Do true-tale films teach bunk history?

DUKE (US) —When teachers use popular movies to teach history, Hollywood’s inaccuracies can hurt students’ ability to separate truth from fiction, say researchers.

For example, when the 3-D version of the 1997 blockbuster film Titanic is re-released in theaters April 4, expect to see First Officer William Murdoch shooting two men and committing suicide by gunshot. But in reality, surviving crew members said Murdoch was last seen trying to launch lifeboats and is believed to have died in the water.

The Duke University study finds that asking students to look for historical errors can backfire, and they can end up learning and remembering inaccurate details alongside the accurate.

“These films represent a double-edged sword because students will often remember whatever information is in them, regardless of whether it is true or false,” says Andrew Butler, a postdoctoral researcher in Duke’s psychology department and co-author of the study, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

For the research, 36 Duke undergraduates examined nine texts of 800 words each about a historical event or figure. They also watched nine five-minute clips from corresponding major motion pictures.

The students detected only 35 percent of the inaccuracies presented by the films. And those who were asked to detect the inaccuracies in the films learned just as much incorrect information as students who were merely told to watch them.

The historical inaccuracies in movies used in the research included:

  • The film Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War. Most of the individuals depicted in the film were former slaves from the South. However, most of the recruits in the regiment were actually freemen from Massachusetts and other Northern states.
  • The film Amadeus presents Mozart as being a childish and vulgar person. However, 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.

“Unfortunately, students aren’t very good at catching the major historical inaccuracies in popular films, even when explicitly asked to do so,” says Sharda Umanath, a doctoral student in Duke’s psychology department and lead author of the study. “The difficulty of detecting the errors makes informing students about what exactly the inaccuracies are in a film absolutely vital to the learning process.”

She says the key to ensuring that students learned correct information is for teachers to provide feedback after students attempted to detect the major historical errors. Then, they learned more correct information and almost no inaccuracies.

Students also learned correct information better when they were more interested in the historical texts and movies, the study found.

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  1. William Murdoch

    The depiction of First Officer William Murdoch shooting two men and then himself in Titanic cannot be labelled “false” or “historically inaccurate”. In actual fact there are at least two dozen survivor accounts of an officer shooting passengers and then himself; it is only his identity which is in question. James Cameron decided to identify the officer as William Murdoch, which given that Murdoch’s name appears most frequently in the accounts and he was in the vicinity is a reasonable enough assumption, although it is certainly not conclusive -Captain Smith and Chief Officer Wilde are also possibilities. For those interested in an unbiased and historical review of the information please visit williammurdoch dot net.

  2. Jill

    I used to work in film and a part of my job included research. The differences in a “based on a true story” film and reality can be huge. It all hinges on the words “based on”. Students should be taught that these are actually works of fiction, similar to a novel based in World War II. The novelist can and often does research and incorporates factual places and events in the novel, but the priority is the entertainment value – what works for the story. The same priorities are used with any “based on a true story” films – they are not and were never intended to be documentaries.
    I now work in the education field. Second point is – students cannot discriminate between factual information and fiction without a basis for comparison. Without a broad base of general knowledge, students will never be discriminating scholars because they have very little to base their discernment on. Knowing how to drill down to discover the truth will not help them with knowing when to research further – what doesn’t seem right. It’s sort of like : if you don’t know what adding means (ie you have 3 groups with 3 items in each group); you won’t get what multiplication means (same as above), and for sure you will never understand logarithms. You may be able to do the math – but you won’t understand what you are doing.

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