Overlord - The Criterion Collection Review

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The Movie


In 1975 the Imperial War Museum co-produced Stuart Cooper’s Overlord, a skilful blending of archival WWII footage and newly-shot dramatic material focusing on one young man’s induction into the military meat-grinder as the Allied forces prepare for the D-Day landings. Written by Cooper and Christopher Hudson, the movie begins with the sounds of war over a black screen (what Cooper calls the “Overture in black”) and cuts to scenes of German conquest including Hitler himself peering out of a plane’s window, culminating with a stylised out-of-focus shot of the death of a soldier. This theme of death being visualised persists throughout the film, haunting the main protagonist Tom (Brian Stirner) as he’s called up for the army, leaving behind the comforts of home and finding some small amount of solace with his more worldly colleagues Jack (Davyd Harries) and Arthur (Nicholas Ball). They prepare for the imminent invasion as best they can, but their hopes of seeing out the war in one piece seem to dwindle by the day as they're carted around from base to base and endure the dehumanising effect of the war machine, and just as Tom strikes up a relationship with local girl Janey (Julie Neesam) the men are shipped off to France to face their date with destiny.

Coming 30 years after the landings Overlord was never likely to be some jingoistic piece of hagiography – indeed, one of the characters seems to recoil just as much from seeing a propaganda film as he does to the prostitute who’s got her hand on his leg – but nor was it the sort of dry procedural that might’ve been expected from a museum-funded piece (which was originally intended to focus on the Overlord Embroidery, a Bayeux Tapestry-style artwork about D-Day). Instead Cooper mined the IWM’s archive not just for footage but for testimony from those who were there, with two accounts in particular (excerpts of which are included on this disc) helping to shape the screenplay which concentrated on the lot of the lowly soldier. By using unknown actors to fill the roles we project ourselves onto these everymen instead of them bringing any particular movie star baggage, and though this was also clearly a concession to the low-budget origins of the piece it does actually work for the better (though this may also be partly why the film seemingly disappeared for the next 30 years).

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What resulted was a lyrical ode to the crushing inevitability of war, a dreamlike elegy which replays the moment of death over and over (with visuals inspired by some of Robert Capa’s photographical work) and which is punctuated with contextual assemblages of very real wartime footage as bombs rain down, fighters strafe their targets and cities burn to ashes. And yet instead of the archival material jarring with the dramatic scenes (lensed by John Alcott) it only adds to the atmosphere of the piece as it often has a starkly poetic beauty all its own. Cooper’s film was critically lauded upon release in the mid-‘70s but it failed to get US distribution and soon drifted into obscurity, before being rediscovered a decade ago. After a successful festival run Criterion released a DVD edition in 2007 and a US Blu-ray edition in 2014, and thanks to their collaboration with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment UK we now have a Blu-ray edition of our own.

The Blu-ray


Criterion’s ongoing commitment to bring their titles to the UK for the first time continues with this ‘Director Approved’ Special Edition release of Overlord on a Region B locked Blu-ray disc with accompanying booklet. The main feature is presented in black and white in the intended 1.66 widescreen aspect with borders down the sides of the screen, coming by way of a high-definition digital transfer from the 35mm fine-grain master positive. Supervised by Stuart Cooper, this restored presentation lends a previously unseen beauty to the dramatic material in spite of its low-budget origins, and the same can be said for the myriad of archival sources. Cooper and Alcott sought out vintage German lenses with no fancy coatings which gives their images a sense of raw immediacy that blends very well with the stock footage.

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Detail levels naturally vary, as does the level of grain which can look quite coarse at times, but the main feature footage is pleasingly consistent across both aspects with only a couple of iffy focus pulls being betrayed by the higher resolution of this HD transfer. The greyscale is nicely balanced across all the disparate sources, and although the brighter highlights occasionally look harsh and blown-out this only adds to the encroaching bleakness of the feature. Plenty of scratches are still evident on the archival footage, but lots more dirt and debris was removed to make both sets of material look as good as they probably ever will, and although there’s a fair bit of instability on both it just adds to the sense of authenticity. Audio comes by way of a PCM 1.0 mono track as befits the mono origination, and it’s an evenly-handled mix with few signs of age thanks to the digital restoration from original magnetic soundtrack materials.

The supplemental material is headlined by an excellent commentary from Cooper and Brian Stirner. Recorded separately from each other, the American director’s mellifluous tones yield a steady stream of insightful information while Stirner confesses that he recalls little from the shoot. But he manages to remember an anecdote or two, as well as offering up some honest assessments of the film itself. Cooper also speaks over the 8-minute Capa Influences Cooper photo-essay which looks at some of the photos which informed Cooper’s work on the film. A short film of Cooper’s is also included, titled A Test of Violence about the work of Spanish painter Juan Genovés, which intercuts his paintings with live-action depictions and real documentary footage.

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Then there are two fascinating excerpts from wartime journals, prefaced by Cooper and read by Stirner which run for 8 and 12 minutes respectively. Mining the Archive is a 23-minute breakdown of the wartime footage used in the film with input from IWM archivists, and they also take the opportunity to present more material from a select group of cameramen. The 1943 short Cameramen at War takes the same tack, running for 14 minutes as it takes us through the lot of a combat photographer presented in that classic British newsreel voice-over style. Germany Calling is another theatrical short, this time a 2-minute British propaganda piece from 1941 which sets footage of the Nazis to the tune of The Lambeth Walk. Last up of the video supplements is the theatrical trailer. The booklet includes an essay on the film, an introduction to the IWM’s aims and goals and some excerpts from the Overlord novelisation.

Overall


Stuart Cooper’s long-forgotten Overlord has recently found a new audience and hopefully that renaissance will continue with this fine Criterion Blu-ray, which sports lovingly remastered picture and sound with a fine spread of supplements.

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Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

This haunting examination of the war machine is ripe for rediscovery on an excellent Criterion Blu-ray.

8

out of 10

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