details—feature
films conjure it all. To call any film historically accurate—or inaccurate—is
Silence. Dead air clumped about my words like footnotes to a refereed
journal article. Pluckier questioners perhaps would have attempted triage,
but this one, recognizing that the interview was too far gone, pronounced it
DOA. He adroitly segued to the car accident on Broad and Main.
More interviews on radio, and some on TV, were scheduled for Past
Imperfect: History According to the Movies, a collection of 62 essays I
edited as part of a fund-raising campaign to endow the Parkman and
Cooper book prizes of the Society of American Historians. So, of necessity,
I came up with a different script in response to The Question, and it went
somewhat as follows: "I'm glad you asked that. In one sense, historical
films are surprisingly accurate. Relatively few people in this nation or
elsewhere visit costume institutes or historical museums, yet millions of us
have been exposed to their contents because of movies. Hollywood has in
this way, at least, done much to promote historical consciousness."
I then recounted an example from Richard Slotkin's essay in Past
Imperfect about the 1939 film The Charge of the Light
Brigade. Slotkin explained how Warner Brothers promoted "historical
authenticity" by replicating Victorian postage stamps and requiring their
use on interoffice mail, though none would appear on screen. This
preoccupation with historical accuracy, however, did not extend to the plot
itself, which attributed the Light Brigade's charge to one Surat Khan, emir
of Suristani, who had massacred a British garrison at Chukoti in India. A
remarkably sharp-eyed Errol Flynn, peering "half a league onward" toward
Balaklava Heights, spots Khan and orders the Light Brigade forward to
avenge the massacre and preserve British honor. The Light Brigade,
Balaklava Heights, and British India existed; the rest of the story was
(im)pure invention, or so I related on air. (I was once taken to task by a
historian who countered that the movie's rendering of the "Chukoti"
massacre accurately replicated the Cawnpore massacre of 1857. A good
point, I conceded, though I doubted that it had inspired the Light Brigade's
daft dash in 1854. Flynn's farsightedness, I suppose, was of the temporal
Just after I had finished telling the story on National Public Radio's "Talk
of the Nation," someone from Boston (as I remember) called in to say that
she was glad I had mentioned Flynn's "charge," because the movie was her
favorite and had launched her upon a lifelong study of the Crimean War.
"But didn't it bother you that the movie got nothing right?" I asked.
"No, not in the least, because what has endured in my imagination all of
these years are the movie's vivid pictures."
A fair proposition, and I have thought about it often since then. If
historical movies represent the visual elements of the past as accurately
(that word!) as can be expected, and if those visual impressions are all that
stay with us once we've left the theater or returned the video, does it much
matter that Hollywood deconstructs historical chronology, causation, and
characters with the giddy zeal of a panel of French semioticians at a
meeting of the Modern Language Association? And shouldn't we
historians, at least those of us who persist in the clay-footed drudgery of
teaching what we think happened, applaud Hollywood for inscribing
something upon our student's all-too-rasa tabulas?
Spartacus may not have been born into slavery, or have survived the final
battle to deliver a poignant farewell from the cross to some former-day
Jean Simmons, but at least Stanley Kubrick's movie imprinted upon the
nation's historical consciousness the image of white slavery, an arresting
contribution to discussions of race in 1960.
But is it true that we mostly remember only the visual elements of movies?
My own dim memory responds in the affirmative; furthermore, the strong
connection of visual perception to memory goes way back. Cicero, citing
earlier authorities, maintained that ideas could best be remembered if they
were "conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes," and this
observation provided the foundation for the "mnemonic arts" that
flourished during the Renaissance.
 American experimental psychologists
rediscovered the subject in 1894, when E. A. Kirkpatrick published "An
Experimental Study of Memory," which appeared in the first volume of
Psychological Review. Kirkpatrick had shown 10 objects to one
group of subjects; to another group, he showed large cards bearing the
names of the same objects; and to a third group, he read aloud a list of
those objects. Three days later, he asked the subjects to list everything they
had been shown or heard. The group that had seen the objects could recall
on the average seven or eight of them, but the group that had viewed the
cards could remember only two of the objects listed by name. And the third
group, who listened to the list of objects, could recall only one object.
Kirkpatrick concluded that we remember what we see rather than what we
hear, and in regard to visual images, we're far more likely to remember
pictures than words. 
The study of visual perception and memory faded in subsequent decades,
perhaps because Kirkpatrick's insight was so, well, obvious. During the
first half of the 20th century, human-learning theory focused almost
exclusively on how the mind processes and recalls words.
(Academic psychology's preoccupation with text was shared by many social
scientists and humanists, culminating in the deconstructionist dictum that
we are what we write, though perhaps academic writers simply prefer to
write about what they are.) In any case, when experimental psychologists
turned resolutely to the subject of visual perception and memory in the
1960s, they repeatedly (though far more elegantly) confirmed Kirkpatrick's
strong link between visual perception and memory. One psychologist,
seeking to compare the qualitative aspects of different types of perceptual
recall, found that people remembered pictures so much better than words
that he could get roughly comparable results by testing readers 15 minutes
after they had seen a text and picture viewers 72 hours after having
seen pictures. In 1973 a psychologist showed subjects 10,000 slides and
found that they remembered on the average 6,600 of the pictures. "Pictures
are easy to remember," another psychologist concluded with refreshing
Tests on recall and moving pictures produced similar results. In 1979 a
psychologist showed a movie without dialogue called The Red Balloon
to one group of subjects and read a detailed account of the story to
another group. When asked to describe what they had read or seen
immediately afterward, readers and movie viewers were equally successful
at recalling plot elements. But when asked to do so a week later, readers
had forgotten 37 percent of the plot elements, and movie viewers, only 14
percent. More striking still, 98 percent of the readers retold the story in the
past tense, while 76 percent of the movie viewers used the
present tense, proof that moving pictures remain fresh in our
consciousness and readily accessible to recall long after the film script has
Why people remember visual images better than texts is beyond the scope
of this essay and the competence of its author; experimental psychologists
are themselves of several minds on the subject. What matters here is the
staying power of the visual elements of movies and their tendency to
convey a reasonably fair sense of the physical setting and context of the
past. When we embarked on Past Imperfect, I had imagined that
our historians would find plenty of howling visual anachronisms: Roman
senators wearing Timexes, or Revolutionary War soldiers with repeating
rifles. To be sure, Michael Grant spotted busts of Hadrian (76–138 A.D.) in
MGM's 1953 version of Julius Caesar (100?–44 B.C.), and
Catherine Clinton noticed cotton being harvested in the spring in Gone
with the Wind; but errors of visual detail were remarkably rare. On the
contrary, our authors were impressed with Hollywood's often heroic efforts
at reproducing historical costumes, interiors, and settings. My favorite
example came from William Leuchtenburg's essay on All the
President's Men, for which Warner Brothers built an exact replica of a
Washington Post newsroom on a sound studio in Burbank, even
shipping authentic trash from the Post wastebaskets to the set.
In the letter accompanying his essay, Leuchtenburg explained that the
movie had long been one of his favorites, and he had often shown it in
class. But after repeatedly watching the video in order to write his essay, he
became aware of a subliminal message conveyed through lighting effects:
the agencies and agents of the federal government were nearly always
shrouded in "menacing darkness," while Woodward, Bernstein, and the
Post were "bathed in light." The movie's lighting was in
fact its message: the Post functioned—almost literally—as a beacon
of truth, piercing the dark and drear recesses of the Nixon presidency and
chasing him from office. This was good cinema but bad history,
Leuchtenburg concluded, for it omitted the crucial role of the federal
government—the Justice Department, the Supreme Court, and Congress—in
removing Nixon from office. This dualistic light-dark imagery has
evidently been reprised in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995). The
opening scenes show an ominously darkened White House (the published
script describes the mansion as "dark, silent. Like a tomb"). Nixon is
hunkered down listening to the Watergate tapes; Haig turns on a lamp and
a shaft of light slashes Nixon's face. He throws up his hands and cowers in
fair imitation of Bela Lugosi. (The script calls for Nixon to "gesture
awkwardly ... he hates the light, slurs a strange growl.") Later on, E.
Howard Hunt makes the point explicit by telling John Dean that Nixon is
"the darkness reaching out for—the darkness."
The preceding paragraph juxtaposes the customary convention of historical
writing (textual citation) with that of film analysis (textual description of a
visual phenomenon). The latter approach is tautological, using words to
summon up visual recall and in so doing inevitably influencing what is
recalled. The literally obvious alternative is to share the evidence with the
reader by including plenty of film stills. But there are two serious obstacles
to this approach.
Most studios charge hefty fees for use of film stills, as much as $500 each.
This does not include the technical cost of pulling a particular shot from a
video for reproduction in a book, which can easily cost an additional $300.
Past Imperfect included hundreds of pictures and stills, and
permission charges exceeded $40,000. (This did not include technical
charges and the cost of agents who specialized in wresting permissions
from the studios.)
An even more insuperable problem is censorship within the studios. The
biggest culprit in our project was Warner Brothers, which agreed to a fee
in December 1994 for 12 stills. We assumed that this implied licensing
approval. On March 16, 1995, when Past Imperfect was in galleys
(and due for imminent publication as the September main selection for the
History Book Club), we sought confirmation. A week later Warner
Brothers asked to review the text that was to address five of the movies.
Accordingly, we faxed Stanley Karnow's essay on JFK, Clayborne
Carson's on Malcolm X, William Leuchtenburg's on All the
President's Men, Richard Reeves's on PT-109, and Nancy
Cott's on Bonnie and Clyde. On April 17 Warner Brothers
informed us that permission had been denied. Why, they did not say. My
repeated calls to the permission's attorney went unanswered. Executives at
Time-Warner chatted in friendly fashion but provided little help and no
answers. ("How," I asked a spokesperson for Time-Warner, "can a media
empire, which often asserts a legal right to unrestricted access to
information, deny such rights to scholars?") When I refused to go "off the
record," everyone clammed up. We finally printed a second version of
Past Imperfect, minus the stills of the Warner movies.
Five months later I learned exactly what happened at Warner from an
unexpected source: Oliver Stone. Several weeks after Past
Imperfect had appeared in print, Stone faxed sharp criticisms of
Karnow's essay on JFK ("Stanley Karnow considers himself an
historian"). I, in turn, complained of Warner's withholding of the film
stills, and the studio's subsequent conspiracy of silence. "A great
media/news empire must not engage in censorship," I pontificated, "nor
throw a curtain of secrecy over its own actions."
Stone said he knew nothing of the Warner decision and, though in the
midst of the final edits of Nixon, he immediately sent a letter to
Judith Singer, director of "licensing/theatrical/legal" at Warner. Stone
faxed me her response. Singer, who perhaps assumed that her letter would
not become public, confirmed my worst fears about studio censorship: she
explained that the requisite permissions had been denied because several
Warner films were "treated negatively" in Past Imperfect. This was
a matter of general policy, she added, and had been submitted for review in
this instance to top studio executives. She explained that the studio
undertook such policies "out of concern for our filmmakers."
Appalled, Stone rebuked the Warner executives. "I make films like
JFK and Nixon to stimulate discussion of the past. I expect
and even welcome criticism, and am frankly pleased when writers refer to
actual stills of my films rather than rely on their subjective recollections of
them. Please, in the future, do not justify censorship out of some imagined
concern for my feelings."
The selectively restrictive policies of the studios have recently been the
subject of considerable discussion among scholars. Jon Wiener described in
the July/August 1994 issue of Lingua Franca how researchers
seeking access to Disney archives were obliged to agree to submit "any text
which relates to the Walt Disney Company" for "review" and "corrections."
Last year Lingua Franca published an article on film and picture
permissions whose thesis was contained in its title, "Just Do It," a
recommendation that makes considerable legal sense (the use of one or two
stills out of the tens of thousands in a feature film doubtless falls within
fair-use guidelines) but with which the legal departments of major
publishing houses rarely concur. Without some modification of copyright
law, or an expansive judicial ruling on the doctrine of fair use as it applies
to researchers and film stills, scholars will be unable to engage readers in a
thoughtful consideration of the meaning of perhaps our most important
The studios' chief defense against the "encroachment" of researchers--the
need to protect the fragile sensibilities of their artists--is refuted by the
example of Oliver Stone, who has received perhaps more criticism from
scholars (including me) than any other filmmaker, and yet remains
committed to unfettered scholarly access to film stills and studio archives.
"I fought for public access to the secret Warren Commission Archives, and
to the Nixon Watergate tapes, and I'll fight for uncensored access to the
film stills that comprise an important part of our cultural heritage," he told
me. On this issue, at least, we historians can—and should—make common
cause with Oliver Stone to rescue these moving pictures—our memories!—
from corporate control.
—Mark C. Carnes is professor of history at Barnard College
and general editor of Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies
1. Francis A. Yates, The Art of Memory
(1966), 4, and Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo
2. E. A. Kirkpatrick, "An Experimental Study of
Memory," Psychological Review 1 (1894): 602–09.
3. L. Standing, "Learning 10,000 Pictures,"
Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 25 (1973): 207–22;
L. Postman, "Verbal Learning and Memory," The Annual Review of
Psychology 26 (1975): 322. See also Allan Paivio, T. B. Rogers, and
Padric C. Smythe, "Why Are Pictures Easier to Recall than Words?"
Psychonomic Science 11, no. 4 (June 5, 1968).
4. Patricia Baggett, "Structurally Equivalent
Stories in Movie and Text and the Effect of the Medium on Recall,"
Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 18, no. 3 (June
5. The screenplay appears in Eric Hamburg, ed.,
Nixon: An Oliver Stone Film (1995); quotes from pp. 88–89,
Copyright © American Historical Association.
http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/1996/9605/9605FIL.CFM on June 27, 2005