In the summer of 1975 Overlord took home a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and then promptly disappeared for almost thirty years. It resurfaced at the Telluride Film Festival in 2004 and had its U.S. premiere shortly after at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland, as well as the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois. Its director, Stuart Cooper, used archival footage for over one quarter of the film, footage he had pored over for some three years at the British War Museum in London, and it is that footage that gives Overlord its power and, in the end, its greatness.*
Stuart Cooper has done little else with theatrical film. After only three feature length theatrical outings, none of which I have seen, he directed for television exclusively until his retirement in 2000. But with Overlord he achieved something special, something unique. He created a film whose fictional aspects only work as setups for the non-fictional archival footage and whose impact comes from knowing exactly where the fictional story is going. It's a clever cyclical trick that Cooper pulls off quite well. Neither the fictional story nor the actual footage would work without the other.
The story follows Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) as he leaves his parents home in London to begin basic training after being called to duty in the midst of the greatest destructive event in world history, World War II. The plot is simply that:
Tom going through his training for battle as well as meeting a girl. The training is monotonous and tedious and Cooper intercuts it with stunning archival footage of the war that at once illustrates the different worlds Tom and the war inhabit and how, inevitably, they will be brought together. When they do finally meet, the outcome has already been telegraphed from the first moments of the film onwards. While there is little emotional impact to the ending, simply because the audience is never allowed to go too deeply into Tom's psyche, it has a structural power because Cooper has been informing us all along that this is how it will end. Tom has enough visions of his own death, and early on, that to not know his character will die in the Normandy invasion (Operation Overlord, hence the title) is to be either delusional or exceptionally lazy as an observer. Cooper wants you to know, or at least strongly sense, that Tom's ticket out of this world has already been purchased from the moment he says goodbye to his parents. Because the tragedy is that this young man will spend the last days or weeks or months of his life doing nothing meaningful. As each tedious training routine goes on we want Tom to do something else. Write a poem, compose a sonata, paint a landscape, anything! Don't you know you're going to die? Stop being reticent with that girl. Make passionate love to her, woo her, marry her!
Instead, Tom does his duty. He even writes a letter home letting his parents know, in advance, that he believes he's going to die, to prepare them. And as he trains the war draws closer, the battle footage grimmer, the damage more devastating. They eventually start training on a beach and Cooper intercuts extraordinary archival footage of massive cutting and whirring and rolling machines that drive home the point even further that Tom, indeed all his comrades in arms, are part of a larger machine, one so massive that none of them can see it or even intuit what their part of it is, only that they have a part, and a necessary one.
Overlord is a triumph of design. It is one of the best, if not the best, combination of real and archival footage I have ever seen. What it lacks in emotional resonance it more than makes up for in what one could call "steel trap story structure," that is, sharp, tight and strong. It leaves nothing unresolved while drawing power from the fact that nothing that happens is, alas, unexpected.
*It should be noted that the film's Director of Photography was longtime Stanley Kubrick collaborator John Alcott, who provides the film fictional sections with a beautiful greyness to match the archival footage. He worked with Cooper on Cooper's other theatrical films as well. Please visit Unexplained Cinema for a series of posts on the look of the film.