Operation Overlord, that was the code-name for the for the allied invasion of France on June 6th, 1944. This month marks the 70th anniversary of that invasion, better known as D-Day. Many films have been made about World War II and D-Day, most notably The Longest Day (1962), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers. What sets Overlord apart from the others, is its use of actual war footage, obtained from the archives of the London Imperial War Museum.
Gun-camera footage, training maneuvers, D-Day preparations and the horrendous fire bombings of London are inter-cut with John Alcott’s beautifully shot footage documenting a fictional British lad named Thomas Beddows (Brian Stirner) who leaves home during the German attacks on London to join the British Army. As Private Beddows progresses toward the invasion, his self-doubt and fears of mortality grow. In one of Thomas’ letters home he sums up his feelings, “I am part of a machine that grows bigger and bigger, while we (the soldiers) grow smaller and smaller, until there’s nothing left.”
His dread is echoed throughout the film by several premonitions and much foreshadowing. These scenes often appear as dreams or daydreams that haunt Thomas. There really isn’t much of a love story in Overlord either. While many movies about World War II keep up the viewers’ morale with love interests and patriotism, Overlord does not. When Thomas meets a young woman at a dance, I felt I would be seeing the clichéd romance of a young soldier off to war. They kiss and set up a date, but the gears of war are ever-turning, and their romance can never be realized. Thomas is sent away early to prepare for the invasion, leaving the girl (Julie Neesam) behind.
Thomas’ journey through boot camp is bleak. Cinematographer John Alcott, best known for the four films he made with Director Stanley Kubrick, including Barry Lyndon (1975) that won him an Oscar, expertly matches the grain and lighting of 1940’s film to his 1975 footage. And, as you would expect, everything is shot in black-and-white with a 1.75:1 aspect ratio, giving a near-seamless transition between old and new. The only thing I noticed that gave away certain documentary scenes was the dust and scratches that popped up from time to time, while the newer material was flawless.
Overlord is a must-see film for anyone interested in World War II. But be warned, the images are at times horrific and gruesome, and the reality of war gives Overlord a very dark and humbling tone.
Beddows (Brian Stirner) fantasizes about the girl he left behind (Julie Neesam) in Overlord. © 2014 The Criterion Collection
I applaud Criterion for preserving cinematic treasures, such as Overlord, for future generations. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Overlord until its Criterion 70th anniversary of D-Day release in May. And sadly, even DVDs and Blu-rays are becoming a thing of the past as video streaming becomes more popular. Unfortunately, one problem with streaming is the lack of special features. This is where Criterion shines! Overlord includes some fascinating extras such as an audio commentary track featuring Director Stuart Cooper and actor Brian Stirner, “Mining The Archive” featurette from 2007 with archivists from London’s Imperial War Museum, a 2007 photo-essay on Robert Capa’s influence on Director Stuart Cooper, “Cameramen at War” featurette, Cooper’s 1969 short film A Test of Violence, focusing on Spanish artist Juan Genovés, the 1941 Ministry of Information’s propaganda film Germany Calling, and excerpts form D-Day soldiers journals.
Year of release: 1975
Running time: 84 minutes
Distributor: The Criterion Collection