Overlord (Cooper, 1975)

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Equal parts archival footage and dreamy black and white narrative, Stuart Cooper’s Overlord (the code name for the D-Day invasion) uses a pragmatic stylistic aesthetic to brilliantly parallel his hero’s realization of imminent death. At the beginning of Overlord, Tom (a youthful but melancholy Brian Stirner) sets off for basic training. He misses his train, waits, then joins his fellow soldiers without much fanfare. In an American film we might get the drill sergeant cussing him out, but in Cooper’s vision, Tom represents another piece of a mass puzzle, not worthy of exaggerated attention. Tom fluctuates mentally between the busy realities of training (his unit travels around to different environments for various situational combat) and haunting dream sequences, shifting moments of consciousness where he may or may not be recognizing his inevitable death. Tom and his fellow soldiers Jack and Arthur make up a pragmatic outlook on the war and it’s social and political consequences. Fear, guilt, and worry become parts of everyday existence and Cooper’s trio never buys into cliched hysterics. Overlord is not your typical war film in that it questions the very heroic acts and ideologies classic combat pictures tend to dwell on. Tom’s circumstances could be anyone’s and Cooper’s epic archival footage acts as a marker for the English people as a whole – a collective horror reaching far past the individual and into the psyche of a nation. Cooper ascertains mountains of stirring archival images from WWII to give context to his hero’s journey, ranging from the fire bombing of London to the training of grunts in preparation for June 6, 1944. Overlord shows the devastating impact a single airplane can make on a train or a bomb can have on a building, but without the safety net of knowing it’s imagined. No, these moments happened, and are happening all around Tom, a devastating juxtaposition of the personal and the communal loss of life. Overlord ends abruptly, leaving it’s characters before we are ready to say goodbye, showing why Cooper sees waiting for death as far more painful than the glorified heroism often heralded as the status quo in war films. War images, imagined and real, sustain a universal impact, not on one man or one nation, but on a sense of purpose and tradition no matter the ideology. Long unavailable, Overlord makes it’s stunning DVD debut (thanks to the gods of Criterion) with a sundry of short films, trailers, and documentaries, an essential discourse on the collective trauma’s of war filtered through the knowing eyes of the every-man.

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