Friday, June 12, 2009


Overlord (Stuart Cooper, UK, 1975)
Overlord is one of the most startling war films which, like Come and See, is more a human story, set during war. It is highly innovative and visually spectacular. The screening I attended was introduced by the director, Stuart Cooper, who explained briefly some of the film's history.

Cooper was given full access to the Imperial War Archives. When asked by the archive's manager what he wanted to see, he responded rather naively, "the whole lot". She asked him when he wanted to start and he said "Monday". In response to her questions, he indicated he'd be coming five days a week, nine to five. "In that case", she said, "you'll need nine years to get through all this."

As it turned out, Cooper viewed some 3,000 hours of archive footage, taken variously by members of the army, navy and air force. It wasn't just prints he viewed, but the actual original nitrate negatives, which enabled him to use in his film the best quality images possible, and the visuals are truly impressive.

Rather than work from a script, Cooper assembled various pieces of footage and constructed a dramatisation that would fit seamlessly within the actual documentary footage. He used cameras and lenses from 1936 and 1938 and old black and white film stock. The result is remarkable and the fusion of fiction and non-fiction is often indistinguishable.

The story traces a young British conscript, Tommy Beddows as he answers the call to arms, takes up training and ultimately takes part in D-Day, coded-named Overlord. Originally intended as a documentary, the film's integration of dramatisation achieves a result that surpasses both documentary and fiction. The dramatisation is sparse and authentic with use of music that bleeds into the non-fiction, rendering the documentary aspect in a whole new light.

The film has some personal resonance as my father participated in the D-Day landings. At the mere age of 14 he changed his birth certificate and enlisted in the Royal Navy. He was 17 and working below deck on a frigate that came under fire several times. Unfortunately he died seven years ago and left scant details of his navy experience. He never spoke about it during my childhood.

If the film's amazing camera work looks familiar, it's because it's by the highly acclaimed John Alcott who worked on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Overlord won the Berlin Festival's Silver Bear for Direction in 1975 but without a wide release, somehow fell into obscurity. Like Soy Cuba, this is an amazing gem that has been recently rediscovered and is belatedly getting the recognition it deserves.

According to the ACMI website:
Stanley Kubrick said the only problem with Overlord was that it was "an hour-and-half too short". After seeing this remarkable filmmaking achievement, one would have to agree.
And I do. I would normally include this film in my Sunday evening Week in Review post, but seeing as Melbournians still have two more chances to see it at ACMI this weekend (as part of the First Look series), I thought I'd bring this forward. It's screening tomorrow (Saturday) at 7pm and Sunday at 5.30pm. The Sunday screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the director, Stuart Cooper, and Paul Harris.

Links: Overlord official website / Criterion essay by Kent Jones

1 comment:

David O'Connell said...

This sounds like an amazing piece of work Paul, look forward to seeing it one day. I admit to being biased though about anything made in the 70's - even if it isn't American!