written by: Stuart Cooper and Christopher Hudson
produced by: James Quinn
directed by: Stuart Cooper
runtime: 85 min.
U.S. release date: February 1, 2006
DVD/Blu-ray release date: Spring 2007
WWII has always been a fertile topic for cinema, and in particular, the D-Day invasion on June 6th, 1944 has created some remarkable works over the years. From the sprawling 1962 epic “The Longest Day” to Steven Spielberg’s visceral CGI nightmare “Saving Private Ryan“, D-Day has always provided rich fodder for the American war movie. An unusual (and British) entry in this sub-genre would have to be Stuart Cooper’s powerful and melancholy “Overlord“, an examination of one soldiers experience with war that sets itself apart from the pack by incorporating actual combat footage into the film.
“Overlord” follows the life of 20 year-old Thomas Beddows (Brian Stirner), who enlists in the British Army because “it seemed like the thing to do”. Here we watch him go through the stereotypical scenes of many war films: the initial shock of basic training, the homesickness, the nighttime jaunts into town and innocent forays into liquor and women. Thomas eventually begins to make friends and get into the daily grind of military life, but is haunted by eerie dreams that portend his own death. Eventually, his unit heads to the coast to participate in exercises leading up to the inevitable invasion of Normandy.
Director Stuart Cooper gives “Overlord“ a distinct feel with a number of bold stylistic choices, especially for an otherwise routine war film. First, we get to hear Thomas’ interior monologue as he expresses his doubts about his survival, and contemplates the nature of war and life. We see his dreams, as his death is repeated over and over again, and it lends the film a quiet, surreal quality. Most of this is courtesy of cinematographer John Alcott, a longtime collaborator with Stanley Kubrick, who frames long steady shots in that trademark Kubrick style. Indeed, “Overlord“ shares a similar narrative structure to Kubrick’s Vietnam War masterpiece “Full Metal Jacket“.
The main element that distinguishes “Overlord” is Cooper’s decision to weave actual WWII combat footage into the film. Cooper and film archivists from the Imperial War Museum sifted through hundreds of hours of footage to find material for the film. Much of it is generic aerial fighting footage, and shots of firefighters battling the blazes in London during Hitler’s terror bombings, familiar to anyone who’s seen a History Channel documentary in the last decade. But its effectiveness comes from the editing, as we have contemplative shots of Thomas lying in a field watching the clouds drift by, intercut with screaming planes dog-fighting over Europe, an abrupt and shocking reminder of the war that Thomas will soon be immersed in. The integration of this footage into the narrative is so seamless, that at times, I wasn’t sure what was real and what had been filmed, and the overall effect gives “Overlord“ an incredibly realistic feel. This will never supplant more polished films like “Private Ryan“ as the premier D-Day film, but it remains a thoughtful and powerful alternative in the war film genre.
There are extras aplenty in this beautiful Criterion edition, including two short films from the British Ministry of Information and a feature detailing the archival film used in the movie. Also, a brief photo essay on photographer Robert Capa, who landed on the beaches of Normandy during the first wave of the assault, and who’s famous pictures from that day influenced Cooper and style he later used for “Overlord“.
Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL. Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992. He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.