Stuart Cooper’s elegiac anti-war film, Overlord, contains a heady brew of images, mixing documentary and live-action footage together. In the film, one sees a cylinder propelled by rockets, the Great Panjandrum, thrashing across ocean waves, looking like a super-sized firework. One sees a large vehicle, a mine flail, tearing across a beach, shredding up barbed wire with elevated spinning claws. These machines seem like the creations of mad scientists. Intermittent with such hypnotic images of destruction are shots of a young British soldier’s preparation for the D-Day invasion. In effect, the image potpourri creates a film, which is part spectacle and part lyrical dream.
To get a better idea of the effort put into blending the various pieces of footage together, I’ll give you a brief sketch of the film’s production history. Initially, England’s Imperial War Museum tapped Cooper to make a 20-minute documentary about a large embroidery depicting the Allies invasion of Normandy. While researching at the museum’s archives though, Cooper got the idea to create a feature-length film from the sources at hand. Cooper spent well over 3,000 hours pillaging through the museum’s film archives over the course of three years. By the end of his stint, he got permission to use the footages’ nitrate negatives. So, once inserted into the film, the texture of the archival footage matched the crisp shots of Cooper’s cinematographer, John Alcott. In fact, Alcott used ancient German lenses to shoot Overlord, foreshadowing the period detail and the natural lighting of Barry Lyndon.
For all his research though, Cooper doesn’t cue the viewers on historical details. He eschews exposition, which is fitting, since the film’s title is the code word the Allies used for the invasion of Europe. He’s not interested in visual history. Instead, what interests him is the sense of being, of existing during wartime. He zooms-in on one life, which could stand-in for countless other soldiers in the war. He focuses on Tom Bellows (Brian Stirner), a fresh-faced English boy. Tom leaves his parents, trains, makes a few friends, meets and falls in love with a girl, but never fights. With Tom, Cooper achieves a macro view of the war by focusing on the micro.
Cooper intercuts Tom’s narrative with archival footage, some of which includes aerial shots of planes dropping bombs on ravaged landscapes and cities. It is this found footage that Cooper expands the focus of his film. It is with these images that Cooper links an individual account of the war with a collective one, one filtered through the media.
Harking back to this micro-macro point, the film has a tinge of spirituality, which is even apparent in the name. Early on in the film, as Tom goes off to train, Cooper cuts to a baby being baptized. Later, as Tom approaches the shores of Normandy, he imagines encountering the girl (Julie Neesam) he had a one-night romance with. Cooper cuts to a scene where the two are in an empty, spacious room. Laying him down, taking off his clothes, the girl demonstrates to Tom how to prepare the dead before kissing him tenderly on the lips to “revive” him. Tom lies on the floor, splayed like Christ crucified. Tom was born into this war, and he will die in it.
Constant aerial footage from the POV of bomber planes suggests an omniscient God of war, destroying whomever it chooses. One of the first people we see in the film is Hitler. In grainy footage, he peers out of a plane window, looking at bombed out cities below – the lord of war. Yet, immediately, as the film progresses, we lose an individual entity, and the overlord is war itself, ubiquitous, the concept of war, war as an institution, with all the mechanical procedures leading up to the fighting – boot camp, letters from home, traveling. Colonizing mind and body, war as a way of life kills Tom before he even engages in combat.
For more on Overlord, here’s Kent Jones insightful essay included with the Criterion DVD. He places the film between those made in England about the "preparedness of war," such as the works by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as well as the staunch, ironic films coming out of America about the Vietnam War – Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, M*A*S*H.
At the time of Overlord's 2007 re-release, Stuart Cooper wrote this article for the Guardian, offering some context about the film’s production history.