The Criterion Collection: Overlord

Paul Duane watches the latest release in the Criterion Collection: Stuart Cooper’s haunting 1975 war epic Overlord.


There are many films about the British experience of WW2. Many, many, many films. However, my abiding impression of what it was like to be a soldier in that war comes from literature. Having read Spike Milligan’s granular, hilarious and horribly sad account of his war at an impressionable age, it was difficult to take The Dam Busters et al. seriously. Milligan’s experience had a lot more to do with blanco’ing under belt buckles (I still don’t know what blanco is but I am pretty sure it’s no fun) than it did with heroism under fire, and his account of his eventual breakdown and hospitalisation from shell-shock is still vivid in my mind, thirty-odd years after I first read it.

But in cinema, that experience – the life and death of the squaddie – is harder to come by, at least outside of the idealised forms of the black and white war drama. There are a few exceptions (Henry Hathaway’s Twelve O’Clock High is particularly good) but they don’t tend to come from inside British cinema, which often doggedly celebrates the decency and sacrifice of the humble foot soldier, but is not all that keen on portraying the particulars of his experience.

Overlord is, then, an exceptional film in more ways than one. Made on a tiny budget of £125,000, it recreates the build-up to the D-Day landings with nail-biting tension and hugely impressive, epic visuals. The method employed to do this is, on the surface, simple and not that original – the director combed the archives of the Imperial War Museum for documentary footage shot by the Army Film Corps and edited it into his narrative.

What sets Overlord apart from your bog-standard WW2 drama-doc on the History Channel is Stuart Cooper’s remarkable ability to find poetry in footage that was shot for scientific and strategic purposes.

He’d been hired to make a twenty-minute film about a tapestry that had been commissioned, a sort of Bayeaux Tapestry of D-Day, but he managed to parlay this unpromising start into a feature film that would tell the story of a single soldier, Tom, and his growing awareness of two things as he takes part in Operation Overlord: one, he’s a tiny cog in a massive war machine; two, he’s going to die very soon.

Before that story took shape, though, Cooper had to find a path through the labyrinth of material he was presented with. As he writes here, the War Museum had 39 million feet of archive, most of it on highly flammable nitrate stock, and Cooper immersed himself in this material from ’71 to ’75. It took him 3,000 hours to view even a small portion of the archive. Then he started work on the screenplay.

The resulting film seamlessly melds actuality and drama, principally because of Cooper’s craftsmanship and his choice of a hugely gifted cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot the film on period lenses (ironically, perhaps, German ones) over a mere ten days of filming. It’s a magnificent achievement.

Watching the film, knowing very little of all this, one’s first impression is of the astonishingly fluid way in which the director uses the archive footage. Opening on captured enemy footage of German manoeuvres and Hitler’s plane flying over a devastated Europe, the film doesn’t attempt to trick us into believing our protagonist, Tom, has direct experience of these images, but it uses them as both a backdrop to his enlistment and a sort of abstraction of what’s in his mind.

Overlord makes clear at the outset what’s at stake. It’s not that absurd creature, an anti-war film. It’s a clear and awful picture of the human cost of war.

There are images of devastation here which the director removes from archival museum-piece context and makes shockingly strange. A huge, rocket-propelled wheel of fire deploys from an aquatic landing vehicle, then rolls and spins, shooting out sparks in an impotent and frighteningly irrational way, before going completely out of control and falling to the beach only a few feet from the camera lens*.

We experience bombing raids via ‘gun camera’ footage – cameras that were automatically triggered whenever a plane’s guns fired – and they become beautiful, abstract patterns, flowers of fire in the blackness. Then, at ground level, we see the aftermath – a brief flash of bodies that have been obliterated, leaving only a small pile of intestines to show that this was a human.

Once-silent films are expertly re-voiced and foleyed into a peculiar familiarity that makes them feel as though they could have been shot last week. One fireman warns another to ‘get out of the fuckin’ way!’ as a building falls. A woman waves off a trainload of troops as one shouts to her ‘Fancy a quickie?’. These tiny details build up into a technique that removes your defenses, stops you from seeing the war as something past, inexplicable, beyond understanding or identification.

Watching it in 2016 as Europe and the USA seem to be tottering towards disaster, it seems more relevant now than it was in 1975 when it was released.

The DoP, John Alcott, was also Stanley Kubrick’s cinematographer of choice, and Kubrick’s imprimatur has helped to ensure that Overlord‘s reputation survived many years of neglect. But he repaid that debt by using the film as a model for the early scenes in Full Metal Jacket.

Watching Overlord, however, it’s easy to feel that Cooper’s subtly workaday depiction of the brutalising effect of military discipline is more effective than R Lee Ermey’s walking megaphone of verbal abuse. (Yes, I am saying that Overlord is a better war movie than Full Metal Jacket. I also think it’s a better war movie than Dr Strangelove, though admittedly one that is aiming for a very different target).

As I said earlier, it’s hard to call Overlord an ‘anti-war’ film. However, it is clearly what you could call a post-Vietnam war film (the director is American, interestingly), in its focus on the toll taken by war on the individual components in the ‘war machine’.

The level of historical craft at work in Overlord is immensely impressive, and while watching it, part of my brain was occupied with questions like, ‘Is that footage of a Lancaster bomber flying alone newly shot?’ (Yes), and ‘How did they get a bunch of actors to drill convincingly?’ (The actors were trained by the Marines), and so on. But gradually those questions fell away, and I became lost in the strange fate of Tom Beddows.

Beddows is a little naive, just about to turn twenty-one, almost certainly virginal, and overwhelmingly aware of impending death. His brief, heartbreaking moment with an unnamed girl at a dance is as powerful a wartime romance as any I’ve seen, all the more because it’s over before it’s begun, like the vast majority of these relationships. The Girl will never even know his fate, and he knows that, and that knowledge is horribly sad.

Brian Stirner’s performance as Beddows is astonishing, transitioning from naive optimism to bewilderment, pain, resentment and – eventually – a blank  acceptance of impending death that seems to go beyond mere resignation and into a sort of sacrificial ecstasy. He could easily have played a mediaeval saint, or Jesus.

Instead his career seems to have melted away into the mire of bog-standard British TV drama. His co-star Nicholas Ball fared better, ending up as cool ’70s PI Hazell, and getting a bit part in one of my favourite London-set apocalyptic space vampire movies, Lifeforce.

Despite winning some major awards on its initial festival run, Overlord never went on wide release. In fact it disappeared more or less completely. Perhaps its strange vision, encompassing both the fatalism and the epic scale of war, pleased nobody. Certainly those looking for a scathing denunciation of battle would have gone away disappointed. So also would the seekers after redemption and the bromides of victory.

Overlord seemed lost to history until it was resurrected, in part due to the efforts of director Xan (daughter of John) Cassavetes, and the programmers of the Telluride Film Festival, in the early 2000s.

This obscurity is, in retrospect, tragic. Overlord is a major work, and an accessible one. It’s not like British television’s obsession with WW2 is running out of steam. However, a portrayal of the bleakness of sacrifice, and its toll on the young men of Britain, may even now not be exactly what their audience is looking for. It is, however, much needed.

Overlord isn’t only a great film, it’s a necessary one. Tom’s final letter home to his parents, with its brilliant line “The war machine keeps growing, and I am getting smaller and smaller,” is as poignant in its way as the poetry of Wilfrid Owen, and as memorable.

The Criterion blu-ray is beautiful in every way and the extras are hugely valuable. Cooper’s early short film, A Test Of Violence, on the paintings of Spanish artist Juan Genovesés, is a thing of beauty in itself, and the 1943 documentary Cameramen At War gives great insight into the conditions under which this extraordinary footage was shot.

*This machine, which never saw active service, was called ‘The Great Panjandrum’ and was partly invented by novelist Nevil Shute.

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