|'Cooper makes all the right choices about where to use archive material, but he expertly lets the images speak for themselves'.|
When a film opens with the phrase "The Imperial War Museum presents" as Overlord does, you know that what you're about to watch intends to offer as authentic an interpretation of 20th Century warfare as possible. Combining archive footage of the Second World War with the fictional narrative of Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner), director Stuart Cooper achieves just that in harrowing, captivating fashion.
As we witness Beddows saying goodbye to his parents and cocker spaniel Tina early on as he leaves home to begin his army training, the decision to combine real and staged footage initially feels as though it might jar somewhat. It's a worry soon alleviated as Beddows' train journey, interrupted by an air raid, is intercut simply but effectively with footage of firemen tackling buildings set ablaze by bombs. Paralleling the noise of the train on the tracks with the machine gun fire of fighter planes is an additional master stroke by Cooper, just one example of the director's superb use of sound throughout. The handful of moments in which Cooper presents the noises of war against a black screen are some of the simplest within Overlord, but also some of the most impactful.
Beddows feels an ill fit for a soldier, his views on his service in the army becoming ever more nihilistic and punctuated with visions of his own death. His slight romance with Julie Neesam's character - credited only as "the girl" - offers a brief moment of optimism amongst Cooper's bleak depiction of the war, sweetly developed by Stirner and Neesam and shot by Cooper in the style of a Golden Age romantic drama. But it too is snuffed out before it can blossom, left only to develop in Beddows' mind as fantasies of what could have been. As the film edges nearer to its conclusion during the D-Day landings, the sense of tragic inevitability builds, and yet Cooper still manages to make Overlord's climax both shocking and unexpected.
Overlord's relative flaws are all found within its fictional sections, and stem largely from both its running time of under ninety minutes and the fact that far less than that is devoted to the narrative thanks to the considerable amount of archive footage used. Aside from Beddows, none of the characters are developed beyond the basic, with most remaining anonymous background figures throughout. A few of the conversations depicted also end up feeling a little too theatrical to ring true. What cannot be faulted, however, is Cooper's use of the wartime footage available to him. More than seventy years after the end of the Second World War, the pictures the conflict has given to us continue to be hauntingly, heart-rendingly fascinating. Cooper makes all the right choices about where to use archive material, but he expertly lets the images speak for themselves.
The Criterion Collection edition of Overlord is available on UK Blu-ray from Monday 6th June 2016.