Criterion Corner: Overlord (1975) - Reviewed

If you ask people if they’ve heard of or seen a WWII film called Overlord, the response might be something like ‘oh you mean that Nazi Zombies thing?’  Decades before producer J.J. Abrams reused the title for his big budget Return to Castle Wolfenstein flick, there was this little known 1975 Silver Bear winner of the same name chronicling the tragic odyssey of one young soldier’s sojourn from boot camp to the shores of Normandy on D-Day.  

Written and directed by Stuart Cooper and exquisitely photographed by Stanley Kubrick’s longtime cinematographer John Alcott who specifically selected certain film stocks, cameras and lenses used by the military at the time, this clandestine Imperial War Museum production remains one of the great largely unseen WWII films which got lost in the shuffle before Janus Films and The Criterion Collection rescued it from near total obscurity. 

Referring to ‘Operation Overlord’, codename for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Overlord is characterized for its deft mixture of authentic WWII footage with staged footage to create an incomparable, unforgettably haunting cinematic experience.  Told purely from the perspective of British soldier Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner), the film is a dreamy and fleeting interior monologue reflecting the new recruit’s state of mind as he leaves his tranquil and simplistic home life behind, undergoes basic training, meets a girl along the way and gets one step closer each day to the front of the firing line. 

Partially a straightforward narrative and a compendium of never-before seen combat footage and weaponry tests, Overlord presents in microcosm the affecting tale lived out by most of the soldiers who would meet their end on that fateful day.  There have been a number of many films dramatizing D-Day over the years from The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan to D-Day The Sixth of June, but few if any get this close to the confused and lost mindset of one soldier’s experience surrounded by very real physical evidence of the war in motion.

One of the keys to the film’s tightrope walk between fantasy and reality is how the loose voiceover narration from the film’s protagonist Tom Beddoes connects the cross-cutting between his own imaginings of the past and possible future to the present gradual crawl towards ground zero.  Take for instance a sequence where Tom meets a young girl and the two share a kiss, with the film cutting to a surreal image of them standing inside a D-Day landing craft alone, as though for just a moment the harsh impending realities of War stop existing for them. 

Also key to expressing Tom’s disorientation is the way the film cross-cuts between prior interactions with family members and fellow soldiers before abruptly cutting back to the present inside the landing craft as it inches its way closer to the shoreline.  Occasionally the film does leave the headspace of the young Tom Beddoes, including a melancholic montage of military vehicles and personnel traveling towards their drop-off point, with the soft-spoken vocals of a soldier bemoaning the fact that no one really knows where this war will take them.

Despite being granted unprecedented access to archival materials such as flammable nitrate negatives and journals kept by soldiers in combat, Stuart Cooper’s Overlord failed to secure US theatrical distribution and against the accolades it garnered only appeared in select screenings in between occasional television broadcasts.  While Cooper’s epic did appear briefly on the now defunct Z-Channel in the early 1980s, Overlord finally saw an official release in the US in 2006 thanks to the dedicated efforts of Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. 

Seen now, it remains an indelible and timeless angle on what it meant to be a young man thrust into a war he was almost certain he wouldn’t come back alive from.  For all of the resources of cinema over the years attempting to dramatize D-Day and WWII, only this one managed to convey with its unique mixture of the imaginary and full-blooded reality the experience of what so many twenty-somethings like Tom Beddoes went through as they left their ordinary lives behind to face the inevitable, all-consuming totality of war.  There’s never been a film quite like Overlord before, one which the film world is unlikely to happen upon ever again.

- Andrew Kotwicki