The Most Over- and Underrated War Movies

Battle scene from Birth of a Nation
Battle scene from Birth of a Nation – Wikimedia

In my two-part series asking which wars had inspired the best movies, I noted that the views of the fans who register their opinions with the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) sometimes diverge significantly from those of the film critics whose reviews are aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes (RT).

The example I gave in Monday’s analysis of Civil War movies was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, whose IMDB rating of 7.0 fell below the median of 7.3 for the entire set of war movies receiving at least 5000 votes in that database. But 100% of the thirty-two RT critics recommended the movie, giving it an average rating of 8.1 out of 10. Roger Ebert calls BoaN — despite its positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan and offensive characterizations of African-American characters — “an unavoidable fact of American movie history” and agreed with James Agee’s assessment of Griffith’s still-stunning battle charge: “I have heard it praised for its realism, but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like…”

So I wondered where else critical and popular opinion diverged so sharply on the merits of war movies. Many of the most significant differentials in ratings were on movies that both groups clearly disliked, but IMDB users tended to be kinder, giving 6’s where critics gave 3’s and 4’s. So I went back through my data, identified all the movies above the median score, and ranked them by differential. Here are the results:

War Movies Most Overrated by Fans

Movie

IMDB

Rotten Tomatoes

Differential

1. Enemy at the Gates

7.5

5.7

1.8

2t. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

7.8

6.2

1.6

2t. Train of Life

7.5

5.9

1.6

2t. Life Is a Miracle

7.5

5.9

1.6

5t. Johnny Got His Gun

7.8

6.6

1.2

5t. Cross of Iron

7.5

6.3

1.2

5t. Tora! Tora! Tora!

7.4

6.2

1.2

5t. Where Eagles Dare

7.6

6.4

1.2

Trumbo, Johnny Got His GunWhat jumps out right away is that only one of these isn’t a World War II movie. From 1971, Johnny Got His Gun is famously-blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s attempt to film his own novel (written just before WWII) about an American soldier who loses his arms, legs, eyes, ears, tongue, and teeth in the First World War. It’s got an okay 70% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the critics who didn’t like it didn’t mince words — “a stultifyingly bad movie,” wrote the New York Times’ Roger Greenspun, complaining that the film, like its protagonist, “is shrouded in virtue. But insistent virtue, without ideas, becomes demagoguery.” (The filmed stage version from 2008 — starring Ben McKenzie of The O.C. fame! — fares even worse with both critics and IMDB users.)

I won’t complain about Enemy at the Gates leading the way in this dubious category, though it’s always a shame to see the talents of Ed Harris wasted. I haven’t seen 1977’s Cross of Iron, also set on the Eastern Front, but am intrigued simply by the notion of master of screen violence (pre-Tarantino class) Sam Peckinpah directing a script by the writer of Casablanca. And much as I enjoyed watching Tora! Tora! Tora! with my dad growing up, it’s closer in quality to Pearl Harbor than fans of either would probably like to admit.

I will quibble with the two critics whose negative reviews dropped Where Eagles Dare, however. To be sure, it fails to match The Guns of Navarone, with which it shares an author (Alistair MacLean) and formula (all-star cast sets off for exotic locales on a special mission against the Nazis, facing long odds made longer by betrayal), but I’ll join with Vincent Canby in concluding that the artifice and overlength don’t end up mattering that much: “…the plotting, wild and sometimes seemingly endless, is not as important as the physical production and the dramatization of individual incident…. There is an excess of situation here that threatens to become as numbing as an overdose of Novocain. It never quite does, however.”

War Movies Most Underrated by Fans

Movie

IMDB

Rotten Tomatoes

Differential

1t. Grand Illusion

8.1

9.4

-1.3

1t. The Dam Busters

7.3

8.6

-1.3

1t. The Train

7.8

9.1

-1.3

4. Au revoir les infants

8.0

9.2

-1.2

5t. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

8.0

9.1

-1.1

5t. The Birth of a Nation

7.0

8.1

-1.1

I’ve already written about Grand Illusion in an earlier post on “Great Films about the Great War”; otherwise, the Second World War again dominates the list. (Again, on the list I generated last week, there were as many movies inspired by that war as by all the rest put together.) But it’s a very different set of WWII flicks from the one above.

The Train posterFirst, the most recent (Louis Malle’s affecting Au revoir les enfants) is now more than a quarter-century old, and the next youngest (The Train) will celebrated its fiftieth birthday next year. In writing my two-part series, I didn’t want to descend into sabermetric analysis, but I did wonder if IMDB didn’t have a substantial bias in favor of newer films. Among those films that cleared the median score… The 2000s produced almost twice as many as any other decade, but every decade going back to the 1940s claimed at least eleven well-regarded, popular war films.

Second, with the exception of Birth of a Nation and The Train (starring Burt Lancaster and directed by John Frankenheimer, but with an overwhelmingly European cast), these movies aren’t American in origin. In addition to Au revoir les enfants and the polyglot Grand Illusion (both by French directors), IMDB users undervalue two British films: The Dam Busters, a 1950s docudrama about the “bouncing bombs” used in raids on dams in the Ruhr Valley, featuring impressive-for-the-time special effects; and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the satire that might be the best of the terrific series of wartime movies produced by the duo known as The Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). It also features the talents of several European refugees, including French cinematographer Georges Perinal and Polish composer Allan Gray.

My personal favorite of the Powell/Pressburger films is their first, Contraband (released in America as Blackout), starring German refugee Conrad Veidt in a role that would astonish American viewers who know him only as the villainous Major Strasser in Casablanca.


4 thoughts on “The Most Over- and Underrated War Movies

  1. Where Eagles Dare is one of the most overrated films ever made. There’s no suspense, no tension. The protagonists are virtually invincible, the Nazis pose no threat, and the action scenes have not stood the test of time.

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