Stuart Cooper’s Overlord is a seldom-seen docudrama that deftly blends fictional narrative with archival footage from the Imperial War Museum’s vast collection. It premiered in 1975 at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Jury Grand Prix. However, it did not win an audience or even a theatrical release, sending the film into obscurity for over 30 years. It received a DVD release and limited theatrical run in 2006, and has been featured on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but Overlord remains on the fringes of cinema with just 1700 user ratings on IMDb.
Despite this, a quick read of responses from critics and viewers alike suggest that it is a compelling and affecting piece of work. It’s this small yet enthusiastic support that is seeing the Criterion Collection upgrade Overlord to Blu-ray on 6 June, which will be the 72nd anniversary of D-Day.
The film begins in May 1940 with footage of victorious German troops marching through a recently evacuated Dunkirk. We are then presented with an unfocused shot of a British soldier who charges toward us only to fall under a hail of gunfire. This blurred sequence – which was inspired by Robert Capa’s famous photograph Falling Soldier – is the premonition of Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirmer), the subject of Overlord’s fictional narrative.
Tom is a shy and affable young conscript who’s more interested in David Copperfield and his dear old cocker spaniel than firing a Lee Enfield at the Boche, but he resigns himself to the unfortunate necessity of the war and that it might even kill him. We follow Tom as he trains for the top-secret invasion of Normandy, which was codenamed Operation Overlord.
Stirmer gives a quiet, authentic performance. He has a doe-eyed naïveté and achieves an endearing unworldliness that just hasn’t existed since the invention of the teenager – you really believe that he is a young man of the 1940s.
His love interest – listed as simply ‘The Girl’ on the credits and performed by Julie Neesam – is also well cast. She’s a wholesome bonny lass with whom Tom has charmingly awkward conversations, but their fledgling relationship doesn’t go very far owing to the constraints of the 83-minute running time that’s eaten up by the archival footage.
However, the archive material is probably the best thing about the film. Tom’s dubiously long training program is combined with footage from the Blitz of 1940, a very interesting and amusing propaganda film called Lambeth Walk: Nazi Style, huge bombing raids from 1943, dramatic aerial attacks over Normandy in 1944 and a series of troop exercises in the prelude to D-Day. Cooper chooses a compelling breadth of material, and the new HD transfer looks fantastic – in fact, I’ve never seen better looking war footage.
The unique selling point of Overlord is how it blends this material with Tom’s story. Most of the time, editor Jonathon Gili and cinematographer John Alcott do this very well. Key to this occasionally seamless split editing is Alcott’s use of old lenses and film stock, which gives his well-lit and well-shot black and white photography a period look. The film’s visual flair is further enhanced by Paul Glass’s powerful score, which has inflections of the great Vaughan Williams.
Despite all of this, Overlord does not live up to the praise. It has neither the emotional effect of a drama nor the information of a documentary. Tom’s coy, gentle manner make him an amiable subject, but his struggle did not even begin to evoke the pathos of Private Pyle’s tragic disintegration in Full Metal Jacket. And while the war footage is well selected and very well transferred, there’s no narration to inform you of what you’re watching, which will leave some viewers in the dark. They’d be better off watching The World at War, the fantastic Thames Television series that was written and researched in the bowels of the Imperial War Museum at the same time as Overlord.
In the commentary, Cooper and Stirmer emphasise that the film is a ‘meditation’ on war as opposed to the visceral experience of Saving Private Ryan. Well, it is meditative to a fault; it is, as Stirmer also says, a trifle ‘boring’.
This is no more evident than in the scene of Tom’s death, which isn’t a spoiler because it is premonished throughout the film. Cooper said that he wanted to shatter Tom’s premonition of a courageous death by killing him before he left the landing craft, but the execution is sorely dated and theatrical. Cooper does not adequately capture how terribly sudden and off-hand death can be during war, how the life of a sentient being with friends, family and memories can come to an instant and permanent end. Spielberg’s Ryan captured this time and again with such brutal accuracy that distraught war veterans left screenings in their droves.
Ultimately, Overlord’s problem is its running time. Stanley Kubrick was right when he said that the film’s only problem was that it wasn’t twice the length. This fundamental problems causes lots of other ones though, namely the underdevelopment of Tom’s story and the characters within it, especially his aforementioned relationship with ‘The Girl’, which receives only a handful of lines.
Dir: Stuart Cooper
Scr: Christopher Hudson, Stuart Cooper
Cast: Brian Sturmer, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball, Julie Neesam, Sam Sewell
Prd: James Quinn
DoP: John Alcott
Country: United Kingdom
Running time: 83 minutes
Overlord is available on Blu-Ray via Criterion Collection now.