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.