Historical movies help students learn, but separating fact from fiction can be challenge

Slideshow details factual errors in nine Hollywood docudramas

Students who learn history by watching historically based blockbuster movies may be doomed to repeat the historical mistakes portrayed within them, suggests a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that showing popular history movies in a classroom setting can be a double-edged sword when it comes to helping students learn and retain factual information in associated textbooks.


We found that when information in the film was consistent with information in the text, watching the film clips increased correct recall by about 50 percent relative to reading the text alone,” explains Andrew Butler, a psychology doctoral student in Arts & Sciences.

“In contrast, when information in the film directly contradicted the text, people often falsely recalled the misinformation portrayed in the film, sometimes as much as 50 percent of the time.”

Butler, whose research focuses on how cognitive psychology can be applied to enhance educational practice, notes that teachers can guard against the adverse impact of movies that play fast and loose with historical fact, although a general admonition may not be sufficient.

“The misleading effect occurred even when people were reminded of the potentially inaccurate nature of popular films right before viewing the film,” Butler says. “However, the effect was completely negated when a specific warning about the particular inaccuracy was provided before the film.”

Butler conducted the study with colleagues in the Department of Psychology’s Memory Lab. Co-authors include fellow doctoral student Franklin M. Zaromb, postdoctoral researcher Keith B. Lyle and Henry L. “Roddy” Roediger III, the Lab’s principal investigator and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology.

“These results have implications for the common educational practice of using popular films as an instructional aid,” Butler concludes.

“Although films may increase learning and interest in the classroom, educators should be aware that students might learn inaccurate information, too, even if the correct information has been presented in a text. More broadly, these same positive and negative effects apply to the consumption of popular history films by the general public.”

Historical Inaccuracies in Popular Films

Popular films increase interest in history and contain much accurate information, but producers of these films often take liberties with facts to tell a more entertaining story.

Such is the case with the movie Amadeus, a historical drama about the life of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Released in 1984, the film delighted moviegoers and critics alike, eventually winning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Although the film is credited with increasing the popularity of Mozart’s music, it may also have created a misleading impression of Mozart.

AMADEUS (1984)
Topic: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The film clip depicts Mozart as being a childish and vulgar person. In fact, there is no evidence that Mozart behaved this way in public. On the contrary, Mozart is thought to have displayed impeccable manners in the presence of royalty and acted professionally with colleagues.

AMISTAD (1997)

Topic: Mutiny on the Spanish Ship Amistad
The 1997 film clip depicts Cinque is sitting in shackles before the Supreme Court during the trial. In fact, Cinque was imprisoned in Connecticut during the trial.


Topic: Wyatt Earp and the Shootout at the OK Corral
The film clip depicts Doc Holliday shooting and killing Johnny Ringo. In fact, Holliday is known to have been in a Colorado courtroom on the day of Ringo’s death, so he could not have killed him. Johnny Ringo’s death was officially ruled a suicide.

Topic: The French Revolution
In the film clip, a mob that is attacking Versailles briefly falls silent when Marie Antoinette appears on the balcony, presumably out of respect for the queen. In fact, this is not known to have happened and, given the French people’s great dislike for Marie Antoinette, it is highly unlikely the crowd would have reacted in this way.

GLORY (1989)
Topic: 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry
The film clip depicts new recruits for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry assembling and meeting each other for the first time. Most of the individuals shown in the clip are former slaves from the South. In fact, most of the recruits in this regiment were freemen from Massachusetts and other Northern states.

U-571 (2000)
Topic: Deciphering the Nazi’s Enigma Code
The film clip depicts American sailors, intelligence, and special operations officers planning a secret mission to capture an Enigma machine from a disabled German submarine, the U-571. In fact, it was the British navy that captured enough Enigma materials from German U-boats and warships to break the German naval code.

Topic: Queen Elizabeth
The film clip depicts Queen Elizabeth forcing her chief advisor, Sir William Cecil, into retirement and giving him the title of Lord Burghley to make his retirement comfortable. In fact, Sir William Cecil was never retired by Elizabeth, but remained her chief advisor until his death and was given the title of Lord Burghley as a reward for his years of service.

Topic: The Chicago “Black Sox” Scandal
In the film clip, the players involved in the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal are banned from baseball immediately after the 1919 World Series and never allowed to play another professional game. In fact, the players played 5 more months, almost another full season, before they were banned from baseball because the investigation commissioned by the baseball owners dragged on for nearly a year.


Topic: The Satsuma Rebellion
In the film clip, American soldiers are brought to Japan to prepare the Imperial Army to put down a rebellion started by the Satsuma clan of samurai. In fact, the Japanese hired French military advisors because the French army was one of the most powerful in the world at that time. In contrast, the American army was not particularly strong and was still rebuilding after the U.S. Civil War.