Much in the same way the original World War II footage is almost seamlessly interwoven with the narrative story of this curiously forgotten film, it is almost as difficult to distinguish Overlord the movie with Overlord the Criterion Collection edition DVD.
Seeing the name “Criterion” attached to a DVD release is, in my opinion, a stamp of approval. Even if I have never heard of a film (like, in this case, Overlord), if the folks at Criterion think a film is worthy enough of their special treatment, then I’m almost always sure that it is. Overlord, as the legend goes, is a film that won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1975, then… went nowhere. Never got released. Fast forward three decades later, when the film was rediscovered and has since been lauded by some as a modern masterpiece, and at least admired by those who may not appreciate the dreamy style of the narrative.
The film follows a young British soldier named Tom (Brian Stirner) as he answers his call of duty, reports to basic training, and eventually ends up as one of thousands and thousands of the Allied troops that land on the beaches of Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Tom’s moments in the film are simplistic, not too wordy, and not much elaboration in the name of character development. In the way that Tom (in a letter to home) feels that the rest of his life has dropped away into distant memory, we as the audience get to know Tom and his fellow soldiers in the here and now. He even meets a pretty young woman at a local dance one night, but is unable to uphold his promise to meet her for a second date. We never know her name, and I get the sneaking feeling that he may not have caught her name either. The woman reappears in the film in surreal fantasy sequences that seem to get Tom through the horror of his reality, even if he dreams of his fantasy girlfriend demonstrating to him how to prepare a corpse (a particularly haunting and beautiful scene).
Though the fictional scenes are interesting, if not always completely intriguing, what makes Overlord gripping is the weave of actual footage from military cameramen. There are many many things in this film that I’d never seen before—shots that are lovingly framed and beautiful to look at while being horrific in meaning. Director Stuart Cooper looked through 3,000 hours of archival footage at the Imperial War Museum (who get their name splashed across the screen before the title), and apparently though mountains of film he watched just scratched the surface of what exists.
Unsurprisingly, the extras on the Criterion Collection edition are fabulously fascinating. Included are many of the original newsreels featured in the film, as well as a very enthusiastic period training film “Cameramen at War”. “Mining the Archive” interviews a couple of film archivists from the Imperial War Museum who are obviously filled with glee and enthusiasm when getting to talk not only about the movie, but about the archival treasures that are in their museum collection. Stuart Cooper and lead actor Brian Stirner also do a feature commentary, which is well worth a listen. There is also an interesting 30-page booklet included, with an essay about the film by Film Comment’s Kent Jones, a history of the Imperial War Museum, and a passages from the book Overlord, written for the film’s 1975 European release. These extras, I might say, are just about better than the film itself. The extras not only flesh out the film itself, but serve as an amazing history lesson in the process.