“The War machine keeps growing, and I am getting smaller and smaller.”—Tom Beddows, Overlord
Overlord is a peculiar film, inasmuch as it exists outside the conventional continuum of war movies. It is difficult to place the movie in any given time frame or ideological context—the viewer knows on one level that the film was made in 1975, but nothing in the film communicates this fact. Some of the most stridently anti-war films of all time were made in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during the fallout from Vietnam and the subsequent political and economic recession of the English speaking world, but Overlord exists apart from these currents.
To a large degree this is an intentional effect. The film that eventually became Overlord was initially conceived as something much more in line with an actual documentary, promoted to coincide with another aspect of the British Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) 30th anniversary commemoration of the 1945 D-Day Invasion (the titular “Operation Overlord”). The Overlord Embroidery was conceived as a modern parallel to the historic Bayeux Tapestry, the famous needlework comic strip relating the story of the Norm Conquest of 1066. Overlord was initially intended merely to complement this endeavor, but in the hands of director Stuart Cooper the film quickly metamorphosed into something else entirely.
IWM trustee James Quinn contacted Cooper. Cooper had found success with his 1974 film Little Malcolm, and met Quinn’s proposal with enthusiasm. The movie transformed in their minds from merely the story of D-Day to a story about D-Day, the story of a young British conscript on the eve of battle. Soon that conscript had a name—Tom Beddows (played by Brian Stirner)—and Overlord is his story.
But not quite. Despite the pedigree, there is still something off about the endeavor, off about Beddows, off about the film itself. The movie is composed of war footage taken from the Museum’s archives as well as footage shot in 1975 to illustrate Beddows story. As a result, it suffers from an unusually laconic format, with snippets of dialogue and narrative interspersed with long, lyrical passages of silent war footage. Aesthetically, the viewer is pulled in separate directions by warring impulses: the long flight footage taken by RAF bombers, the images of burning cities and exploding bombs, the strangely beautiful images of life-and-death aerial battles over the hills of England, it all stands as a contrast to the human-level drama of Beddows and his friends.
It seems at times almost as if Cooper is daring the viewer to react to the interspersed footage on a purely artistic level, while all the while grounding the film in a sympathetic portrayal of a life unmoored by the war, a man destined to die in the very first moments of Operation: Overlord. Beddows story is surprisingly quiet given the surrounding storm of war. The scenes of his interaction with his fellow soldiers and the British civilians they encounter in the weeks leading up to the invasion ring hollow, as if, despite their convincing verisimilitude, they are reading parts set out by a playwright. In effect it’s similar to mid-period Bergman, intentionally artificial line readings set against the backdrop of sparsely grim environments. Are we supposed to feel for Beddows as a real human or as a symbol of destiny, a fatalistic totem of life interrupted?
It’s hard to film a war movie in a way that doesn’t somehow glamorize the act of fighting a war. This is an old argument: no matter what kind of anti-war bona-fides may exist at the heart of the story, the storytellers’ instinct in dramatizing war is to make it somehow aesthetically pleasing. Examine a film like Saving Private Ryan: for all the noise about the film’s anti-war message, there can be no denial that the soldiers are portrayed as noble, admirable men, and the action scenes are shot with such consummate skill as to render them breathtaking in execution. A movie like Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers still trips up on this dichotomy, by presenting the horrors of war’s aftermath side-by-side with an almost triumphalist view of war as it is lived in the trenches. For filmmakers tackling the contemporary era, World War II presents a singular challenge: how to illustrate the evils of war while never doubting the necessity of that particular conflict?
You can’t argue, as in Vietnam, for the essential futility of struggle. Perhaps this is a uniquely American way to frame the question, given that the United States has not suffered the defining trauma of a land war on its soil since the Civil War. Since then, it’s conceivable to argue that America has never really faced an existential threat on the scale of that faced by England during World War II. The paradox of “good war” would be less problematic, perhaps, if we were actively fighting the enemy on our shores and in our homes?
Overlord doesn’t pretend to answer or even really do more than skirt these questions. It is anomalous not merely because of its unique historical position, but for its lingering ambiguity, as well. Cameraman John Alcott (familiar from his work with Stanley Kubrick) filmed the narrative passages with vintage German lenses in order to render the contemporary footage seem of a piece with the archival footage of three decades’ prior. The effect, while disorienting and slightly surreal, is beguiling.
This doesn’t look in any way like a war movie that was filmed just three years before The Deer Hunter and four before Apocalypse Now. The film sets itself apart from any arguments about the aesthetics of war by placing the film within the context of the events itself: this does not appear to be the work of a man looking back on the Second World War with thirty years’ hindsight, but a work contemporaneous to the event itself. The war is both an absurdity and a necessity. The paradox exists without any conflict, because for the soldiers in Overlord the paradox is a living reality, not an academic distinction to be parsed by civilian authorities.
On its initial release Overlord, while popular in Europe, failed to find an American distributor and therefore languished in obscurity. Its only American airings came courtesy of Jerry Harvey and his groundbreaking Z Channel cable network—in this context Overlord was mentioned during Xan Cassavette’s 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. The Telluride Film Festival screened a new print that same year. Finally, some 30 years after the fact, Janus Films accepted the film for distribution, which led to the Criterion Collection release we see today.
Considering the film’s previous status as the ultimate object of obscurity, the representation here goes a great length towards making up for lost time: the film is presented with audio commentary from the filmmaker, a documentary presenting the war footage mined from the archives for inclusion herein, as well as the original propaganda film Germany Calling, seen briefly in the film and here included in it’s entirety. (Germany Calling is probably the best part of the package.)
Despite this loving restoration and a contemporaneous attempts at placing the film more fully within the contemporary canon, it’s still difficult to fully grasp Overlord. It leaves the viewer wrestling with feelings of great ambivalence long after its scant 84 minute running time has ended. It doesn’t quite fit into our standard narrative of war filmmaking, and the viewer suspects it doesn’t quite succeed on its own merits. It does, however, succeed at something which a great deal of war movies fail completely: summoning the full range of emotional ambiguity inspired by the tragedy of wartime. It may not ultimately be more than a footnote in film history, but it will remain lodged in your cerebellum for many years to come.