In ‘Overlord’, Someone’s Gotta Go First

Stuart Cooper's World War II drama Overlord easily deserves a place among the great anti-war films.

Three quarters of the way through Stuart Cooper’s 1975 World War II drama Overlord, Jack (Davyd Harries) and Arthur (Nicholas Ball), two young members of the British Army, lay quietly in separate beds in an otherwise empty barracks, waiting to be transported from a monotonous and uncertain time between the end of basic training to the beaches of Normandy and the Allied invasion of France. Jack, with straight, dark hair and a thick brogue, asks Arthur, “Did you hear what Tom did this morning?” After Arthur responds with a no, Jack goes on to recount this story: “He went to old Nickleby and asked him if they gave out compassionate leave if there’d been a death in the family. So Nickelby said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, depending on the circumstances.’ And Tom said, ‘Well, there hasn’t been a death in my family yet, but there’s gonna be one very soon. I request leave to go home and console my parents.’” The two men laugh heartily, but the dark undercurrent of the anecdote’s implications are undeniable.

The Tom referred to here, played by Brian Stirner, is Overlord’s 21-year-old protagonist. This is his story, but it’s more than just that. The film is also the story of an everyman swept up into the inescapable force of a broken and chaotic world around him, compelled and coerced to serve and fight on what will be one of history’s bloodiest days, because, as he explains, “I suppose someone’s got to go first.”

Overlord, largely and unjustly overlooked in the annals of war films, is two movies fluently melded into one. The narrative of the film, bookended by shots of soldiers dutifully and apprehensively sitting in a landing craft trudging through the waves in the waters just off the coast of France, uses a series of flashbacks, dreams, and ominous premonitions to tell Tom’s story from the beginning of basic training through the approach of the Allied Forces on Normandy. The other part of the film is a careful presentation of a series of genuine archival footage shot through both German and British cameras during the war.

The first images to appear on screen are of Nazi soldiers marching victoriously through Dunkirk. Next, we see Adolf Hitler’s stoic profile looking down from an airplane at the destruction his forces have wrought upon France. The smooth blending of these parts is achieved by Cooper’s ability, along with help from cinematographer John Alcott, to make the narrative images of the movie look almost identical to the film quality and composition of the archival footage. To get a sense of how the film unfolds with these two elements barreling together toward their inevitable conclusion, imagine Terrence Malick meets Ken Burns without the voice-overs.

This unusual combination works to create the movie’s most compelling element: Tom’s reluctant steadfastness in the face of impending doom. There’s a bit of Joseph Heller’s Yossarian in him: he’s sure he’s going to die, and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it. His approach to these heavy and ominous thoughts alternates between light-hearted wisecracks, as seen in the compassion leave anecdote, and poignant acceptance.

An example of the latter comes shortly after his friends laugh over his attempt to get leave. Tom sits at the base of a tree to pen a letter home to his parents. He writes, “I don’t think I shall live to see the end of this war. It sounds silly, but this war has killed so many people already. I’m just going to be another one. Of that I’m sure. I can feel it. The way you feel it when you’re going to get a cold. I didn’t know whether to tell you. I thought you shouldn’t get one of those official letters without knowing what was inside. Please be brave. I shall be all right. I’m not frightened.”

In another scene, Tom meets a pretty girl (Julie Neesam) in a bar. The first thing she wants to know is how long he has been here. “Just arrived, really,” he replies. “But, um, I don’t think I’ll stay long.” She’s curious about the duration of his time stationed in this town, but his mind is on something much more permanent.

The viewer shares this sense of doom with Tom in large part because of a series of “premonition images” that Cooper employs throughout the course of the film that were inspired by Robert Capa’s famous Spanish Civil War photo of the falling soldier (“Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936”). The first time we see the live action version of this image—a young man running toward the camera then suddenly falling backwards, arms flailing, rifle flying —the screen is too blurry to see the soldier’s face. In each subsequent appearance, the image gets slightly more lucid until it becomes clear that the soldier is Tom and each of these premonitions has been a window into his thoughts and fears. And herein lies one of the driving forces of the narrative: will Tom’s visions become reality, or is he simply experiencing the consternation every soldier faces before combat?

If Overlord has a thesis, it also comes from Tom’s letter home. He’s been in intense training for months and has spent most of his time in the army unsure of where he is or what he’s doing. He writes, “We all think the invasion can’t be far off. It’s like being a part of a machine which gets bigger and bigger while we grow smaller and smaller until there’s nothing left.” These words, better than any others, reveal the film’s anti-war heart. Here are men who are void of the ability to make decisions for themselves, and they know they have no other choice but to accept the consequences.

A friend and colleague asked me whether or not Saving Private Ryan qualifies as a well-made American sequel to Overlord. A persuasive case could be made that it does: the former begins with the Allied forces storming the beaches of Normandy, the latter ends there—the timeline works perfectly. But other than timeline and subject matter, the movies are more like distant cousins who squabble over the ultimate value of war. This is best illustrated in dialogue spoken by or about the protagonists near the end of their respective stories.

In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller lies dying in the arms of the man he came to save. Before taking his last breath, he looks up and says with conviction, “Earn this.” These words reverberate not only with Private Ryan (Matt Damon), but also with the entire viewing audience. So while Saving Private Ryan doesn’t shy away from the horrific destruction war can render on its participants, it shows that there something more to it—something sacrificial, something glorifying and necessary.

Overlord, on the other hand, shares no such sentiment, and its last words have more in common with those spoken by Pat Tillman’s brother after the former NFL star was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan: “He’s fucking dead.” In the film, just before the final images of archival footage cut to black, we hear the fateful utterance of a soldier off-screen: “He’s dead. Oh Fuck!” The crudeness of this declaration speaks for itself.

Criterion’s presentation of Overlord, coupled with an impressive collection of extras. The commentary by Cooper and Stirner is fascinating, an example of the company at the height of its powers and a testament to its indispensable role in the preservation of film. A largely forgotten and important movie is finally given its due and offered a rightful place among anti-war classics like The Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory, and Apocalypse Now.

RATING 9 / 10
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