The Past is Ever Present: Stuart Cooper’s ‘Overlord’ and the Memory of War

Overlord Criterion Blu-ray

The moving image has played an essential role in our public memory of WWII. From wartime newsreels to soldiers’ home movies to propaganda to visual records of concentration camps, WWII was saturated by an incredible archive of striking images from the outset, images that have helped shape our understanding of history and the way we continue to tell it. There’s a reason Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski filmed Schindler’s List in black-and-white and Saving Private Ryan with a handheld, desaturated palette: original wartime images have come to construct the terms of cinematic authenticity by which later interpretations are evaluated.

Thus, there has long been a particular “documentary” quality to both narrative and non-fiction WWII cinema. William Wyler’s Hollywood Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives depicted real-life veterans onscreen, and Alain Resnais’s experimental essay film Night and Fog combined past and present footage of concentration camps. The camera itself is often understood to be a witness to this history and its atrocities. The pervasive style and character of archival wartime images inspired Claude Lanzmann to avoid archival footage altogether when he made the epic documentary Shoah in order to realize a movie about the presence of traumatic memory without the trappings of such familiar images.

Stuart Cooper’s Overlord doesn’t approach the wartime archive as a homogeneous set of familiar images. In the early 1970s, the director mined the 16mm and 8mm archives of London’s Imperial War Museum and emerged with rare treasures of specific historical occurrences, cinematic pleasures of incredible warplanes at flight, and uncanny records of unfathomable tragedy. What he did with them remains wholly unique in the history of war cinema. Cooper shot his own original 35mm film about a young recruit who suffers loneliness and dread from basic training to his arrival at the shores of Normandy on D-Day. He then combined this footage with the archival materials, creating a hybrid that is never quite a narrative yet never quite a documentary either.

Overlord speaks profoundly to our ongoing relationship to wartime images and symbolically summarizes the trajectory of WWII cinema. Like Schindler’s List’s black-and-white photography or Night and Fog’s movement between images captured in the past and present, Overlord is both a record of history and a comment on our contemporary relationship to it.

With the existence of these images comes our struggle to understand them in terms of their scope, their context, and the horrors they serve as an index for. The catastrophe of WWII — from the bodies of soldiers strewn on a beach to the decimation of cities to industrialization of death to the targeted mass murder of a culture — is difficult to wrap one’s mind around, yet its many components are overwhelmingly present by the archive it left behind. Cinema is not innocent in this regard. It was used as a tool for propaganda, and it emerged from the same industrialization of society that enabled systemized murder and accelerated weaponry. Cinema has served as both a means of capturing the war and as an all-too-fitting totem of the means that produced it. Overlord doesn’t overtly point fingers at the cinematic apparatus, but its novel experimentation with original and archival footage does foreground the tendency of cinema to capture history in a particularly cinematic way.

Overlord is not an attempt to make something that cogently resembles a war film of its time. The film’s frank depiction of sexual longing, elliptical structure, meandering scenes of predictably profane everyday conversation between soldiers, and stark violence (from archival and 35mm footage) do not have an equivalent in 1940s British cinema. Yet while I wouldn’t refer to Overlord as a “pro-war” film, it also does not resemble the Vietnam-era didacticism of its contemporaries in 1975. Overlord, as explained by Kent Jones in his illustrated essay for Criterion, possesses a “quiet exaltation” and even a sense of “nobility” particular to Britain’s experience of the war. The film’s elliptical structure and jolting editing style echoes contemporaneous filmmaking techniques (like the work of Nicolas Roeg), but its heart seemingly lies in 1944 — not in what films told us about war back then, but about the dark and unrelenting experience it must have been.

Cooper’s protagonist (Brian Stirner) is no conventional hero for the movie screen. His fate is assumed early on. He is “simply a soldier,” a pawn in the great game of devastating international conflict that history forgets to tell. Yet Cooper pulls us deeply into this soldier’s psychological space, and in the same turn cuts us off from it by turning to archival images whose perspective seems to belong to nobody but the camera itself. Cooper’s original footage for Overlord tells a story that the archives simply cannot, yet he uses these existing resources to provide the film with immediacy and a sense of scale that fiction films often overlook. The result is simply the best of both worlds.

The archival footage is by no means seamlessly integrated into Overlord’s narrative construction. And it also hardly serves a uniform use. Early on, images of aerial warfare illustrate the protagonist’s nightmare about what his future may bring. Several scenes later, a newsreel is shown in a British movie theater as a soldier flirts with his girlfriend. Archival images carry both an explicitly cinematic and a deeply psychological purpose — in Overlord’s many uses of existing footage, the film exhibits how deeply our shared public memory of the war has been integrated into our personal interpretation of it.

And now, nearly 40 years after its release (and descent into near-obscurity until its 2006 restoration), Overlord is also a record of an archive and of one filmmaker’s relationship to and interpretation of the annals that history has left for us. As with war footage itself, there is a continued and immeasurable value to the preservation of Overlord. The film is a necessary reminder that history is always with us in the present.

Overlord is now available on Blu-ray from Criterion.