It is bad enough that ancient Romans speak English and mastodons are tamed to build the Pyramids; that William Wallace and his men wear kilts, which weren’t documented in Scotland until the 16th century, hundreds of years after “Braveheart” was hanged, drawn and quartered; that Ivan the Terrible courts Queen Elizabeth I.
Now comes evidence that Hollywood’s notoriously loose interpretation of history is influencing students, who absorb the inaccuracies portrayed in the movies even when the errors are contradicted by their textbooks.
Research conducted at Washington University in St Louis has found that students are more likely to remember the history shown in the cinema than that presented in textbooks – whether it is true or not.
“For the longest time, educators have been thinking of movies as a way of getting students more interested in materials,” said Andrew Butler, a former doctoral student in psychology at Washington and one of the authors of the study.
Yet Dr Butler and his colleagues discovered that even when students were reminded that movies are often historically inaccurate, “they still weren’t able to dismiss the information” they learnt from them.
The implications are significant. Hollywood has adapted history to its own purposes in movies such as Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) and 10,000 BC (2008).
For example, Braveheart shows William Wallace seducing Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, who gives birth to Edward III as a result. But historians say Isabella was only three at the time, and Edward III was born seven years after Wallace died.
Almost one third of the movies nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture between 1981 and 2005 portrayed historical events, and of the 108 US undergraduates who participated in the Washington study, 93 per cent said they had taken a course in which the instructor used a film to illustrate the subject.
“Although showing films was initially derided as lazy teaching, today they are commonly used as an instructional aid in the classroom, especially in history courses,” says the study, which was published in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with what Hollywood is doing,” said Dr Butler, now a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University. “Its business is to create movies that entertain people. We were just surprised that students, even when they were asked to ignore the information, still recalled it from the movie.”
When a film directly contradicted a textbook they were asked to read, students recalled the inaccurate Hollywood information as much as half the time – even when they were warned about the general historical flimsiness of cinematic productions.
However, the picture is not entirely grim. The study says that when information in a film corresponded with that contained in a history text, watching the movie increased students’ recall by about 50 per cent compared with what they remembered from the text alone.
And when students were warned of specific factual inaccuracies in a film they were about to watch, they almost always dismissed it in favour of the correct information, Dr Butler added.
“What we’re really interested in following up and investigating is what is so special about film as a medium for learning about historical topics,” he said. “There’s something special about a film in terms of helping students to learn and retain information. That’s one aim of this research: how to use movies to enhance the learning experience.”
As for the students who participated in the study, they were enthusiastic about getting paid and receiving class credit to watch Hollywood movies, Dr Butler said.
“People were signing up in droves.”