Ever since I saw the clips from Overlord in Alexandra Cassavetes' documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, it's been high on my list of films to see if ever I could lay my hands on it. This was no easy task, however. Outside of its airing on that legendary cable channel and a few special screenings, it's never really been available in the United States. So, I played that game we all play in the DVD age: I added it to my wish list and hoped that somewhere a cinema genie would pick up on my desire and grant it.
In the case of Overlord, it's the folks at Criterion who granted me my wish. Working with director Stuart Cooper, they have brought the 1975 World War II picture to DVD, meticulously creating a new high-definition transfer so that those of us seeing this unique film for the first time can see it as it was intended.
Overlord is the story of Private Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner), a sheltered English teen whose life is forever changed the day he leaves for the army--as it was for some many young men during the war. Though there is no way that Tom can know that he will be one of the first on the beach on D-Day (much less know what D-Day is), a sense of doom hangs over him. All through basic training and up to his first assignment out of country, he knows that something is going to happen to him, that's he's going to die. He just doesn't know how.
Actually, he doesn't even know what for most of the movie, at least not enough to say it out loud, not until he's much closer. Instead, he wanders blankly through his service, not really acting unless ordered to by officers or coerced by friends. Only when he meets a girl (Julie Neesam) does he make a decision for himself. He promises to see her again, but as such things go, of course, he never will.
Cooper shows Tom's anxieties through a series of montages, splicing together archival footage with more surreal takes on the average battle scene. That's actually what sets Overlord apart from most other WWII pictures, its extensive use of actual wartime film elements taken from Britain's Imperial War Museum. Working with cinematographer John Alcott (a Kubrick collaborator) and editor Jonathan Gili, Cooper patches the new and the old together in such a way that you can't really tell the difference. By using a black-and-white film stock with a slight grain, they remove any demarcation from past and present, fiction and non-fiction. It's all part of Tom's interior odyssey.
We know that the scenes we see are not ones Tom will be a part of because, in addition to the dream-like touches, some of the battle sequences are ones he couldn't possibly be privy to. For instance, how would he witness a dogfight from inside a cockpit? He's not a pilot. In some cases, we actually see Tom wake from his dreams. The most extensive visions come to him when he's in transit, either riding on a train or a transport jeep. This lends to the feeling that Tom is heading for something. The army has placed him on a slow-boat toward destiny. Any time he is not in motion, he is just biding time.
Once D-Day finally arrives--and Tom arrives at his destination (I never noticed the root of that word before)--it's not a gung-ho rush onto the French shores. It's a quiet event for the soldiers on the troop boats. It's here that we realize that for Tom and his buddies, preparing for battle wasn't a process of building oneself up; rather, it was a process of emptying oneself out. Symbolically, this shows up in Tom's dreams as a scene where the girl he is sweet on strips him down and uses him as a model to demonstrate how to prepare the fallen for burial. In his real-life exploits, we can see the change in the move from a crowded movie theatre to an empty music hall where Tom and another soldier are the only witnesses to a sad performance. A mother forces her daughter to sing a song about love that she's way too young to understand, and the young girl performs with great reluctance. Her fumbling isolation on the stage is no different than Tom's sleepwalking through his service. The saddest thing--or perhaps, for them, a stroke of great luck--is that there is no one to bear witness to their struggle. Even the army accepts that there is nothing left of the boy (boys) who first joined them, instructing the soldiers to throw all of their personal papers on a bonfire before heading into battle.
Made during the end stages of the Vietnam War, it's no wonder a thoughtful filmmaker like Cooper would make a brooding film about the effects of war on a young person's mind. Born in New Jersey in 1942, the threat of the draft must have dogged the director through his twenties. Overlord takes great pains not to give the fighting a mythic quality. Really, the archival footage is the best tool for that. The camera could only ever get so close to the skirmish, and Cooper never takes us into the thick of it nor creates any action scenes out of whole cloth (Overlord stops just short of the big conflict). For him, the sacrifice soldiers make is more anonymous. Tom's fate could be the same as the many others in the great waves of boys sent to the frontlines. It doesn't make Tom's willingness to go any less noble. Really, in an existential sense, it's more noble choosing to act even when you know it's futile. To my mind, Cooper is saying far be it from any of us to glorify what happened after the fact, the glory is for the men who were there. Hence, the only warfare he'd commit to celluloid was that which really happened. There is no faking it.
So, be warned, those going into Overlord looking for explosions and rifle fire, this isn't your average D-Day movie. You're probably going to find it a little slow. To be honest, even going in expecting something different, you might find it a little slow, too. But that's just the dream-like state Stuart Cooper is going for, like the image of the runner that keeps recurring, never coming into focus, never seeming to get where he's going. In a way, we have to be like the dreamer, be like Tom, and instead of struggling against it, we have to accept that it only gets easier the more we surrender. When you do, that's when Overlord will crack open for you, revealing its inner secrets, and in a flash, a single gun blast, it will all make sense.
For the full review, including extras and technical specs, read here.