1066 and all that: how Hollywood is giving Britain a false sense of history
By Cahal Milmo
05 April 2004
The Battle of Hastings never took place and Adolf Hitler is a fictional character. Robin Hood really existed, Harold Wilson saved Britain during the Second World War and Conan the Barbarian is a bona fide figure from early Nordic history.
It might sound like the latest attempt by revisionist extremists to pervert the past but the reality is perhaps more disturbing: this is how a significant chunk of the British population, muddled by Hollywood films and unmoved by academia, sees history.
A survey of the historical knowledge of the average adult, to be published this week, has uncovered "absurd and depressing" areas of ignorance about past events, and confusion between characters from films and historical figures.
Researchers, who conducted face-to-face interviews with more than 2,000 people, found that almost a third of the population thinks the Cold War was not real and 6 per cent believeThe War of the Worlds, H G Wells's fictional account of a Martian invasion, did happen.
Some 57 per cent think King Arthur existed and 5 per cent accept that Conan the Barbarian, the warrior played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 1982 film, used to stalk the planet for real. Almost one in two believe William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish resistance leader played by Mel Gibson in his film Braveheart, was invented for the silver screen.
The study raised new questions about the teaching of history after it found that 11 per cent of the British population believed Hitler did not exist and 9 per cent said Winston Churchill was fictional. A further 33 per cent believed Mussolini was not a real historical figure.
Lord Janner of Braunstone, the chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: "Such findings show that in our schools we are not conveying sufficiently the recent past - a past in which many of us lived and so many people died.
"If we are to prevent the return of Hitlerism in our present or future, we have to know what happened in the lifetimes of so many of us.
"It is a terrible indictment of the level of knowledge of the general population."
The detractors of the survey's findings blamed Hollywood and television, which have gained a reputation for skewing historical events to fit audience profiles and lift profit margins.
The film U-571, starring Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi, sparked fury in Britain four years ago when it told how American servicemen altered the course of the Second World War by capturing the Enigma code machine from a German U-boat. In fact, it was British and Canadian sailors who captured the machine in May 1941, before the US had entered the war.
The survey of 2,069 adults aged 16 or over was conducted for Blenheim Palace to mark the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim.
Some 27 per cent of people interviewed thought Robin Hood, whose story has been featured in films by directors such as Kevin Costner and Mel Brooks, existed whereas 42 per cent believed Mel Gibson's Braveheart was an invention. More than 60 thought the Battle of Helms Deep in the Lord of the Rings trilogy actually took place.
Michael Wood, the historian, said the "dumbing-down" trend was damaging people's knowledge of the past.
He said: "If you don't give an audience a clear idea of how we know things, I believe this is a problem. Hollywood distorts history the whole time and once you get that far down the line it's not history, it's entertainment.
"History is there to give value to the present as well as to entertain. You do diminish it if you take the mickey out of it in an attempt to make it 'accessible'."
More than a quarter of people do not know in which century the Great War took place and 57 per cent believe that the Battle of the Bulge, the Nazi counter-offensive in the Ardennes in 1945, never happened.
A further 53 per cent think the military leader who lead British troops at Waterloo was Lord Nelson whereas a quarter think the admiral's fatal triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar did not take place. Nearly one in five believe Harold Wilson, not Winston Churchill, was Prime Minister during the Second World War.
John Hoy, the chief executive of Blenheim Palace, said history had become boring. He said: "People associate history with dry and dusty dates and facts. Once they realise that history is about people, the way we used to live and the way we live now, it becomes more relevant and more exciting."
Others pointed to the popularity of history programmes. Francis Robinson, the senior vice principal of Royal Holloway, University of London, said the delivery of history to a wider audience was a worthy goal.
He said: "I have no problem with using different media to get across the message to different sections of the audience. There is always a chance of misrepresentation, but you have to weigh up that against the broader good of encouraging more people's interest."
But Andrew Roberts, the right-wing historian, said: "We have abandoned the teaching of history according to dates and context - if you don't know that the Tudors came before the Stuarts then you can't understand anything of that period.
"Within a generation we are going to lose our national memory and for Britain, which has such a unique and complex history, that is a complete tragedy."
Stranger than fiction: Disraeli, Hitler and the Cold War
Real people that some believe never existed
Ethelred the Unready King of England 978 to 1016 - 63 per cent
William Wallace 13th-century Scottish hero - 42 per cent
Benjamin Disraeli Prime minister and founder of the modern Tory party - 40 per cent
Genghis Khan, Mongol conqueror - 38 per cent
Benito Mussolini, Fascist dictator, 33 per cent
Adolf Hitler - 11 per cent
Winston Churchill - 9 per cent
Real events some people believe never took place
Battle of the Bulge 52 per cent
Battle of Little Big Horn Scene of Custer's last stand - 48 per cent
Hundred Years' War 44 per cent
Cold War - 32 per cent
Battle of Hastings, 15 per cent
Fictional characters who we believe were real
King Arthur , mythical monarch of the Round Table - 57 per cent
Robin Hood - 27 per cent
Conan the Barbarian - 5 per cent
Richard Sharpe , fictional cad and warrior - 3 per cent
Edmund Blackadder - 1 per cent
Xena Warrior Princess - 1 per cent
Fictional events that we believe did take place
War of the Worlds , Martian invasion - 6 per cent
Battle of Helms Deep , Rings Trilogy - The Two Towers - 3 per cent
Battle of Endor , The Return of the Jedi - 2 per cent
Planet of the Apes , the apes rule Earth - 1 per cent
Battlestar Galactica , the defeat of humanity by cyborgs - 1 per cent