Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball, Julie Neesam
Director: Stuart Cooper
Audio: DTS HD Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 84 Minutes
Release Date: May 13, 2014
“This is it…we’re going in…”
In 1998, we got two of the most acclaimed and talked-about films on World War II. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was thought to be one of the most brutal and honest looks at how the war played out, while Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line earned a reputation as one of the most poetic contemplations of the conflict.
Yet in 1975, there was a British film that actually did both at the same time, and decades earlier. Stuart Cooper’s Overlord became famous for mixing some of the grittiest, real-life footage of the war and D-Day into his own filmed compositions for maximum realism…yet at the same time, he told a somewhat non-linear story that took moments of fantasy as bits of escapism from the harsh realities of war.
And unlike the aforementioned films, Overlord gives us a single, solid protagonist whose point of view serves to make us experience the war more personally. Tom (Stirner) is a 20-year-old Englishman called up to serve. He has a sense of duty and honor about what he must do, but no illusions…his own words, as well as instances of symbolic foreshadowing, make it clear what will become of him in the end.
He participates in basic training (a real treat for those of us who have seen this kind of sequence many times in American films, and now get to see how it happens in another nation’s army), meets a girl (Neesam), and has a few misadventures along the way. All the while, these scenes are cut with actual historical footage of the war (some of which is among the most extraordinary I’ve seen; particularly the aerial shots) to remind Tom and us that the reality of the fighting is always near.
We even see the preparation for the D-Day invasion, including some machinery that defies belief. One has some kind of rapidly spinning contraption that is meant to mow down barbed wire. Others…I still have no idea what they do, even after seeing them in action. But we also see the boats, the planes, the tanks…and we see men being prepped for the day that would eventually turn the tide of the war, but realizing they don’t know it yet. They are simply awaiting their fates…loving their country and hoping to live another day for it.
The final stretch is strangely beautiful and dreamlike, despite the horrific effects of war. We see the invasion unfold, but without sound save for a mournful string accompaniment. And the film ends without resolution. If you didn’t know your history, you wouldn’t be able to tell from this movie whether or not D-Day was a success.
It’s an unusual war film, but highly impactful. At the time, critics said the blending of modern film and archival footage was so seamless you never could tell which was which (obviously, making the movie in black and white was a good choice). I think modern high definition technology makes the seams a little more visible, but that doesn’t take away the strength of the images or the narrative.
It seems like Overlord earned great praise and acclaim in its day, then somehow fell through the cracks of history to be nearly forgotten. Yet some film festivals in the last decade have brought new attention to this offering, and of course, Criterion does right by film fans again by making it available on video. It certainly deserves to be seen, and is a highly fascination and moving picture, especially in context of newer takes on World War II.
BONUS TRIVIA: “Overlord” was the British code word for the D-Day operation.
This is a solid black and white transfer with terrific contrast and crisp images. As mentioned, some of the historical footage in high definition shows some age and marks here and there, but that’s a very minor issue. This is a case where even when you know how a magician’s trick is done, you will still marvel at it.
This DTS HD mono track offers minimal dynamic range during some bigger war scenes, but without a lot of power. Spoken words are never buried and the overall soundtrack is clean and efficient.
There is a 2006 commentary featuring actor Brian Stirner and director Stuart Cooper (edited together) that is a good listen. Stirner’s sounds more like interview clips, whereas Cooper’s part sounds like he’s actually commenting on the film in real time.
There is a documentary called “Mining the Archive”, about the real war footage used in the film, plus a photo essay on WWII photographer Robert Capa, whose images greatly influenced cooper.
There is also a 1943 newsreel short on “Cameramen at War”, plus a short film by Cooper called “A Test of Violence”, about Spanish artist Juan Genoves (which might have helped Cooper get Overlord made). Brian Stirner also reads excerpts from two D-Day soldiers’ journals…a nice treat.
Rounding out is a trailer and a thick booklet with lots of good information, photos and essays, and my favorite of the extras: in Overlord there is a glimpse of a silly propaganda film made about the Germans called “Germany Calling”…this disc also present it in its entirety. It’s essentially clips from Triumph of the Will cut to funny music so the Nazis look like dancers. VERY amusing piece of history.
Overlord is a forgotten classic take on D-Day that deserves to be remembered. This quality and loaded Blu-ray from Criterion is the best way to enjoy it. Recommended.