A quasi-experimental film offering an expressionistic view of the World War II experience, Overlord was assembled by director Stuart Cooper from a combination of original dramatic scenes and vintage documentary footage; the nonfiction material was created in the 1940s for British training films, with many scenes photographed during the actual D-Day invasion. (The operation centered around the Normandy landing was code-named “Overlord,” hence the film’s title.) Hushed and ruminative, the picture follows the emotional journey of a young Englishman, Tom (Brian Stirner), as he prepares for military service. Flashing backward and forward with dreamlike abandon, and often settling into long montages assembled from documentary footage, Overlord unfolds with the scattershot rhythms of discombobulated thought, which suits the material but challenges the viewer in more ways than one.
On a superficial level, many stretches of Overlord are quite dull, since nothing in particular happens onscreen; although every moment in the picture contributes to the overall mood, the dramatic scenes are frequently perfunctory, and the montages linger too long, as if Cooper can’t bear to cut from compelling reality to contrived fiction. On a deeper level, however, the picture is tricky to watch because it’s so unrelentingly grim and opaque. Even when Tom and his fellow soldiers aren’t articulating their fears about the war, which they do often, Cooper stages scenes with oppressive soberness and stylization. In one vivid sequence, for instance, a love scene between Tom and a pretty paramour is presented as if she’s a mortician preparing his body for burial, not a lover undressing him for intimacy.
Whether all of these affectations work is of course a judgment call for each viewer, but there’s a reason Overlord failed to find U.S. distribution when it was first released, despite having won two prizes at the 1975 Berlin International Film Festival. The picture is cold and quiet, though occasionally very beautiful, and it often gets lost in its own lyricism. As a result, it’s slow going even with a brisk 83-minute running time. Recalling nothing so much as a student film, given the intentionally grainy black-and-white photography and the parade of unfamiliar actors, Overlord is pure cinema art rather than commercial entertainment. To Cooper’s credit, that important distinction gives the movie inherent value, though it’s hard to say whether the film actually accomplishes its goals since it’s unclear whether Cooper was going for a pure mood piece or something with more concrete emotional impact.