Film shows war in new light
Most war films maintain one of two styles in story telling: documentary or historical fiction. Linear plots usually lead from the recent life of a main character, to a first attack, then to a capture or rescue conflict scenario and finally to a death, escape or mission accomplishment.
In 1975, director Stuart Cooper combined these two narrative types by interweaving historical World War II footage with constructed fictional scenes to make Overlord, a pseudo-recollection of a man’s conversion from new trainee to war machine.
The basic plot (co-written with Christopher Hudson) follows a story familiar to most WWII veterans; sheltered 20-year-old Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) lives a pre-war life like most young men, including a cute romance with a shy British girl, Janey (Julie Neesam). Tom ignores premonitions of his own death and anxiously prepares for battle. He slowly loses his individuality in the massive conflict and becomes assimilated into a fighting mechanism for the D-Day attack on Nazi-occupied France.
It’s worth mentioning that Overlord isn’t a typical Saving Private Ryan D-Day film. It’s slow-paced and broods over the enormous life-changing transition of a young man becoming a soldier. Constant rifle-fire, explosions and heavily stressed themes of patriotism and solidarity are displaced by the boredom of nervousness and an uncertainty of dread.
Overlord’s story telling is almost entirely image-based, and the interjected archival footage and recreated scenes are excellently paired by Cooper and editor Jonathan Gili. The stunning black and white filmed portions were done by John Alcott, a frequent collaborator and colleague of Stanley Kubrick. As explained in one of the DVD’s many bonus features, Mining the Archive, archivists from England’s Imperial War Museum meticulously pored over the catalogued film stock and assisted Cooper with the history and context of the footage, making its presence in the film both logically placed and factually accurate.
The Criterion Collection’s double-disc DVD release of Overlord received the typical high-quality restoration and treatment that’s come to be expected of Criterion. The bonus features alone are enough to justify the higher price: a full-length audio commentary featuring Cooper and Stirner, and the aforementioned Mining the Archive video.
Also included is Capa Influences Cooper, a photo essay in which Cooper comments on photographer Robert Capa’s influence over his directorial style with photos from Normandy. Cameramen at War is the British Ministry of Information’s 1943 film tribute to newsreel and service film unit cameramen in the war, and A Test of Violence (1969) is Cooper’s earlier short film about Spanish artist Juan Genoves. Germany Calling, a 1941 British Ministry of Information propaganda film, was one of the sources of clips that appear in Overlord. There are also audio journals from two D-day soldiers, read by Stirner, and a theatrical trailer for Overlord.
Criterion has also continued their usual tradition of including enormous booklets in the packaging. Overlord’s booklet contains a new essay by critic Kent Jones, a short history of the Imperial War Museum, and excerpts from the Overlord novelization, by Cooper and Christopher Hudson.
The film is 84 minutes long, in English, black and white, and available from the Criterion Collection for $39.95. There are English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.