April 13, 2007
Stuart Cooper’s Overlord (1975) is proof that you can make an epic movie about World War II with very little money. His film depicts one man’s journey from basic training to D-Day. He did this by blending archival war footage from the Imperial War Museum with his own fictional narrative that was shot by Stanley Kubrick’s longtime cinematographer John Alcott.
Tom (Stirner) is a 20-year-old native of England who, on the eve of his arrival to boot camp, narrowly escapes an air raid. He and his fellow recruits go through a rigorous training regime with their superiors screaming in their faces. They are also put through a grueling series of drills and exercises that whip them into shape and make them combat ready. While these scenes are typical of the war film genre, Cooper tends to depict them in an atypical way, like Tom’s foolish short cut while trying to catch up with his platoon on a hike. He falls down a ravine and his painful descent is captured in a slow motion close-up of his face contorted in anguish.
Overlord is an oddly impressionistic take with footage of Tom running across a war-torn field with explosions going off and gunfire as if he’s fighting the war by himself and in a way he is – inside his head. Cooper jumps around in time, from D-Day to basic training to when Tom met a pretty woman (Neesam). They flirt awkwardly and yet endearingly, even managing to share a dance and a kiss. And yet, at times, the film has a very documentary-like feel. For example, we see Tom’s company set up camp and plan out maneuvers against the enemy and then Cooper juxtaposes this with their spare time spent playing cards – it’s the day-to-day events that the men experience.
Cooper effectively builds a feeling of dread as Tom and his company steam towards the beaches and to almost certain death. He daringly cuts away for an oddly presented sex scene between Tom and the girl and then we are right back on the boat with him as he imagines his own death just before reaching the beach.
Cooper does a nice job juxtaposing the intimacy of Tom’s journey with the epic scale of the archival footage as Kent Jones points out in his essay included in the accompanying booklet, “the discrepancy between one individual soldier named Tom and the vast machinery of war.” And this is reinforced by Tom’s observation that “the war machine keeps growing, and I am getting smaller and smaller.” The documentary footage is very impressive and includes scenes of bombs dropping from the sky and impacting on the ground, a plane attacking a locomotive on the ground and a slow moving mine flail cutting through lines of barbwire on a beach. Overlord thankfully lacks the melodramatic bombast of a Saving Private Ryan (1999) for a more thoughtful, minimalist take. The result is one of the more powerful statements on the dehumanizing nature of war.
There is an audio commentary by director Stuart Cooper and actor Brian Stirner. Cooper talks about where he got the archival footage and why he used the stuff that he did. Stirner, meanwhile, speaks briefly about his acting experience before the film and how making it helped him understand what his parents and their generation experienced. Cooper says that he worked hard to use footage that was relevant to the period of time depicted in the film and not just use random shots. He got all of his props from the Imperial War Museum and had the people who worked there be his costume designers and consultants on the film. Cooper gives praise to the late-great John Alcott and talks briefly about their collaboration and the challenges he faced, matching the archival footage with what he shot himself.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
“Mining the Archive” features archivists Roger Smither and Anne Fleming as they talk about Cooper’s use of archival footage from the Imperial War Museum. They usually contribute footage to television documentaries but never for feature films of a fictional nature. Smither explains where a lot of the footage came from, including sources as varied as the Royal Air Force and the Nazis amongst others.
“Soldiers’ Journals.” The journals of two D-Day soldiers – Sergeant Edward McCosh and Sergeant Finlay Campbell influenced the film’s script as Cooper incorporated some of their experiences into it. Brian Stirner reads excerpts from both men’s journals and one is struck at how they are incredible snapshots of the thoughts of the average foot soldier who feared that they might die.
“Capa Influences Cooper” features the director talking about how the photographs of Robert Capa, taken on Omaha Beach on D-Day, influenced his film. We several of the photos and they are amazing shots of the mayhem of what it must’ve been like to be there.
Finally, there are three short films. “Germany Calling” is a 1941 British Ministry of Information propaganda film with footage that appeared in Overlord and that parodies Hitler. “Cameramen at War” is a 1943 tribute to newsreel and combat cameramen with some incredible footage of the war. “A Test of Violence” is Cooper’s own documentary about Spanish artist Juan Genoves. It won prizes at several film festivals and led to Cooper’s involvement with the Imperial War Museum.