In America, young men have gone off to our last few wars with a sense of duty, honor and adventure. That's because they knew about war only from newsreels, television or, if they read much, from books.
But Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner), who comes from a middle-class family, knows a little more about what awaits him when he says goodbye to his dad and mum to begin training to fight the Nazis: He's British, and he's late for his first day of camp because of the air raids.
In Stuart Cooper's award-winning Overlord, there's not a single moment of innocence waiting to be shattered, and not a speck of naïve exhilaration about going to war. Made in 1975 and now released in the U.S. for the first time, the film begins with a black screen and about a minute of sound ... marching feet, clopping hooves, racing engines ... before cutting to archival footage of the war, including an eerie image of Hitler in an airplane, looking out over things as if surveying his new real estate.
From there, Cooper tells Tom's story with highlights of his basic training ... "Skinny, aren't you," the doctor says, then Tom faints after an inoculation ... and the anticipation of waiting to learn where he'll be sent to fight. Along the way, Tom makes friends with the working-class Jack (Davyd Harries), celebrates his 21st birthday in the barracks, and meets a girl (Julie Neesam). They have a dance, take a walk, and plan to meet two days later. But history intervenes: Tom has a date with D-Day, the 6th of June, 1944.
The spare, concise story that unfolds in Overlord is often compelling in its quietude. But of course much of it is also familiar in 2006, after Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Gallipoli and so many other strong films about war. It is not, strictly speaking, an anti-war film (an almost redundant term to anyone but the John Wayne crowd). It's a slice of life and history, a you-are-there docudrama about innocence that's lost to begin with.
Nearly half of Overlord's running time is archival footage, woven so skillfully into the fabric of the drama that sometimes you won't quite know where you are. It's a perpetual reminder that there's a war going on and that Tom will soon be in it. He's quietly convinced of his own impending mortality, and the war seems to be waiting for him, even stalking him. Sometimes it haunts his dreams. So does the girl he met just before shipping out, but those dreams aren't reassuring either: In a scene that seems at first to be his funeral, he makes love to her in his mind ... just moments before landing on the beach and confronting war's abrupt inevitability.
"Last one over's a Charlie," the affable Jack says during training. "First one over's a Charlie, if you ask me," Tom replies. And later: "Cannon fodder, that's what we are." Still, he knows why he's doing it: to stop Hitler, who started this thing, and who needs to be shown what for. This sense of purpose receives a mention, not a fanfare, so it's easy to imagine why no one wanted to distribute this movie in the United States in 1975, when we were especially tired of war.
Cooper and his cinematographer, John Alcott ... who shot Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining for Kubrick ... photograph most of Overlord in a washed-out black and white that blends seamlessly into their bounteous historic footage. But now and then, for intimate moments and close-ups, they switch to crisp high-contrast, often with an almost heavenly high light bathing the faces of his actors. These passages are somewhat startling, a reminder that we're watching a work of art about a work of history.