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.