I learned it at the movies

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

By Wray Herbert

In the 2003 movie The Last Samurai, Tom Cruise plays a former US Army captain named Nathan Algren, an alcoholic and mercenary who in the 1870s goes to Japan to work for the Emperor Meiji. The young Emperor is facing a Samurai rebellion, and Algren trains a ragtag bunch of farmers and peasants in modern warfare, including the use of rifles. When Algren is captured by the Samurai, however, he is gradually converted to their ways, and ends up fighting with the warriors in a losing battle against the Imperial Army he helped create.

The movie was both a critical and popular success, and why not? Lots of exciting swordplay, exotic costumes, and a fascinating piece of history that was probably unfamiliar to most Americans before the film was released. Indeed, it’s fair to say that many Americans have learned much of what they know about the westernization of Japan from watching films like The Last Samurai.

That’s probably not a good thing, because the film is full of historical errors. Most notably, it was the French and Dutch, not Americans, who played the key role in Japan’s modernization in the late 19th century, and the Algren character is loosely based on a French officer named Jules Brunet. What’s more, the movie conflates two decades of military history for the sake of simplicity, and presents a highly romanticized view of the Samurai warriors.

I know, I know. The Last Samurai is not a documentary, and people go to the movies to be entertained, not to be instructed in history. No argument there. But films like The Last Samurai are increasingly used in the classroom as well, as adjuncts to textbooks and lectures. Educators believe that the vividness of film can be a valuable teaching tool, enlivening and reinforcing students’ memories for otherwise dry historical text. But is that a good thing, if the facts are wrong? Are they doing more harm than good?

A team of psychologists has begun exploring these questions experimentally. Andrew Butler of Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues decided to simulate a classroom where popular films are used as a teaching tool, to see if the practice improved or distorted students’ understanding of history. The Last Samurai was in fact one of the films they used in the experiment, along with Amadeus, Glory, Amistad, and a few others. All of the films contained both accurate and inaccurate information about the historical incidents they depicted.

The students watched the film clips either before or after they read an accurate version of the historical events. So with The Last Samurai, for example, they read a version that accurately identified the hero as French, not American, and was faithful to the actual timeline of Japanese history. In addition, some of the students received a general warning about the inaccuracy of popular historical films, while others got very specific warnings, about changing the hero's nationality, for instance. The idea was to see which teaching method led to the most accurate comprehension of the events: reading or watching a movie or both, with or without the teacher's commentary.

When the psychologists tested all the students a week later, the verdict for classroom movies was one thumb up, one thumb down. Watching the films did clearly help the students learn more—but only when the information was the same in both text and film. Apparently the vividness of the film—and simply having a second version of the same facts—did help the students create stronger memories of the material. But when the information in the film and the reading were contradictory—that is, when the film was inaccurate—the students were more likely to recall the film’s distorted version. What’s more, they were very confident in their memories, even though they were wrong. This happened even when the students were warned that filmmakers often play fast and loose with the facts.

So should films be banned from the classroom? Not necessarily, and here’s why. As the psychologists report on-line in the journal Psychological Science, a good teacher can trump a movie's shortcomings. They found that when teachers gave the very detailed warnings about inaccuracies in the film version, the students got it. But those warnings had to be very precise, something like: Pay attention when you watch the film and you’ll see that the filmmaker has changed the nationality of the hero from French to American, which is not the way it was. With such warnings, the students apparently “tagged” the information as false in the minds—and remembered the accurate version when quizzed later on.

In this sense, the movie’s distorted version of history can be used as a teachable moment.* Students learn the truth by identifying the mistakes and labeling them, so their take-away learning is: the film says this, but in fact it’s that. Not a bad way to learn, assuming the classroom teacher knows enough to point out what’s this and that.

*For an entertaining guide to some historical inaccuracies in popular films, check out this slideshow at the Washington University in St. Louis website: http://news-info.wustl.edu/tips/page/normal/14418.html

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the "Full Frontal Psychology" blog at the True/Slant website. Selections from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at Newsweek.com.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 1:38 PM


At 3:15 PM , Blogger Hua said...

Hi Wray,

I have watched The Last Samurai a few times and have noticed all the historical errors too. Its funny how all of those occurred throughout the movie. This could explain why people have their history confused. I'm Hua, the director of Wellsphere's HealthBlogger Network, a network of over 2,000 of the best health writers on the web (including doctors, nurses, healthy living professionals, and expert patients). I think your blog would be a great addition to the Network, and I'd like to invite you to learn more about it and apply to join at http://www.wellsphere.com/health-blogger. Once approved by our Chief Medical Officer, your posts will be republished on Wellsphere where they will be available to over 5 million monthly visitors who come to the site looking for health information and support. There’s no cost and no extra work for you! The HealthBlogger page (http://www.wellsphere.com/health-blogger) provides details about participation, but if you have any questions please feel free to email me at hua@wellsphere.com.


At 7:53 PM , Blogger Mariana Soffer said...

Another way I thinnk movies are altering reality now is by distorting the concept of what art is

Movies are supposedly art form; Nevertheless a vast amount of people call Hollywood a movie factory. This is because movies are being made with formulas that are repeated tons of times, those repetitions include the way scripts are written, the angle cameras are positioned in each scene, the kind of clothes actors use, etc. Given the way people work in these movies they are usually not very interested neither passionate about their jobs; therefore they start working in an automatic way, without getting involved.

And the worst of all according to my opinion is how they distort the love relationship among couples, they make people belive that once they gave each other their first kiss then they will live happilly ever after.

At 6:25 PM , Blogger P M Prescott said...

I once attended a workshop on teaching science from science fiction movies. They used the old BW film "Them" about ants the size of a truck. The instructor then explained that this was an opportunity to teach the equation on mass, density and size of an exoskeleton so that if and ant was that big its legs could not support the weight and be able to move. You teach by correcting the errors.
I teach history and use movies much more sparingly than I did when starting out, the problem is that new teachers have difficulty filling up all the time and movies work nicely for time management and giving you time to grade papers while the students are watching (or sleeping) through it.
What you didn't mention about historical movies though, was that some things hit home more visually and film can enhance the learning process. Talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn't have the impact that the movie Thirteen Days does particularly with the numerous pictures of atomic explosions.