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Overlord: The Criterion Collection

It's amazing to think that a film as visually stunning and deeply felt as Stuart Cooper's Overlord could ever be truly lost, but, for nearly 30 years, it languished in the void, unknown to most and largely forgotten by familiar with it. But when Xan Cassavetes included clips of the movie in Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession — a 2004 documentary tribute to Jerry Harvey's erstwhile, movie-buff catering pay-cable station, which, back in the late '70s/early '80s, gave American audiences its only glimpse of Cooper's picture — many a cineaste took notice. Aside from the expressive black-and-white cinematography of Kubrick-collaborator John Alcott, of particular interest was a brief sequence in which a British soldier's eyeball foretells, in extreme close-up, what appears to be his beach storming death at the Battle of Normandy. That the soldier is currently ensconced on a landing craft cutting toward said beach on D-Day made the passage that much more evocative and, one presumed, tragic. It was a stunningly poetic treatment of a critical moment in history discussed and dramatized to death in the wake of Saving Private Ryan. Audiences were ready for this; ergo, on the strength of just a few images, the movie was swiftly resurrected. Several months after Cassavetes's doc premiered at Cannes, Overlord enjoyed what was, for all intents and purposes, its American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, where it was rapturously received. And, two years later, The Criterion Collection has performed yet another service to cinema by finally bringing Cooper's work to DVD. For those who wondered whether the movie could possibly live up to the indelibleness of those passages, wonder no more: It is very nearly a masterpiece.

The minor-key tale of Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner), a soft-faced innocent who serenely braves the rigors of military training despite frequent premonitions of his own death, Overlord's most notable accomplishment is its deft melding of stark newsreel footage (from the archives of the triumphant and the defeated) into the fabric of his very gentle dirge. Though the effect is far from seamless, the dreamlike passage of time in Beddows's life is perfectly complemented by the grainy sequences of real-life bombing raids and their chaotic, fiery aftermath. An enlisted man hurled into the center of the maelstrom, Beddows feels curiously removed from the stink and trauma of basic training. This sense is there from the beginning when, after being waylaid by a fierce aerial blitz, Beddows misses the train to camp and must therefore endure a long, solitary walk. Accompanied by Paul Glass's lush orchestral score, the lengthy single take of Beddows hoofing it down a rural road to his baptism by cruelty — though he gets off easy by the Full Metal Jacket standard — is the first of many moments symbolizing the young man's inexorable march toward his seemingly inevitable combat death. Once at camp, Beddows is toyed with by a bored corporal leafing through a James M. Cain novella (Career in C Major, if you must), thus exposing the naïf's unpreparedness for the sardonic ways of the world. Beddows takes his lumps here and there, no more so than when he tumbles down a steep hill in a foolish attempt to catch up with his company after lagging behind on a long march, but he quickly makes friends and does his best to behave as enlisted boys ought to behave. This leads to an awkward sexual encounter at the local cinema with a French-inhaling temptress (Beddows's climax amusingly punctuated by a "Sieg heil!" from old Hitler himself) and a touchingly inept flirtation with a shy young woman (Julie Neesam). As Beddows falls in love either with this girl or merely the idea of her, he begins to imagine her preparing his body for burial or, in the film's most awe-inspiringly romantic image, sharing a kiss with him on a deserted landing craft slicing through the waves at sea. That latter moment comes out of nowhere, and it produces the kind of goosebumps most hardened filmgoers experience maybe three or four times a year. Cooper's formal inventiveness in Overlord should've been the beginning of an important career in film; how someone this gifted could become a director of forgettable made-for-television movies makes very little sense. The sui generis greatness of Overlord makes one greedy for more.

*          *          *

The Criterion Collection presents Overlord in a lovely anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) with solid monaural Dolby Digital audio. Supplements include the must-watch "Mining the Archives" (23 min.), which, if nothing else, gives viewers a little background on the spinning, flame-propelled contraption called "The Great Panjandrum." "Capa Influences Cooper" (8 min.) is also worth checking out, as it explains how the great war photographer's classic snap of a Spanish Loyalist in the throes of death inspired Overlord's most iconic (purloined by Oliver Stone?) image. Also included are a couple of shorts from the British Ministry of Information, "Germany Calling" (2 min.) and "Cameramen at War" (14 min.), selections from two D-Day soldiers' journals read by Stirner, and Cooper's 1969 short film "A Test of Violence." Complementing all of this is a booklet featuring a new appreciation by critic Kent Jones, a brief history of the Imperial War Museum from Roger Smither, and select passages from the Overlord novelization written by Cooper and co-scenarist Christopher Hudson. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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