Overlord

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #382: Stuart Cooper’s Overlord.

I was con­tact­ed by a NYC mar­ket­ing firm to re­view Overlord, which was re­leased on the 17th. So hey, free DVD. This is the sec­ond time that some­one has hap­pened along my movie re­views and asked me to do one for them. I must be do­ing some­thing right. Incidentally, this film will be shown at the Cleveland Cinematheque in October. Catch it if you can.

Overlord has an in­ter­est­ing cin­e­mat­ic niche. It is com­posed, in sig­nif­i­cant amounts, of World War II stock footage [most­ly from the Imperial War Museum]. This footage has been seamed to­geth­er with plot-ori­ent­ed shots that were de­lib­er­ate­ly cin­e­matographed to look like stock footage. John Alcott [Kubrick’s reg­u­lar choice for cin­e­matog­ra­pher] was in charge of this, so qual­i­ty is ex­pect­ed and de­liv­ered. The sto­ry fol­lows a young British man who is du­ti­ful­ly mak­ing his way to­ward the war, cul­mi­nat­ing in D-Day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that does such a good job putting its main char­ac­ter in con­text with the events in the world around him.

The film has an ob­jec­tiv­i­ty and a sub­jec­tiv­i­ty that rub again­st each oth­er like flint and tin­der. The ob­jec­tive vec­tor con­cerns the mind-bog­gling­ly vast re­sources and ac­tiv­i­ties as­so­ci­at­ed with the war ef­fort; from civil­ians fight­ing fires af­ter air raids to di­ve bombers go­ing af­ter bat­tle­ships and de­stroy­ers, to the mus­ter­ing and trans­porta­tion of troops troops troops. It is like an 80 min­ute ver­sion of a Frank Capra “Why We Fight” mi­nus the forced jovial voice-over and ed­i­to­ri­al pro­pa­gan­da. The film is book­end­ed with long, word­less se­quences of this ac­tion; in the be­gin­ning it im­mers­es the view­er, but by the end it has a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent fla­vor.

This whole el­e­ment is so dense that with­out the sub­jec­tive an­gle to bal­ance, a view­er could eas­i­ly be­come over­whelmed. Tom Beddows adds the hu­man el­e­ment. He be­gins the film as a man with re­gard for the act of de­fend­ing his coun­try that has like­ly been passed down by Tom Beddows, Sr. who fought in the First World War. By the end, this re­gard has been steadi­ly de­grad­ed through dis­gruntle­ment and cyn­i­cism; Beddows be­comes com­plete­ly ni­hilis­tic [burn­ing his let­ters to home] — all be­fore he’s left Britain. This cor­re­lates with the in­ter­cut ob­jec­tive stock footage el­e­ments. The de­hu­man­ized war ma­chine de­hu­man­izes. It is a bit rem­i­nis­cent of Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, sans hu­mor.

I should clar­i­fy what I mean when I use the word ob­jec­tive. The clips them­selves are doc­u­ments, with on­ly the most ves­ti­gial res­o­nances of pro­pa­gan­da. The way they are used by Cooper is not ob­jec­tive, they are meant to wind the in­ter­nal springs of Beddows to their break­ing point. Cooper’s mo­ti­va­tion is a pro­duct of the Vietnam era; look­ing at World War II from this per­spec­tive is quite in­ter­est­ing. The train­ing se­quences, and Beddows trans­for­ma­tion in­to near ro­boti­cism be­come a bit sin­is­ter; al­most as if some­one of com­plete in­dif­fer­ence has planned each el­e­ment in the de­hu­man­iza­tion process. In the end even Tom Beddows dreams are tinged with an in­dif­fer­ent re­gard to the death he knows is com­ing. It’s not sur­pris­ing that the war gets to him be­fore he gets to it. 

Criterion Essay by Kent Jones.
• Criterion Press Release with links to many re­views and oth­er press in­for­ma­tion in a .zip file.
• Clips: 1 and 2.

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