Which Modern War Has Yielded the Best Movies? (part 1)

Quick: name a really good movie about the American Revolution.

Trumbull, Surrender of Wallis at Yorktown
John Trumbull, “The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown” (1797) – Wikimedia

Not so easy, is it? In the recent “Real to Reel” episode of the podcast BackStory (H/T John Fea), historian Mark Peterson pointed out how little attention this significant episode in American history has drawn from filmmakers and how lousy most of the rare attempts have been. (Listen to the podcast around the 37:00 mark to hear Peterson and fellow historian Peter Onuf theorize that this has something to do with patricide… Um…)

Now, I really like Guy Hamilton’s 1959 version of the George Bernard Shaw play The Devil’s Disciple, starring Kirk Douglas as an American rebel and Burt Lancaster as a minister who encounter the British general John Burgoyne (the guy who lost Saratoga) and find that he looks and sounds a lot like Laurence Olivier. But it’s hardly a great war movie.

I wondered if perhaps Peterson and I had simply missed some decent Revolutionary War flicks. So I went to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and ran an advanced search for feature films marked as being in the “war” genre that had received at least 5000 votes from IMDB users. This yielded a little over 300 movies. (Limit to 10,000 votes and you drop below 200; accept movies that have received as few as 1000 votes and you’re up near 800, but you’re also digging through pretty obscure titles.)

The Patriot posterAnd, true enough, only one of them is about the American Revolution: Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (and here I totally agree with Peterson’s assessment of the film’s lack of merit). At 6.9/10, it has the same score as The Devil’s Disciple (!), but about 130,000 more votes cast than the 700-some given the Douglas-Lancaster-Olivier collaboration.

So if not the Revolutionary War, which modern war has generated the best overall set of movies?

I’ve got personal opinions about this questions — and would very much welcome your own thoughts in the Comments section! — but I thought I’d try something a bit more objective to spark discussion. I went back to my IMDB list of war movies with at least 5000 votes, only counted wars since 1700, and omitted any that had failed to produce at least five meeting the search criteria. That left me with six conflicts (some clustered together), which I then ranked using a weighted average of (a) the median IMDB user rating for all movies set during (or otherwise concerning) that war and (b) the median critics’ rating (also on a 10-point scale) for the same movies at the Rotten Tomatoes (RT) aggregator. I gave more weight to the IMDB users simply because the number of critics whose opinions were factored into the RT score varied widely — from as few as five to as many as two hundred.

I’ll reveal the results today and tomorrow, with the score (again, 10-point scale) and the best- and worst-rated movies for each. We’ll start at the bottom of the ladder and climb our way up:

6. Afghanistan and Iraq (6.6/10)

Best: The Hurt Locker (7.9); Turtles Can Fly (7.8); Brothers (7.6; the 2004 Danish film, not the 2009 remake starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire as the titular relatives)

(Zero Dark Thirty isn’t listed as a “war” movie by IMDB, but it would come in at 8.1.)

Worst: Home of the Brave (5.1); Special Forces (5.4); Dear John (5.5)

Total Number: 23

I included a couple of films about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s and a few about the Gulf War of the 1990s (ranging from Courage under Fire to Hot Shots!, with David O. Russell’s underappreciated Three Kings occupying a middle ground between those two, I guess), but most of these movies are set in the post-9/11 period. They’re not well-regarded by IMDB users, with not a single one reaching the 8.0 threshold that usually guarantees inclusion on the website’s Top 250 list. And only the Kathryn Bigelow-directed Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty score so highly among critics.

5. The Former Yugoslavia (7.1/10)

Best: No Man’s Land (7.9); Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (7.9)

Worst: In the Land of Blood and Honey (4.8); Behind Enemy Lines (5.7)

Total Number: 8

It’s a small enough group (most about the Bosnian civil war and genocide) that I considered tossing out the set, but despite their generally middling reception by critics (none higher than a 7.8), it’s a complex chapter in history whose best celluloid representations aren’t generally known to American audiences.

4. American Civil War (7.2/10)

Glory posterBest: The General (8.5); Gone with the Wind (8.4); Glory (7.9)

Worst: Gods and Generals (5.3); Seraphim Falls (6.4); Ride with the Devil (6.5)

Total Number: 11

I’m still surprised that so few Civil War movies showed up in the search. (Some were too little-seen to be ranked: Red Badge of Courage is one of my favorite (anti)war films, but it has fewer than 3000 votes on IMDB.) The release of Lincoln last year drew renewed attention to a war celebrating an ongoing 150th anniversary, but it simply hasn’t produced that much interest from filmmakers.

One side note – this was the category where the judgment of fans and critics was most similar: the median scores were identical, and the difference between the two scores was half a point or less for seven of the eleven. The single largest disparity was predictable: IMDB users give The Birth of a Nation a mediocre 7.0/10, while critics are at 8.1 (higher than all Civil War films save The General — one of Buster Keaton’s finest moments — and Gone with the Wind). As New Yorker film editor Richard Brody wrote recently, “The worst thing about ‘Birth of a Nation’ is how good it is. The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love.”

Tomorrow, I’ll reveal the top three cinematic modern wars!

Read the next post in this series>>

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