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Few national cinemas have confronted the issue of preparedness for war with the creative vigor of England’s. Thorold Dickinson’s The Next of Kin (1942), Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? (1942, from a story by Graham Greene), and, of course, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime output are distinctive for the ingeniousness with which they fuse the English character itself with the know-how, cunning, and courage required to defend against the impending threat of a vicious enemy. The spiritual fortitude so beautifully portrayed in these films, reduced to its essence by Powell in his remarkable five-minute short An Airman’s Letter to His Mother (1941), is moving today in a way that many analogous American films of the period no longer are. The English films’ robust response to the challenge of creating propaganda is moving in and of itself—collectively, they offer a complex portrait of a people whose foibles, shortcomings, and nearsightedness finally underscore an essential nobility.
Stuart Cooper’s unjustly forgotten and now happily resurrected 1975 Overlord seems to me to be directly linked to those earlier films, despite the fact that it was made for vastly different reasons and under wholly distinct circumstances. It’s as if the stoic/pragmatic spirit of that earlier time, also to be found in English literature (think of Ford Madox Ford’s World War I–era Parade’s End), had survived the transposition to modern cinema, specifically the strain initiated by Alain Resnais with the somber uncertainties and temporal splintering of Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Overlord, with its continual refrain of a soldier’s vision of his own probable annihilation, its ominous flash-forwards, and its striking mix of fiction and documentary, certainly has its place among the great death-driven modernist narratives of its era (Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 Don’t Look Now and Sam Peckinpah’s films come immediately to mind), and it has a clear kinship with Kevin Brownlow’s similarly handmade “period epics” It Happened Here (1964) and Winstanley (1975). Yet the most striking aspect of Overlord is the survival of that much earlier wartime era’s quiet exaltation.
Depictions of the nobility of soldiering were at a rather low ebb in the midseventies, for obvious reasons. The brutal ironies of war, the comic misalliance between outsize images of heroism and the harsh realities of survival in combat, the discrepancy between stated justifications for war and actual political and economic machinations—this was the common ground of the pre- and post-Vietnam era, more or less inaugurated with Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), whose merging of frankness with rank absurdism set the tone for many films to come. On the face of it, Overlord appears to be as fully grounded in “antiwar” rhetoric as, say, the earlier M*A*S*H (1970) or the later Full Metal Jacket, from 1987 (whose basic-training sequence bears a very strong similarity to one in Cooper’s film). And yet, an early episode with a lackadaisically officious corporal aside, there is little in the way of pungent irony here (the whimsically edited juxtaposition of a sexual encounter in the back of a movie theater with the editorialized Nazi high jinks on-screen is less ironic than bittersweet). The discrepancy between one individual soldier named Tom (Brian Stirner) and the vast machinery of war is poignant rather than horrifying or darkly comic. And it’s this contrast in scale, carefully reiterated throughout the film, that gives Overlord its cumulative power. It is also what makes its novel mixture of archival footage and carefully staged dramatic scenes (shot by Kubrick cinematographer John Alcott with old German lenses that place the fictional black-and-white sequences in nice harmony with the documentary images) more than simply an aesthetic novelty.
Tom’s letter home to his parents (is it an actual soldier’s letter?) crystallizes Cooper’s unusual structure. The scene, perhaps the film’s most striking, begins with Tom sitting in a forest as he composes the letter, and Alcott’s camera slowly pulling back. Then we are drawn into nonfictional scenes of soldiers passing the time as they wait to do battle. Cooper weaves Stirner’s clear, quiet, and slightly peevish reading of the letter in and out of this succession of images, which has its own strangely lulling rhythm. “The war machine keeps growing, and I am getting smaller and smaller,” Tom remarks, before he observes that he probably won’t come back alive. This is the film in miniature, cunningly alternating between the spectacle of war and the homely drama of one soldier’s progress. During this period in moviemaking, there was a lot of worry about the “glorification” of war, and in this sense Cooper’s semifictional strategy and play with scale are ingenious: we can marvel at the wonders of war because we never lose our awareness of the lonely souls on the ground doing the fighting.
Are Tom and his fellow soldiers mere cannon fodder? On one level, of course, they are. At a certain point, the film’s title begins to acquire a second meaning: “Overlord” was the code name for the Allied invasion of Europe, but it might also be a dark reigning deity (the antithesis of Emerson’s “Over-soul”) setting the world gloriously afire and sending little men off to uncertain fates in storm-tossed seas. Cooper, an expatriate American filmmaker who looked at three thousand hours of archival footage among the twenty thousand feet in storage at the Imperial War Museum, the coproducer of the film (the museum had originally commissioned Cooper to make a documentary on a commemorative D-day embroidery), gives us astonishing visions that do indeed suggest gods at play: devastated cities surveyed from above, clouded skies lit by bombing raids and strafing runs, crumbling buildings on fire, and, perhaps most memorable of all, the disastrous test run on a Devon beach of an enormous wheeled contraption called the Great Panjandrum, powered by cordite rockets and intended to put breaches in the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall (the device was named and partly invented by novelist-to-be Nevil Shute). Just as thrilling a sight is the earlier appearance of a slowly advancing mine flail ripping a tangle of barbed wire to shreds.
Amid so much devastation and destruction, Tom does indeed come to seem smaller and smaller, but he never “disappears” (psychically speaking) in the manner of, say, Matthew Modine’s Joker in Full Metal Jacket or Michael Crawford’s Lieutenant Goodbody in Richard Lester’s stridently satirical How I Won the War (1967). Cooper wisely keeps Tom’s appearances dramatically minimal, and his lonely smile, essential modesty, and eloquent acceptance of his own potential fate become emblems of an admirable and moving dignity, just like the quietly valiant behavior of the villagers in Went the Day Well? or the becalmed reflections of Airman Rosewarne in the letter to his mother, thirty years earlier and several worlds away. In other words, Overlord straddles the sensibilities and imperatives of two eras—the unity of the World War II years and the disenchantment of Vietnam and its aftermath.
Nobility versus disenchantment, affirmation versus skepticism, uplift versus universal dread. Maybe it’s this careful balancing act, this embrace of diametrically opposed visions of war, at a time when political passions were so polarized, that led to the film’s quick drift into obscurity. After winning the Silver Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival and enjoying a successful run in Europe, Overlord failed to find an American distributor and thus slipped from public consciousness. Give thanks to the late Jerry Harvey, who disinterred Cooper’s work and showed it on his legendary Z Channel in the 1980s; to Xan Cassavetes, who drew attention to Overlord in her 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession; to the programmers of the Telluride Film Festival, who screened a new print that same year; and to Janus Films, which finally gave Overlord its long-overdue American theatrical release. Why did it take so long? Overlord may have been too carefully considered and insufficiently disillusioned for its own time, but those are precisely the qualities that give the film its enduring value.
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism; the editor of a collection of essays on Olivier Assayas; the director of 2007’s Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows; and the codirector, with Martin Scorsese, of 2010’s A Letter to Elia. He recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is the director of programming of the New York Film Festival. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2007 DVD edition of Overlord.