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Director: Stuart Cooper
Screenplay: Stuart Cooper & Christopher Hudson
Stars: Brian Stirner (Tom), Davyd Harries (Jack), Nicholas Ball (Arthur), Julie Neesam (The Girl), Sam Sewell (The Trained Soldier), John Franklyn-Robbins (Dad), Stella Tanner (Mum), Harry Shacklock (Stationmaster), David Scheuer (Medical Officer), Ian Liston (Barrack Guard), Lorna Lewis (Prostitute)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1975
Country: U.K.
Overlord: Criterion Collection DVD
In dreams begin responsibilities The use of stock footage has been a staple of the movies, especially war movies, since the beginnings of the cinema, but in Overlord, whose title is a reference to the code name for the Allied invasion of Europe, Stuart Cooper raises it to an art form. After culling through thousands of hours of footage that was taken by various military filmmakers (both Allied and German) throughout World War II and archived in the Imperial War Museum, Cooper constructed a short, but powerful film that seamlessly mixes the archival footage with a fictional narrative tracing the path of a young British soldier from his home to the beaches at Normandy.

However, the real achievement of Overlord is not so much the ability of Cooper and his editor, Jonathan Gili, to match the archival footage with the new footage by cinematographer John Alcott, who that same year shot Stanley Kubrick’s lush tragedy Barry Lyndon. Rather, it is Cooper’s ability to intermingle the two sources of imagery to create a persistently dreamlike atmosphere; despite having completely different sources, the film’s documentary footage and expressive fictional footage are all of a piece--both realistic and surreal. Overlord is replete with the traditions of the war genre, from the training montage, to the homosocial camaraderie of the troops, but its most powerful moments take place deep within the young soldier’s dreamworld, where he imagines conversations and encounters that haunt the build-up to the Allied invasion, giving this massive, historical moment an everyman emotional charge.

The young man is named Tom, and he is played by Brian Stirner, who at the time was an unknown (Cooper insisted that the main character not be played by a recognizable actor). He is a simple and modest person, perched (as are so many soldiers) on the threshold between boyhood and manhood. He has an inviting face and a genial persona, which immediately sets up the fear that we are watching the slow destruction of innocence. There are hints of his possible death in a recurring slow-motion image of a soldier in full sprint being shot down, but it is not clear exactly who this victim is and whether it is a premonition of the future of a symbol of the necessary evils of war.

Because Overlord was made partially to celebrate the 30th anniversary of D-Day, it is not a one-note antiwar missive, but neither it is a rah-rah celebration of military prowess. Instead, Cooper suggests the realities of war without making any overt moral statements. His use of the archival footage is particularly compelling here because it evokes such contrasting emotions. Images of bombs dropping from the bellies of planes have an almost poetic rhythm, a montage of military/industrial build-up can’t help but create a sense of both admiration and dread, and the first-person shots of planes shooting up supply-carrying trains gives you a vertiginous video-game rush that is countered by on-the-ground footage of burning buildings and the occasional, brief shot of charred German corpses. It is both exhilarating and nauseating, and the fact that Cooper and his coscreenwriter Christopher Hudson derived much of their screenplay from actual journal entries reinforces the idea that such divergent responses are not at all uncommon.

The emotional thread of the story is drawn out in a romantic subplot in which Tom meets a young woman (Julie Neesam) at a dance in the small town where his unit is stationed. They have a sweet, slightly awkward exchange at the dance and then go for a chaste walk in which they both suggest more attraction than they’re willing to engage at that moment. They promise to meet again, but then Tom’s unit is called out, which ensures that any future exchanges will take place only inside the young man’s mind. Cooper gives us two scenes in which Tom and the girl reunite in the realm of his daydreams, which creates a sensation of such universal loss and sadness that the unexpected and cruelly ironic conclusion on the sands of Normandy takes on a heightened sense of tragedy.

Although Overlord shared the Silver Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival, it quickly sank from memory when it failed to get a U.S. distributor and was all but forgotten until it was resurrected at the 2006 Telluride Film Festival. I doubt it will be forgotten again.

Overlord Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
Audio English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director Stuart Cooper and actor Brian Stirner
  • “Mining the Archive” featurette
  • “Capa Influences Cooper” photo essay
  • Cameramen at War 1943 film tribute
  • Germany Calling 1941 propaganda film
  • A Test of Violence, Cooper’s 1969 short film about Spanish artist Juan Genovès
  • Journals from two D-day soldiers, read by Brian Stirner
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet with 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
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 17, 2007

    Overlord’s new digitally restored anamorphic widescreen transfer was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and approved by director Stuart Cooper. The film was shot by cinematographer John Alcott using outdated German lenses and film stock so that the new footage better matched the documentary footage culled from the archives, thus there is little visual distinction between 1940s footage and 1975 footage. The image is gorgeous throughout, with a textural graininess the creates good detail despite the overall grayish effect produced by the uncoated lenses (much of the film has a slightly surreal, dream-like haze to it). As Cooper notes in the audio commentary, the soundtrack is very important, and he emphasizes that it should be viewed in a large space with the sound turned up to get the full effect of the opening scene, which begins with no image, only sound. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred from the 35mm magnetic stems, sounds excellent throughout and does full justice to Cooper’s complex sound montages.
    The screen-specific audio commentary by writer/director Stuart Cooper and actor Brian Stirner (who were recorded separately) offers significant insight into the making of this almost forgotten film; you will appreciate it even more after listening to how Cooper realized his ideas and Stirner’s personal experiences making the film as a young actor. We get a rare chance to see some of Cooper’s early work in his 1969 short A Test of Violence, a mesmerizing film that literally brings the paintings of Spanish artist Juan Genovès to life using opticals, animation, and documentary and staged footage. The film won awards at many festivals and led directly to Cooper being hired to make a documentary for the Imperial War Museum that eventually turned into Overlord. In the eight-minute photo essay “Capa Influences Cooper,” Cooper discusses how the work of photographer Robert Capa, especially his infamous 1936 photo of a Spanish Loyalist at the moment of death and his surviving photos of the D-Day invasion, influenced his visualization of the film. There are also a couple of World War II-era films included on the disc. Germany Calling is a 1941 propaganda film produced by the British Ministry of Information that recuts scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to make Hitler and the Nazis look ridiculous (Cooper used clips from this film during the movie theater scene in Overlord). Cameramen at War is another British Ministry of Information film. Produced in 1943 and running 15 minutes in length, it celebrates the work of the cameramen who were serving in the war to make “a permanent record of the drama of the battle front.” Although clearly propagandistic in intent, Cameramen at War is a compelling document that is filled with stunning war footage from both World War I and World War II. The involvement of the Imperial War Museum in the making of Overlord is chronicled in the 24-minute featurette “Mining the Archive,” which features interviews with Roger Smither and Anne Fleming, the current and former heads of the museum’s Film and Photo Archives, respectively. The featurette also includes additional dramatic war footage from the archives not used in Overlord. The archives also provide journal entries from two D-Day soldiers, which actor Brian Stirner reads. The insert book has a new essay by critic Kent Jones, a brief history of the Imperial War Museum, and excerpts from the Overlord novelization by Cooper and Christopher Hudson.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

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