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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