Cast & Crew
A young soldier undergoes grueling training in preparation for the D-Day invasion.
Cooper never completed the Embroidery documentary, plunging instead into the thousands of hours of World War II footage held by the museum, while figuring out how to do justice to the epic story of D-Day from an English point of view. He and his co-writer Christopher Hudson soon found themselves relying heavily on cinematographer John Alcott as well, not only to match the archival footage to the made-up bits involved in framing the story through the eyes of a solitary young English Everyman journeying from his parents' house to a beach in Normandy. Dressed in tweed jacket, white shirt and tie, he feels a pang at leaving his cocker spaniel and packs a copy of David Copperfield to read on the train. It's a subtle way of getting us inside the head of private-to-be Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner), from which piercingly immediate shards of the story emerge at regular intervals.
Ironically, Alcott was to win an Oscar® a year later for the stunning palette he immediately afterward brought to Stanley Kubrick's sumptuous-looking Barry Lyndon (1975). Here, he turns what could have been the limitation of sometimes blurry and excessively gray black and white into an asset. Realizing such a look perfectly suits the dream state, he conveys Tom's recurring nightmares of a figure running into the camera on a battlefield, throwing his arms up and falling face forward as he's mowed down. In other words, Tom is haunted by a vision of his own death. So are we. Not that he and his mates do anything but plod bravely forward. An actual old barracks was recommissioned for the filming of Tom's training. It begins with him arriving late (having missed a train connection), and walking into a barracks empty save for a sergeant lying on a cot reading a James M. Cain paperback.
Tom's inexorable progress along the military assembly line turning out cannon fodder is intercut with still startling archival footage. In fact, the film opens with the sound of marching feet, soon followed by a shot of a military column on the move, which is followed in turn by arresting aerial footage, first of a German plane bombing an English village, then from a British Lancaster bombing Germany back. The bombing of London's East End docklands during the Blitz is made searingly vivid with footage capturing the ensuing chaos and danger, with firemen trying not to be crushed by falling masonry from collapsing buildings while swinging into action with their hoses. Repeatedly, it's the unexpected, removed from overly familiar war movie tropes, that yanks us into the immediacy of the fierce dispensing of death, as when a landing craft of invading soldiers is dashed by a massive wave against a rock. When Tom and his wartime buddies hit the beach, the effect is anything but that of all hell breaking loose. Instead, you're surprised by how unexpectedly quiet it is, as the front of the boat is lowered onto the beach to serve as a ramp, and the soldiers seem to slide silently down it, toward what we and they know will momentarily be a barrage of bullets and grenades from the entrenched German bunkers.
The juxtapositions are daring, expressive. For a moment, the landing craft empties and we see Tom alone in it, kissing a nice girl (Julie Neesam) he met at a dance, during which they both politely expressed interest in each other and plan to rendezvous the next evening. But the date is never kept because Tom and his detachment are suddenly shipped out that morning. A lid in keeping with British reticence is kept on the emotive dimension of Overlord. That spareness of expression makes it all the more powerful, however, as we're reminded that Cooper not only drew on film footage, but on soldiers' letters and diaries as well. Again and again, we're reminded that this film differs from most in that its sponsorship meant that it wasn't made to be sold to audiences, but to do right by its subject matter. In short, it's a matter of stewardship, not salesmanship.
One decision that never would have passed muster at a commercial studio script conference is Cooper's insistence on finding ways to express and make us empathize with Tom's solitariness along with an avoidance of macho heroics. Time and again, he comes across as a nice, decent, untested boy surely not much more than a boy, only recently out of university who on his way to report for duty is dressed like a young man on his way to a job at, say, a bank. It's not that he avoids company, or is in any way a loner. We smile wryly when two buddies talk him into a night on the town and a fleeting it can't be called furtive liaison in a darkened theater with a woman who picks him up. The sequence is not unleavened with humor a smartly cheeky bit of film editing, in which we see Hitler's legions on parade, made to look silly as they goose-step to a hugely popular English dance tune, "The Lambeth Walk," while Der Fuhrer beams onscreen at the spectacle from his reviewing stand and Tom enjoys a quick grope in his theater seat.
The success of Overlord one might almost say the unique success -- lies in its brilliant accretion of tiny telling details made vivid. Some are handed to Cooper from the archives a test of a giant wheel firing rockets as it rolls along a beach, another sort of steamroller with barbed-wire cutting blades. Mostly, though, Overlord (the British code name for D-Day) rides the unadorned plainness of Stirner's face. It's remarkable. So is his wistful, rueful isolation in the context of a war we've been taught to think of as a heroic nonstop communal effort. Its unadorned simplicity and concreteness of detail are a large part of what makes the film so unexpectedly mesmerizing. Overlord is a trenchantly triumphant collaboration between found art and made art.
Producer: James Quinn
Director: Stuart Cooper
Screenplay: Christopher Hudson, Stuart Cooper
Cinematography: John Alcott
Music: Paul Glass
Film Editing: Jonathan Gili
Cast: Brian Stirner (Tom), Davyd Harries (Jack), Nicholas Ball (Arthur), Julie Neesam (The Girl), Sam Sewell (The Trained Soldier), John Franklyn-Robbins (Dad), Stella Tanner (Mum), Harry Shacklock (Stationmaster), David Scheuer (Medical Officer), Ian Liston (Barrack Guard), Lorna Lewis (Prostitute), Stephen Riddle (Dead German Soldier), Jack Le White (Barman), Mark Penfold (Photographer), Micaela Minelli (Little Girl), Elsa Minelli (Little Girl's Mother).
by Jay Carr
Stuart Cooper interview, The Guardian, January 18, 2008
Overlord on Criterion Blu-ray
The film uses no narration. England is already at war. Young Tom (Brian Stirner) is called up for duty and joins uncounted young men preparing to cross the channel on D-Day. Life in camp is boring, and he and his friends Jack (Davyd Harries) and Arthur (Nicholas Ball) get in trouble for minor offenses. Tom meets a beautiful girl (Julie Neesam) at a dance. He promises to see her again, but is called away the very next morning and cannot leave her a message. As the massive armada of men and material forms up, Tom has a recurring vision in which he sees himself felled by a bullet on the Normandy beach.
The average historical documentary will license WW2 stock footage from a commercial film library. But it usually isn't original film from newsreel and combat cameramen. The filmmakers are instead given previous compilation films with film footage most likely obtained by duping other previous compilation films. The beauty of Overlord's access to prime source, original negative film material is twofold. First, the ability to work from the original negative allows one to discover that original combat camerawork is often of excellent quality. Filmed on 35mm, battle scenes have a breathless you-are-there impact that holds up even when enlarged on a giant screen. Secondly, prime source access means not having to settle for an earlier editor's choice of scenes. Newsreels of war action naturally focused on the dynamics of guns firing, men marching and actual combat situations. When one wants to analyze the combat experience, what happened before and after the editor's cuts takes on greater significance. Also, the combat cameramen filmed miles of non-combat footage showing how soldiers really lived, little of which was ever used.
Stuart Cooper went straight for this peripheral material. During the spring of 1944 hundreds of thousands of soldiers were moved into southern England with millions of tons of war equipment, all massing for the D-Day assault. Cooper's narrative breaks away for scenes of air raids softening the French mainland for the invasion, but mostly concentrates on the hurry-up-and-wait misery of the countless young soldiers. Cut off from their normal lives, shifted from camp to camp at a moment's notice and kept completely in the dark, they can't even send a private letter home without it being read by a censor.
When told that viewing everything in the Archive would take nine years, Cooper opted to collect mostly footage concerning troop mobilization and preparation for invasion. Overlord rigorously maintains its documentary truthfulness, in that film shot elsewhere or at a different time was not used. The organization of D-Day is shown in its immensity. We see real divisions marching and traveling by train and truck; endless lines of tanks and landing craft make their way down wooded English lanes. Much of the film has never been seen before and looks as though it were shot yesterday. Editor Jonathan Gili makes sense of miles of footage, often finding serendipitous cuts in random material.
Soldier Tom's story is directly intercut with the archive scenes. Cinematographer John Alcott found old un-coated lenses identical to those used by the combat cameramen, and he filmed as much as possible with 'available light.' We see Tom telling his parents he's leaving and adjusting to the humiliations of regimented army life. He spends a great deal of time alone or with one of his friends, trying not to complain about his situation. The only failing in these scenes is budgetary; the 'Tom' material tends to be under-populated. Tom is pointedly alone on the train to camp, which the film excuses by having him made late by an air raid. But when he arrives at camp and is seen walking alone across an empty parade ground, we can't quite connect Tom with the masses of other soldiers. Stylistically, however, the young man's isolation serves director Cooper's notion that Tom is already a kind of ghost, detached from any sense of group identity.
Cooper's scenes definitely stray from the literal plane. A montage of Tom exploring an ancient castle segues into a dramatic (newly filmed) image of a DeHavilland bomber heading East for Europe. That introduces an eye-opening bombing montage. Tom meets a painfully attractive girl at a dance. They're immediately attracted to one another but must part only a few minutes later. When Tom's outfit moves on he's unable to keep their date and cannot contact her. But he continually fantasizes about her in the days ahead.
Most of Tom's fantasies are of what he fears most, being shot dead on the beach. The repeated nightmare begins with an out-of-focus slow motion image of Tom running from afar. Cooper references the famous combat pictures of Robert Capa, but many viewers will be reminded of a stylized flashback in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time In the West. Cooper does manage several stunningly surreal images, such as Tom and his girl embracing while standing alone in a landing craft. Tom also imagines himself returning as a corpse. As a substitute for the sex he will never share, his girl is the one to prepare his body for burial, gently undressing him. It's quite touching.
Overlord's bleak ending cuts off the action at the point where pictures like The Longest Day begin. Tom has been imagining his terrible end in romantic terms. When it comes, his fate is devoid of glory or honor. Greatly adding to the film's appeal is Paul Glass's symphonic score, a mellow, plaintive thread that helps many sequences to cohere. A few period songs also stick in the mind, like a pop tune called We Don't Know Where We're Going.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Overlord improves visually on the earlier excellent DVD release only to the degree that the HD image offers more resolution and a wider contrast range. In the often gray-on-gray images, viewers aren't likely to notice much difference. The Blu-ray encoding does impress with its uncompressed sound, which shows the creativity of the audio work on Overlord. The sounds for everything -- troops, vehicles, machinery -- had to be invented after the fact. In some shots it looks as if lip readers have been employed to help dub new voices.
Director Stuart Cooper was a former actor who played one of Robert Aldrich's criminal commandos in The Dirty Dozen. Cooper and Brian Stirner share a full-length commentary. The only film optical in the movie, they tell us, is the dream image of Tom falling, superimposed in his own eye.
Aspiring film editors will love the extras. The curators of The Imperial War Museum host a tour of the facility and discuss the making of the film in a handsome new featurette, Mining the Archive. A 1943 propaganda film Cameramen at War honors the battlefield film units. Two other propaganda pictures glimpsed briefly in Overlord, 1941's Germany Calling and the comical The Lambeth Walk are seen in their entirety. Stuart Cooper's arresting 1969 short subject A Test of Violence plays graphic tricks with the war paintings of the Spanish artist Juan Genovés. Brian Stirner reads from the journals of two D-Day participants. A trailer is included as well.
The fat insert booklet contains an essay by Kent Jones, a history of the Imperial War Museum and excerpts from a novelization of Overlord by Stuart Cooper and Christopher Hudson.
By Glenn Erickson
Overlord on Criterion Blu-ray
Released in United States 1975 (Shown at Berlin International Film Festival 1975.)
Film did not receive U.S. theatrical release until July 2006.
Released in United States 1975
Released in United States Summer July 14, 2006
Released in United States Summer July 14, 2006
Shown at Berlin International Film Festival 1975.
Winner of the 1975 Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.