Appellate Judge Dan Mancini takes a look at this unique war film set in the days before the Allied invasion of Normandy.
D-day, June 6, 1944.
With titles such as The Battle of Algiers, Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films, Story of a Prostitute, Ballad of a Soldier, Night and Fog, The Burmese Harp, and Fires on the Plain, The Criterion Collection has built an impressive line-up of unusual and artistically potent films about war. The addition of Overlord—director Stuart Cooper's study of one foot soldier's experiences during the build-up to the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy—only deepens and diversifies Criterion's war film library.
Facts of the Case
Drafted into the British army, Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner, All Creatures Great and Small) and his fellow soldiers await their mission. Their days are a mix of training and waiting, boredom and fear of the unknown. They wish the war would go away, that they could return to their parents and girlfriends. During a furlough, Tom meets a girl named Janey (Julie Neesam, The Island of Adventure) but knows he has no future with her. Whatever his mission, he feels in his gut that he won't survive. His buddies Jack (David Harries, Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness) and Arthur (Nicholas Ball, Lifeforce) have a similar sense of impending doom. None of the young men know it, but they'll be among the first troops to land in Normandy at the launch of Operation Overlord, the Allied offensive to push the Nazis out of France.
Director Stuart Cooper made Overlord in close cooperation with Britain's Imperial War Museum, which provided him with hours and hours of film shot by service film unit cameramen during the war. By stitching together this archival footage with his own scripted tale of a young soldier training for a D-day deployment, Cooper created a one-of-a-kind examination of war's toll on the individual. The service film unit footage of bombed out European cities, beach assaults, and bird's eye views of bombings and straifings provides a concrete sense of the scope of the war in Europe. This stands in stark contrast to Cooper's footage, which follows Tom and his fellow soldiers through little in the way of intense training but much downtime during which they're left to contemplate their fates. World War II's European theater, we see, is a charnel house of action and violence on a massive scale, but individual soldiers exist in the lonely wastelands of their own thoughts and fears. Their lives become fodder for the horrors that loom so near. "It's like being part of a machine that grows bigger and bigger while we grow smaller and smaller, until there's nothing left," Tom observes in a letter to his parents.
The irony at the heart of Cooper's film is that his staged scenes have an unadorned naturalism that makes them feel like documentary, while the archival footage exhibits an almost lyrical beauty. The service unit cameramen were surprisingly artful considering the circumstances under which they shot. Images of buildings aflame under the onslaught of the German Luftwaffe, cities reduced to ruins, or bombs cratering farmland like circular ripples in a pond are intensely beautiful despite their horrifying violence. Cooper carefully edits the material to lull us with its beauty, then gives us pause by gently reminding us these events are something ugly, full of mayhem and death. By juxtaposing these impersonal, almost abstract images with his personal tale of Tom Beddows, he shows us how individual lives have intrinsic value despite war's illusion that they are inconsequential. It's a keen observation, full of wisdom, truth, and sadness.
Overlord is a tricky film to restore and transfer to DVD in that the goal should be to reproduce the way it looked when Cooper shot and assembled it a little over 30 years ago. It would be a disservice to Cooper's work to clean the archival footage so thoroughly that it loses its powerful authenticity. Criterion walked this fine line with aplomb—it probably helped that Cooper was involved in the transfer, and has given it his seal of approval. The detailed liner notes indicate that Criterion transferred the 1.66:1 anamorphically-enhanced image from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. The transfer was digitally restored without taking away the rugged look of the archival material. The end result is a fine image that skillfully marries Cooper's work with the material shot during the war. Film grain is prevalent, scratches and damage to the emulsion are present in isolated shots, and contrast is occasionally muddy. None of this is problem—it only emphasizes the documentary beauty of the often frightening images on display.
Criterion's restoration work on the film's original mono audio track is also excellent. The single-channel presentation is thin, of course, but clean.
While Overlord is a single-disc release, the brevity of the feature leaves plenty of room for a surprisingly wide array of extras:
Chief among the supplements is an audio commentary by Cooper and Stirner loaded with information about the film's production.
Mining the Archive is a 23-minute featurette in which Roger Smither and Anne Fleming of the Imperial War Museum discuss the museum's intimate involvement in the making of Cooper's film. They also provide excellent detail about the service film unit cameramen, their training, and the footage they shot that was eventually used by Cooper in the feature. The piece ends with a compilation of archival footage not used in Overlord.
An audio supplement offers Brian Stirner reading diary entries by Sergeants Robert McCosh and Finlay Campbell. The diaries were two of the most important primary sources used by Cooper and co-screenwriter Christopher Hudson in writing Overlord's script. By using McCosh's and Campbell's real experiences as a foundation for Tom's fictional ones, Cooper was able to add a sense of textured reality to his story. The two excerpts are preceded by a brief introduction by Cooper.
A photo essay called Capa Influences Cooper combines still photographs taken by famed war photographer Robert Capa on Omaha Beach on D-day with a voice-over by Cooper explaining how Capa's work influenced the aesthetics of Overlord. The essay runs just shy of eight minutes.
The onboard supplements are rounded out by a theatrical trailer for the film, as well as three short films:
Germany Calling is a 1941 propaganda film created by the British Ministry of Information. It marries shots from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will to a silly song called "The Lambeth Waltz" in order to make the Nazis look like buffoons. Pieces of the short appear during a newsreel segment in Overlord.
Cameramen at War is another Ministry of Information piece, this time lauding the efforts of newsreel and service film unit photographers. At just under 15 minutes in length, it's loaded with some truly spectacular war footage.
A Test of Violence is a 1969 short film by Cooper about the socially conscious work of Spanish artist Juan Genovés.
Overlord is also enhanced by a 30-page insert booklet that includes essays by Film Comment editor Kent Jones and Imperial War Museum Film and Photograph Archive head Roger Smithers, as well as excerpts from the novelization of the film written by Cooper and Hudson, based on their screenplay.
Overlord is Stuart Cooper's intense visual poem about the horrors of war. A worthy addition to Criterion's already impressive slate of artful and challenging classics on the subject of war, it's not to be missed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Stuart Cooper and Actor Brian Sterner
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