Heritage chief accuses Hollywood of rewriting history to suit American tastes

Guardians of our history, worried by routine distortion of the past, appeal for more accuracy. Jonathan Thompson reports
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The Independent Online

English Heritage, the government body responsible for the historic environment, has accused Hollywood studios of destroying Britain's national identity with misleading and inaccurate portrayals of the country's past.

English Heritage, the government body responsible for the historic environment, has accused Hollywood studios of destroying Britain's national identity with misleading and inaccurate portrayals of the country's past.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Dr Simon Thurley, the chief executive, deplored film-makers' "sloppy" and "formulaic" approach to British history which, he said, had left a generation of children confused.

He singled out films such as Saving Private Ryan, U-571 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as prime offenders, and said that Warrior, Mel Gibson's forthcoming portrayal of the Iceni queen Boudicca was "bound to be ludicrously misleading". He appealed to Gibson - who recently directed The Passion of the Christ - to inject some accuracy into Warrior.

"One of my principal concerns is that the majority of children now leave school with the sketchiest of chronology about English history," said Dr Thurley, the former director of the Museum of London and a leading historian. "One place they turn to for that knowledge is films."

He is worried by the routine distortion of England's medieval past, as seen in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. "People are very, very lazy," he said. "They say 'medieval' and the people automatically have to be dirty: it's very much blood and blisters and ashes and sackcloth, but actually, people were living in multicolour then."

The Americanisation of British history has been another sore point with historians and reviewers. Saving Private Ryan, based on the Normandy landings, infuriated army veterans by cutting out all mention of British or Allied troops. In U-571, the British submariners at the heart of the historical action are replaced by Americans. British history remains hugely popular as Hollywood material. Warrior, for example, is one of three films on Boudicca currently in production.

"Hollywood is a formulaic product - you need a hero or heroine and a love interest, so they will ask: how can we make the formula happen?" Dr Thurley said. "I'd say to them ... see if you can make a new film out of the actual history. Films that have tried this in the past have been good - such as Mrs Brown and The Madness of King George."

Antony Beevor, the country's best-selling author of popular history whose books include Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945, shares the concern expressed by English Heritage. "The trouble is that the interests of Hollywood and the interests of history are diametrically opposed, and you can't turn every hero in the world into an American," he said. "The way that Hollywood plays with national identity is completely shameless and totally irresponsible - it is a grotesque distortion of history.

"The irony is that Hollywood feels compelled to claim these films are based on a true story. They're not interested in truth, but at the same time, they're obsessed with attaching 'truth' to these films, because they think it's a better way to sell them."

Nor is it just British history that suffers at the hands of the moguls. Television historian Bettany Hughes said: "Hollywood has committed some terrible crimes against history. Take Troy for instance ... the film was a travesty of mismatched cultural references. Dead heroes in Greco-Roman dress were cremated with coins on their eyes - before money had been invented. Homer's characters slept with the wrong people and died in the wrong countries."

To help restore the balance and "reclaim our past", English Heritage will be putting on a Festival of History next weekend - a two-day event beginning on Saturday, attempting to illustrate 2,000 years of England's history. Visitors will be able to watch re-enactments of dozens of key moments from our past, including Boudicca's final battle. "This debunks the Hollywood myth of the past being dirty and smelly," said Dr Thurley. "People can go to the festival and actually see that it was possible to live without washing machines, toothpaste and, dare I say it, condoms."


Historical fiction: Tinseltown has long felt you shouldn't let facts get in the way of a 'good' story

Steve Bloomfield and Kate Horstead

Hard British historical facts have rarely troubled Hollywood. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner escapes the Turks during the crusades and kills the Sheriff of Nottingham. There are many theories about Robin Hood but this fits none of them.

Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson, portrayed a humble William Wallace uniting the Scots against a vicious English king. Wallace was in fact a knight and the film's romance plot was a complete fabrication.

Another Mel Gibson vehicle, The Patriot, shows plucky, honest Mel against the evil Brits. The character he plays in the film was in reality a racist rapist.

But nothing beats U-571, for chutzpah. This shows American submariners capturing the Nazis' Enigma machine and thereby winning the war. The British actually captured the machine and intelligence officers at Bletchley Park cracked the code.