"They Died with Their Boots On"
No list of this kind would be complete without "They Died with Their Boots On" (1941), which film historians cite as the quintessential historically inaccurate film. Historian Alvin Josephy Jr. writes that the movie "runs completely amok" with history [source: Carnes]. The story follows U.S. Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer through his life and military exploits, culminating in the controversial battle that took his life along with the 200 soldiers he led.
First of all, the film exaggerates Custer's war record. It also chalks up his military promotion to an administrative mistake, which it wasn't. Not only that, but the movie depicts Custer turning to alcohol in 1865, when in reality he swore off the stuff after an embarrassing incident in 1862. Modern viewers take issue with the movie's stereotypical, one-dimensional depiction of Native Americans as well, particularly Chief Crazy Horse, the Lakota Sioux war chief.
What really irks historians, however, is the film's portrayal of the events leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn. It whitewashes Custer's motivations for entering into the battle, showing him as extremely sympathetic to the Native Americans and writing an emotional letter that pleads their case. He solemnly marches into battle knowing it's hopeless and makes a sacrifice out of himself. In truth, historians believe Custer not only entered battle rashly and arrogantly, but also without such noble intentions for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes he fought.