(28/02/08) – There have, of course, been films that incorporate documentary footage into a narrative either to enhance the sense of perceived reality or to help spread a tight budget. Likewise there are no shortages of reconstructions of momentous world events, giving the audience a sense of focus by concentrating on a small number of individuals whose actions convey an understanding of the broader picture. Overlord, Stuart Cooper’s Silver Bear winning 1975 film about the D-Day landings (Operation Overlord was the codename for the Normandy campaign), takes these concepts to a whole new level. Rather than insert short sequences or montage sections from archive material Overlord integrates them wholly into the narrative – indeed almost a third of the film is made up of footage obtained from the Imperial War Museum. Initially the effect is a little jarring but soon the approach becomes clear – the staged sections are beautifully shot in diffused black and white to enable easier integration with the documentary footage, but the boundaries between the two are lucid enough to make sense of the astonishing imagery.
Ostensibly Overlord follows the story of one man and his journey into battle. Thomas (Brian Stirner) is a nervous, quietly spoken and squeamish man who is conscripted to fight in World War 2. The narrative shows his induction into the army, its codes, its routines, the petty tasks, the casual cussing and the modes of addressing equals and superiors. The attention to detail and emphasis on the mundane aspects of army life are all about preparation for the job in hand, all contrasted with the escalation of war, which creates a sense of gravitas and urgency to the situation shown in the cut scenes. "All you seem to do is sit in barracks waiting for the war to start," laments Thomas in a scene that looks forward to similar frustrations and fears in such films as Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead or Buffalo Soldiers. But, as a viewer, we are aware of the magnitude of events elsewhere and how small a part one man can play in them – how the war is seen almost as a whim of individuals with catastrophic consequences. The preparations for war are breathtaking in their ingenuity and scale – huge mechanical behemoths whip through beaches of barbed wire, mine sweepers roll on, pontoons set out for death or victory, the skies are filled with the rat-a-tat of gunfire and the lightning strikes of anti-aircraft missiles.
The re-release of Overlord could not be more timely as it says as much about the current state of the world and the news agenda as it does about the war it was covering (World War II) and the war that was ending (the Vietnam War) when it was being made. What is particularly striking is the use of on-board cameras to record some of the battles from the pilots’ views of events – some of these shots are simply breathtaking, disturbingly exhilarating as tracer fire emerges from the side of the screen to hone in on a ship or tanks or troops. The similarity to the detached aesthetic of Gulf War target bombing footage, with its technological emphasis and paradoxical combination of "in the thick of it" mixed with antiseptic detachment, is eye-opening. Scenes of mass bombings have an eerie, ethereal, fairytale beauty that give an impressionist effect when viewed in succession. Unlike similar footage from the initial bombardment of Baghdad, Cooper briefly shows the consequences of these actions, the charred remains of those caught in the terrible rain of death.
For a decades-old film that didn’t make much of a splash at the box office (despite its festival success) it is laudable that Metrodome should lavish such a well balanced series of extras on the DVD. This includes a director’s commentary from Cooper but also a series of short but insightful interviews that recount the inception and making of the film, including the extensive role of the Imperial War Museum, which takes a decidedly impartial analysis of the way that real and staged footage has been integrated. Overlord comes highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the language of cinema, the D-Day landings or the role of the media in disseminating information. A combination of experimental editing of found footage and reductive narrative structure makes Overlord an unexpected and fascinating experience that recalls at times the works of Peter Watkins (The War Game (1965), Culloden (1946), The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959)) and the Kevin Brownlow film It Happened Here (1965).
The Overlord DVD is out on Monday, 03 March 2008. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.