A War Movie Lost to Time

Dennis Harvey October 4, 2006

Though it won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1975 — as had Stuart Cooper’s prior debut feature “Little Malcolm” the year before — “Overlord” is one of those movies that mostly slipped through the cracks. Never released in the U.S., not exactly a major attraction in its brief theatrical and modest video exposures in Europe, it had been seen by very few and largely forgotten by nearly all until a series of festival revivals began in 2004. It’s soon to be available from Criterion Collection and plays the Balboa beginning this Friday (with director Cooper in person).

In retrospect, it’s as easy to appreciate this small classic amongst war films as it is to understand why it didn’t connect with a larger public in the dead center of the Me Decade. The year 1975 was not a good moment for war movies, anyway. Both the bloated, all-star “Europudding” war epics of the ’60s and the Vietnam-inspired anti-war flicks of the early ’70s had already burned out their vogues. The revisionist cycle commenced by 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” hadn’t yet begun. Besides, “Overlord” was defiantly unspectacular, human-scaled, British, B&W, a meld of actual WW2 documentary archival footage and dramatic scenes so seamlessly blended it remains difficult to tell them apart. It lacked the big action setpieces of war genre films, and wasn’t explicitly, politically “anti-war” either — save in the sense that it makes terribly clear the tragedy of individual human loss in any war, “just” or not.

“Overlord” (the codename for June 6, 1944’s D-Day invasion of occupied Normandy, by the way) must have struck many in 1975 as a film out of time. Now it seems timeless — the directorial mix of simplicity and lyricism evoking both British documentary tradition before it and the near-abstract ritual of nostalgic emotion Terence Davies would later bring to English cinema.

Cooper had access to mint nitrate prints of nonfiction WW2 footage (from all branches of the U.K. military as well as multinational newsreels, German propaganda, and more) at the Imperial War Museum, drawing from over 3,000 hours of viewing time there. The excerpts he chose — including much harrowing footage of bombing missions and their aftermath — are deftly woven into the narrative of genteel boy-man Tom (Brian Stirner), an Army conscript. So gentle-spirited that it comes as a bit of a surprise when he later manifests some (heterosexual) lust — he’s like Christopher Robin surprised at being handed a bayonet — Tom is followed from the jarring yellfest of Basic Training through realization of his eerily calm sense that “This war has killed so many people already. I’m just going to be another one. I can feel it — like you know you’re going to get a cold.”

Beautifully shot in a rainbow of grey tones by John Alcott — who the very same year shot “Barry Lyndon,” a major candidate for Most Gorgeously Photographed Movie Ever — “Overlord” was duly complimented by Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly told Cooper, “The only thing wrong is it’s an hour and a half too short!” Actually, he was right: Rich, striking and poignant as it is, the movie feels truncated, as if budgetary limits or editorial demands had thwarted its being the full B&W companion piece to Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.”

But that latter film was burdened by its starry cast, and “Overlord” is blessed by its unknowns. They’re vivid, fragile, and make you wonder how such talent could go so unrecognized — precisely the fate their movie suffered, and which now posterity is correcting. Unlike war movies, however, the real war dead never get a second chance to let us know how wonderful they were.