1970s, 4/4, Review, Stuart Cooper, War

Overlord (1975)

Overlord (1975) - IMDb

Born from an idea to document some embroidery to commemorate Operation Overlord in World War II, Stuart Cooper’s Overlord tells the story of the months leading up to the famed D-Day invasion from the very tight perspective of a single soldier, Tom. Intercut with extensive footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archives, Cooper created a dreamlike eulogy to the many nameless soldiers who died so young in service to a fight they seemed to grasp only tenuously. Made in the middle of the uproar against national armed conflict as a result of the Vietnam War, Overlord feels like it simply doesn’t belong to the era in which it came. The condemnation of war is too dim, the rage against the injustice of men dying for their nations too absent, and the integration of the newly dramatic footage with the archival footage too seamless to feel like it was made when it was made. Its only indication is the embrace of less traditional narrative forms, telling the story wholly subjectively with little objectiveness to it at all.

The use of archival footage and different dramatic elements is shown integrated extraordinarily well from the get go. After a few moments of footage of Germans waltzing around Europe, in particular Paris, we see an out of focus soldier running towards the camera on a beach until he falls down, shot. The movie then cuts to a young man in a small English town running towards the camera down a little alley towards his house. Without a word, the movie tells us where we are and provides the dreamlike vision that will haunt our main character, Tom, throughout the movie. He knows that he’s going to die when he goes to war.

Tom is a quiet English boy, just 20 years old and with little accomplishment yet to his name. His parents and he knows that he could have some kind of future without the war, but it will have to wait for whatever the war has in store. He learns the basics of soldiery in camp, but he never becomes a killing machine. Through the endless marches, hazing, and obstacle courses, he’s still a nice boy who can barely talk to a girl. On an evening in town, he goes to the movies and sits next to a sexually aggressive older woman who is free with her hands, eventually scaring him off. He does meet a nice girl at a dance, and they like each other in that quiet English way with shy compliments and kisses with permission. There could be more to their future, but the next day Tom is sent off to another camp to wait out the invasion, invalidating his plans to meet the girl yet again. She appears repeatedly through the end of the film, but only as a vision that the unexperienced Tom clings onto as he gets closer and closer to what he knows will be his death.

It’s a movie of quiet, human moments told in the footage filmed for the dramatic moments that functions ironically against the violence and destruction of the archival footage. The thing about including archival footage into a narrative film is that there’s always going to be a marked difference in how the archival footage looks and how the newly shot footage looks. Cooper and his cinematographer John Alcott went the extra mile trying to make the footage match, but the difference is really about age, not about lenses or film stock. The new stuff simply looks better with fewer scratches and pops. That difference can be a point of derision towards a film that tries to use it straight, but Cooper’s choice to go with a dreamlike aesthetic makes the differences in film quality into a strength. It’s not a literal connection between the archival footage and our view of Tom with his fellow soldiers, but a poetic one. Watching this right after Ivan’s Childhood was pretty much a pure coincidence, but they share a lot in terms of tone, scale, and the use of dreams to tell their subjective stories.

When we see the war footage, or the footage of real World War II soldiers playing cards, or footage of test materials on a beach, we’re almost never supposed to think that Tom is right there. There are moments when that happens, particularly when we see an obstacle course in training and when the soldiers lower into the landing craft, but for the most part, they act as context establishing (like with the opening shots of German soldiers and Hitler in Paris) or as Tom’s visions. He sleeps on a train and sees himself running up that beach to his death amidst air battles and bombings. It’s not that he’s literally seeing it out his train window, but that we’re experiencing his subjective feelings of the moment as his train takes him closer to the coast and his fateful day. It’s that non-objective use of the archival footage that makes it work so well.

The movie’s ending is tragic for its inevitability. The unexperienced young man who never really got to know the nice girl he met at that dance dies, not as he had envisioned it, but still, he does die. He knew it was coming, having written of his feelings of his impending death to his parents just before leaving, but being surprisingly calm at the idea. He may have been a tiny cog in a giant machine, but he was still an individual with dreams. That balance between his individualism and his willingness to sacrifice himself for something larger, even if his sacrifice ends up contributing nothing to the overall war effort other than acting as cannon fodder, is the core of the movie’s melancholic tone, and it is also probably one of the core reasons that the movie was largely forgotten after its 1975 European rollout that included winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, failing to even acquire an American distributor. It’s a sad tale, one of the forgotten men in a conflict long ago, but its universality still stands strong.

Rating: 4/4

7 thoughts on “Overlord (1975)”

  1. One of the ‘useful idiots’ movies. I wonder if the Soviets had a hand in financing it, or if they didn’t need to.

    I mean, seriously…did the writer/director WANT the Nazis to run Europe? Because without Overlord, you get Nazis running Europe. Fucking limp dick Englishmen…

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      1. Maybe not. Maybe I’m missing the dream-logic tragedy here.
        But at its core, this is a ‘oh, war is so terrible’ movie. Which is fine.
        But this isn’t about some border skirmish or some colonial action or even WW 1. This is an anti-war movie that is sulking about sending boys to fight Nazis. That’s what he’s manipulating newsreel footage for, right?

        Or am I wrong?

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      2. I don’t think it has a place in the anti or pro war argument, even though it’s creation in the middle of the Vietnam War would seem to indicate that it belongs on the anti-war side of things.

        The key is a letter Tom writes to his parents about how he knows that he’s going to die, and he feels no fear over it. It’s rather laser focused on Tom, representative of the young men who died storming that beach in Operation Overlord, who never really understood what they were fighting for, but they went anyway without complaint.

        It’s a testament to the bravery of those young men, not an attack on the larger war machine. The justness of the specific conflict is never touched on because the point was never the presence of a just fight or not, but just on the small contributions that the individual made and the spirit with which he carried it out.

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  2. See, that’s my trouble with this premise. The whole ‘never really understood what they were fighting for’ bit. That’s simply not true. Unless Tom is a retard, and he’s not, he knows the frelling Nazis have conquered France and that they’re going over there to kick them out.

    The moral ambiguity is baked into the cake here. And I hate it, at least as it related to WW 2.

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    1. That feels like a thin reed to hang the entire movie as being Soviet friendly.

      It’s not that he doesn’t know anything, but that he was disinvested at the outbreak. He’s never lost, feeling like he shouldn’t be there, as you might expect from a draftee character in a Vietnam movie. Instead he’s content to do his part.

      I can see where the concern would come from, a movie showing a character dying for nothing, but I think that conclusion misses the point in this specific example.

      This is an elegy for all those faceless men left on the beach, a look at their hopes and dreams that never came to fruition.

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