Overlord & The Futility of War

There’s not a lot of serious war films that I like. So many of them are badly put together propaganda filled with ridiculous ideas about heroism and patriotism that have very little basis in the reality of war and rarely convey the true horrors of it.

Oddly enough I’m also fascinated with WW1 and WW2. I tend to devour history programs about the topics and have plenty of books about both wars in my personal library, so it was with great reluctance and much curiosity that I dropped the new Criterion DVD of director Stuart Cooper’s film Overlord (1975) into my DVD player last night.

Stuart Cooper’s low-budget feature offers a fascinating blend of historic footage from The Imperial War Museum weaved throughout an original and lyrical tale about a young man named Tom (Brian Stirner) who’s been “called up” by the British military to take part in the infamous D-Day battle a.k.a. Operation Overlord.

In Overlord, Tom is a reluctant hero who carries a copy of Dickens’ David Copperfield with him into war and like many young soldiers he really has no idea why he’s been called up or what he’s fighting for, but he doesn’t question his duty to king and country. After making a long train journey he finally arrives at camp and is called “skinny” right before he faints while getting a shot in the arm from a military doctor. Tom is clearly not your typical solider, whatever that may be, and this point is driven home again and again in Overlord but never played for sympathy.

Tom develops casual relations with a few other soldiers, but Overlord doesn’t try and pretend that war is some kind of buddy bonding experience. It’s clear to the soldiers that not all of them are going to survive the event that they are preparing for. The young men remain friendly but naturally keep a safe distance from one another so any future losses they might face will be easier to handle.

There are also no great leaders anywhere to be found in Overlord. Guys like John Wayne and George C. Scott don’t exist in Stuart Cooper’s realistic version of war. The soldiers for the most part are confused throughout the course of the film. They don’t know where they are or what kind of mission they’ve been sent on, but like most good soldiers they don’t ask any questions. They just carry on and follow orders.

Towards the end of Overlord Tom meets a young woman who he seems to develop deep feelings for, but they’re never fully expressed. Instead Tom talks to her in dreams and their relationship comes to life in his imagination. Tom’s dreams and visions fill the film and give the talented cinematographer John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, etc.) ample opportunity to create some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve seen in any war film.

The director Stuart Cooper was heavily influenced by the renowned war photographer Robert Capa while making Overlord and he used Capa’s photographs as well as his journals as inspiration for his film. This odd blending of art and war, which photographers like Capa mastered, is perfectly captured in Overlord. As viewers we are stunned by the beauty found in the haunting imagery of Cooper’s impressive film just as we are repelled by the horror and devastation that it highlights.

I also think Cooper may have been inspired by another great war film from the 1970s, Dalton Trumbo’s brilliant Johnny Got His Gun (1971), which I was reminded of while watching Overlord.

The stock footage used in the movie is seamlessly edited into the film and given life with voice overs. This original footage from WW2 offers an honest look at war without special effects and it’s easily one of the most creative uses of stock footage that I’ve ever come across. Filmmakers who want to know how to do amazing things with a low-budget would benefit greatly from studying Overlord.

The film offers viewers a fascinating look at the futility of war that I won’t soon forget. The incredible imagery conjured up by Stuart Cooper and John Alcott in Overlord has been seared into my mind and will remain there forever.

15 thoughts on “Overlord & The Futility of War

  1. Thanks for this review. I have never seen this and will track it down. I share your disdain for most war films. It is one of the only genres that I really don’t care for although there are a handful of exceptions. The inevitable one sided nature most war films posess really turns me off. Thanks for pointing this one out, it sounds interesting.

  2. Thanks Jeremy! I like some 60s & 70s era war films and a handful of modern ones but so many of them are just dreadful. I hate the way that the horrible clichés left over from the 40s and 50s are still seen today in recent war films. Filmmakers have a lot to answer for in regards to creating so many myths around war and what being a solider means.

    Thankfully once in awhile I come across a great film like Overlord that really knocks my socks off. I wish I could have articulated why I liked the film a bit better, but I wanted to say something about it since the movie really impressed me.

    The screenshots a took speak volumes though!

  3. This has been on my want-to see list ever since I read about its re-emergence a year or so ago. I didn’t realize Criterion had released it.

    Nice review, Kimberley.

  4. Thanks for the comment Jeff! I hope you get a chance to see the film soon. I’d like to read your thoughts about Overlord so if you do watch it please share your own thoughts about the movie.

  5. The stills from this look fantastic. I’ve never heard of the film, but I will make an effort to check it out, especially since you compare it so well to “Johnny Got His Gun.”

    I notice the jab at George C. Scott, presumably for “Patton.” What do you think of the film?

  6. Hello AR! Do give Overlord a look when you have a chance. I think you’d find it really interesting.

    My jab wasn’t at George C. Scott specifically, it was more of a jab at the typical macho heroes that often walk through a lot of war films and have become part of the American myths about war, soldiers, masculinity and the bizarre notions of what a hero is.

    I thought Patton was okay, but overall I think it’s an overrated film. I do like Scott the actor a lot and think he’s very good with the material he’s working with, but the film makes Patton larger than life and the rest of the cast seems lifeless. The movie is really more about the myth of Patton instead of the actual man himself and the script is loaded with pro-America rhetoric with not much else to balance it out.

    I love fantasy films and fiction, but I get a little annoyed when filmmakers turn history into fantasy and fiction. War is an especially nasty area to mess around with and so many filmmakers inject fantasy into war films. It’s kind of shocking to me that movies like Flyboys can get made today and I recently watched the critically acclaimed Saving Private Ryan which I thought was just horrible and filled with leftover cliché’s from the 1940s and 50s.

    Compared to Saving Private Ryan, Patton is pretty good stuff.

  7. I was thinking about Patton more yesterday, and I agree. It’s not a war movie in the straight sense, rather a character sketch and more like a sketch of how a persona is built. In a way, the rest of the cast, excepting Malden perhaps, is supposed to be lifeless. Or at the very least, it’s an unavoidable side effect of having a character is so much larger than life (that being sort of the idea).

    I agree with some of what you’re saying about war films. It’s never been a genre that’s held much interest, excluding films that are marginally considered war films, like Patton or Lawrence of Arabia.
    But I don’t think any film, excluding documentaries of course, based on history or biography can claim total accuracy. It’s all fiction and mythology. Would you fault Homer for bringing gods into the Trojan War? Or Dickens for making up characters who participate in the French Revolution?

    Ack! I appear to be in the mood for lengthy discussions this morning. 😉

  8. I suppose Lawrence of Arabia could be an example of what I consider a great war film. I think it’s a brilliant movie and as much as it celebrates T. E. Lawrence’s life (much like Patton celebrates George S. Pattons life), it’s a much more well rounded film that deals with really important issues like the cause of war as well as the effects. It also allows room for other important figures to present themselves and their ideas, etc.

    Historically speaking, I actually think Lawrence of Arabia actually does a pretty decent job of portraying T. E. Lawrence and the events it lays out with plenty of cinematic excess of course. I do find Lawrence to be a much more interesting, likable and fascinating character compared to Patton, so I’m sure that colors my view of both films as well.

    I’d fault Homer (who often wanted to glorify war), but not Dickens who was using war as a backdrop to tell what I thought was a very even handed and thoughtful story, espically considering when it was written.

    What I find most repulsive is modern films that claim to be “based on historic facts” and they go out of their way to stress their “realism” and “historical” importance, but are really just pro-America, pro-war propaganda made by modern directors that should know better by now.

    Spielberg and his Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers are both great example of the kind of modern war cinema that I loathe along with stuff like Michael Bay’s horrible Pearl Harbor.

    I enjoy chatting about films so no worries about the lengthy discussion! 😉

  9. Many would argue the character of Lawrence in the film is different than the real man, not only in the physical sense. But yes, I agree he is presented as more well rounded. He was more complex and eccentric than Patton.

    You’re probably right about Homer, but I don’t think that excuses it as a great work of literature. It’s not purely dumb entertainment or propaganda, which is primarily what separates it from all the bad war films of the last century. It’s enduring for a reason.

    It seems that “based on true events” goes well beyond war films, though, doesn’t it? I think we Americans are a bit plagued by this idea of really real true stories. Generally, I’m pretty ambivalent, but I’m not drawn to simplistic heroism.

    Oh, I saw “Colonel Blimp” a while back, which oddly covered one of the major themes in “Patton,” basically the changes in modern warfare since WWI. Didn’t like it as much, but it’s a great portrait of a completely fictional military officer.

  10. Never had heard of this film either and a free copy of the dvd somehow landed in my hands. On your recommendation it goes straight to the top of my must watch stack for tonights viewing!

  11. Thank you Cinebet! Love your page and the response to Overlord is encouraging. A new generation of viewers are clearly interested, there will be a follow-up.
    Stuart Cooper, Director

  12. Thanks so much for stopping by and saying hello Stuart! I really loved your film and it’s got me interested in seeking out more of your work. Right now – during a time of war – films like Overlord are more important than ever. I look forward to seeing any new work you produce.

    Thanks again!

    Colin – I hope you enjoyed the film!

  13. Oh I just watched this film, and now I want to watch it again! It is so subtle and poetic. One of the things I loved was the way that Stuart Cooper created the connection between Tom and his country, the countryside, not in a patriotic or an aesthetic way but a more diffuse sense, partly from all the aerial shots as he is travelling, that he is of the country and the country is at war and so he must be sacrificed.

    I wouldn’t say that it’s about the futility of war. The war is undesirable, everyone in the film hates it, but then nobody would ever claim that war is a good idea or desirable. Like Kurt Vonnegut says in Slaughterhouse 5, you might as well write an anti-glacier book as an anti-war book. I think this film gets its strength from not getting tangled up in that sort of straightforward agitprop.

    For me it was really about what is might have been like for someone like me to have been in that war. I have always wondered about that, and I think I have more of an idea now than I did before. Tom is weirdly disconnected from everything around him, almost like Meursault in The Outsider, but I can really see how one might react like that faced with the brutal, crushing world of military training.

    Most of all I found this film incredibly moving, I hardly knew why it affected me so much. The emotion, the sense of tragedy just built and built all the way through and has stayed with me afterwards. It is really worth watching.

  14. Overlord is very compelling. A stoic look at the British buildup to D Day as seen from archived war footage and an innocent young soldier lost in his dream of a death march to the beaches of Normandy. Key historical film footage has been deftly cut in to help flush out the thread of this single soldier’s story. Envision the left field looking inward, a gutsy read on war turned inside out.

    Where is the glory? What does this say about the nature of conflict and cost to country, life, and liberty? Plenty. Awash in terrific extras typical of the Criterion challenge, Overlord is no exception when taken as a whole. This crafty film with support material is solid and leaves an indelible mark in annals of WW II history.

    Take this stroll down a lazy country lane into the legions of some unknown hell. Not likely to leave you anytime soon, Stuart Cooper and cohorts spent years in research to present this singular telling in 1975. Revived in 2007 it couldn’t look better. War buffs will drool. Film noir freaks will clamor.

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