War...What is it good for? Judge Clark Douglas wants to know.
Our review of Overlord: Criterion Collection, published April 17th, 2007, is also available.
Code Name D-Day: June 6, 1944.
It happens less often these days, but war movies have been incorporating large amounts of stock footage for many years. Large-scale battle scenes are expensive to produce, so why not simply incorporate some grainy, rough-looking, real-life footage of bombs exploding on a beach or planes battling it out in the skies? Such methods are generally the mark of a cheap or hastily-assembled production, but Stuart Cooper's Overlord is a significant exception to the rule. Working in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum in London, Cooper went through millions of feet of footage in search of compelling, potentially useful images. After finding the material he needed, he wrote a script around the material he had found (many older war movies took the opposite approach) and proceeded to assemble an exceptionally distinctive, ambitious and unsettling war drama.
Our story follows a young British recruit named Tom (Brian Stirner, The Plague Dogs). He's not a typical action movie hero, but rather a quiet, thoughtful, sensitive soul who speaks softly and reads Charles Dickens. After settling in and undergoing some basic training, Tom strikes up a romantic relationship with a kind-hearted nurse (Julie Neesam), but doesn't feel the relationship will last very long. He's absolutely convinced that he's going to die on the battlefield, but he doesn't seem particularly distressed about it. Tom is resigned to his fate; regarding it as a simple inevitability. Additionally, he's also been experiencing some mysterious dreams—mostly about the war (this is where quite a bit of the stock footage comes into play), but there are other, unrelated, more enigmatic recurring images, too.
Those expecting any sort of conventionally thrilling war movie should look elsewhere, as Overlord is more of a hallucinatory meditation on the subject of war rather than a rousing depiction of it. To say it's an anti-war film is reductive and not quite accurate; it simply seeks to provide an understanding of war's horrible nature. Tom's life plays out like a Greek tragedy, his fate (and indeed, the fate of his nation) written in stone before things even begin. The nation will survive, individuals will fall and life will carry on. It's a challenging, slow-paced film which proves difficult to unlock at times, but the film's closing moments do a fine job of helping the viewer put the pieces together without blatantly spelling everything out.
Even when you're not quite sure of what's happening, Overlord is visually absorbing. The stock footage employed is generally much more compelling than the stuff offered by most older war films, as Cooper unearthed some immensely striking images which sometimes manage to seem otherworldly. The new footage (which occupies roughly 70 percent of the film's running time) was shot by longtime Stanley Kubrick collaborator John Alcott. In order to permit the original material to feel of a piece with the stock footage, Alcott used older camera equipment to give the film a vintage look. You can still see the seams, but they're much less obvious than you might suspect.
Overlord (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection sports a strong 1080p/1.67:1 transfer which accurately captures the look of the source material. Obviously, much of the older footage is gritty, grainy and weathered, though some of it is still in rather impressive shape. The original material generally looks much cleaner, though there's also some built-in softness throughout (particularly during some of the more dreamlike scenes). Under the circumstances, detail and depth are both impressive. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is just fine, though once again some of the sounds we hear are a bit distorted due to the age of the material. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and the very spare soundtrack is presented with clarity.
The supplemental package is generous and thorough, providing a comprehensive overview of the film's themes, inspirations and production history. Things kick off with a fine audio commentary from Cooper, which was recorded back in 2006 and included on the previous Criterion DVD release. The featurette "Mining the Archives" examines the film's use of older footage, while "Soldier's Journals" features readings of three real-life journal entries penned by British soldiers. "Capa Influences Cooper" is a fine visual essay in which Cooper pays tribute to a photographer who inspired him, and "A Test of Violence" is an older short film directed by Cooper which pays tribute to Spanish artist Juan Genoves. You also get two older propaganda shorts (the German entry "Germany Calling" and the British selection "Cameramen at War"), a booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and a DVD copy of the film.
Overlord isn't the easiest film to watch, but it shouldn't be. It's an artful, provocative exploration of war which is well worth seeking out. Criterion's Blu-ray release is exceptional.
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