Reviews

Overlord (1975)

This may only achieve a footnote in film history, but its ability to summon the full range of emotional ambiguity inspired by the tragedy of wartime will ensure that it remains lodged in your cerebellum for many years to come.


Overlord

Director: Stuart Cooper
Cast: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball, Julie Neesam
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Janus
First date: 1975
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-17
"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.

6
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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