I must admit I’d never heard of Overlord before receiving a press release about its Blu-Ray release as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK. Generally only the crème de la crème gets selected for the collection (other than the odd exception – Armageddon?!) and the fact that it was shot by regular Kubrick DOP John Alcott piqued my interest, so I decided to give it a whirl and review a copy.
Overlord follows a young man, Tom (Brian Stirner), as he’s drafted into the British army during World War II. We follow him through basic training and the agonising wait to be deployed into battle. He’s convinced he’s going to be killed during this time, so a sense of impending doom builds up to him being sent to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. During the wait he befriends some of his fellow comrades and falls in love with a young woman, Janie (Julie Neesam) at a local dance.
It may sound like your typical war movie, but Overlord is refreshingly different from your usual flag waving or ‘horrors of war’ affairs. One major aspect of its production and presentation that marks it out from the rest is the fact that a large proportion of the film is made up of archive footage, shot during the war. The film isn’t a documentary though, it’s a fictional account of a soldier’s life during the war, but through the footage supplied by the Imperial War Museum (culled from a phenomenal amount of material) and by basing Tom’s experiences on those described in letters written by real front line soldiers, the film is infused with a powerful naturalism.
The archive footage is blended with the scenes director Stuart Cooper shot as though it is all part and parcel of the same thing. To help achieve this, Cooper and Alcott shot in black and white and used film stock army cameramen would have used at the time. It’s rather well done, although you can generally tell the difference as the ‘new’ footage is a bit too beautifully staged. There were a couple of times where I questioned whether or not what I was watching was genuine though.
Regardless of how seamless it is, the fusing of the two styles does work extremely well and not only in adding authenticity to the film. For one, the archive footage used is stunning. Some is strangely beautiful, such as some aerial footage during a bombing raid where explosions light the clouds below. Other footage is deeply disturbing, such as a later bombing mission where you can clearly see the damage the explosives are doing to the villages below. Then some footage is bizarre and amusing, largely a sequence where various experimental pieces of machinery are being tested ready for the Normandy landings. These include a huge metal Catherine wheel (a circular wheel propelled by fireworks) that rides over the water, for what purpose I don’t know.
The ‘new’ dramatic sequences are equally as impressive. As well as looking gorgeous, thanks to Alcott’s photography, they’re refreshingly human, helped by some doses of humour amongst the men and strong performances all around, by a cast of relative unknowns. The romantic subplot in particular is sweetly portrayed, with a believably clumsy chat up scene kicking it all off.
It’s not all about naturalism though. The film has a poetic feel to it too. There are some fantasy sequences as Tom has visions of his own death and later dreams of Janie after he is whisked away to a new camp shortly after meeting her. Some of the ways certain sequences are shot are very artful too, such as when the camera gradually pulls away as Tom writes a melancholy letter to his parents. The beautifully haunting music and occasionally unusual sound design add to this air of poetry too.
Also worth noting in terms of style, is the way the film is edited and structured. It’s very short, playing out Tom’s time in the army in brief episodes, rather than dwelling on a clear journey with several strong character arcs. This may normally be a complaint, suggesting little depth, but here it’s a successful choice as the film is playing on the idea of Tom being thrown into the ‘war machine’. He’s whisked through training and thrown quickly into combat before being spat out at the other end. Tom knows it too. He believes he will die very soon and the sense of foreboding and doom is immensely powerful throughout the film. One scene emphasises the disturbing bureaucracy of the ‘machine’ too as Tom is made to give next of kin information and fill in a ‘will form’ before heading over to Normandy.
It’s probably the most successful war film I’ve seen at getting across that sense of fear, so I would recommend it highly to fans of the genre or those fed up of the action-heavy ‘war is hell – let’s watch these exciting battle scenes’ approach. It packs a swift punch and has a wonderful authenticity to it, aided by the archive footage, but is beautifully poetic at the same time. It’s quite an extraordinary achievement and I hope this new re-release helps give it the recognition it deserves.
Overlord is released on Blu-Ray on 6th June in the UK by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is fantastic as is to be expected from the label.
You get a decent selection of special features too. Here’s the full list:
– Audio commentary featuring Cooper and actor Brian Stirner
– Mining the Archive, a 2007 piece featuring archivists from London’s Imperial War Museum detailing the footage used in the film
– Capa Influences Cooper, a 2007 photo essay featuring Cooper on photographer Robert Capa
– Cameramen at War, the British Ministry of Information’s 1943 film tribute to newsreel and service film unit cameramen
– A Test of Violence, Cooper’s 1969 short film about the Spanish artist Juan Genovés
– Germany Calling, a 1941 Ministry of Information propaganda film, clips of which appear in Overlord
– Excerpts from the journals of two D-day soldiers, read by Stirner
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones, a short history of the Imperial War Museum, and excerpts from the Overlord novelization by Cooper and co- screenwriter Christopher Hudson
It’s a great collection of extras. The commentary is particularly strong, with Cooper and Stirner full of interesting facts and anecdotes about the production. I really enjoyed the Cameramen at War piece too. Its presentation is lovably old fashioned, but the documentary really makes you appreciate the difficulty and danger of the jobs of the WWII camera men. Mining the Archive is another interesting piece, filling you in on where some of the spectacular footage came from. The two journals were shocking to hear yet beautifully written and were clearly part of the inspiration for the film. Everything included is worth a watch to be honest.