Monday, November 9, 2015

Overlord: A True War Story (Revised)

My favorite film of all time is a war film. It's called Overlord and it's a British film made by Stuart Cooper in 1975.

Take away the stock footage of World War II courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, and you have a very short story -- essentially a biography -- of Tom Beddows, a simple, decent, well-meaning, gentle, witty young man. He is called up during the war and is sent various places to train for the invasion of Normandy (for which "Overlord" is a code word).

Add the stock footage (37 minutes worth, to be exact), used to greater advantage than any I've seen before, and you have a poignant, melancholy, intimate merging of one little life with the mind-boggling, mammoth, two-headed War Machine, one part Hitler, one part Allies. As you can imagine, the little guy, good-spirited as he may be, is no match for the Juggernaut.

Director Cooper doesn't need much time to characterize Tom and his relationship to the war. He is nowhere to be seen for the first three minutes: The film begins with a black screen and the sound of men, horses and trucks, then cuts to archival footage shot (by Germans) from planes. Near the segment's end, Hitler is shown looking out the window of a plane, apparently admiring the accomplishments of his luftwaffe. Still no Tom.
Brian Sterner as Tom Beddows

The next shot pans left to right on the faces of British soldiers on a landing craft, but, though we learn later that this is Tom's outfit, Tom is not among them. Next is a cut to a grainy, unfocused shot of a soldier running toward us; he is shot, his weapon flying from his hand. Before that image can sink in, it is graphically matched to pre-war Tom running toward us.

He is supposed to be catching a bus to his basic training (or induction), but he's racing back home to pick up a copy of David Copperfield and to say good-bye to Tina, his pet spaniel.

Because of this delay, Tom has to catch a later bus, misses his train, and reaches his destination late and alone. Anyone who has ever been in the military or has seen bad movies about it, already knows this guy is in "a world of shit,"  and is about to get torn a new one, as the vulgar expression goes. 

Don't we know Tom by now? Haven't we met people like this? How would they do, storming the beaches of Normandy? What chance would they have?

Tom is made of the same stuff as Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, Tim O'Brien's Tim O'Brien, and the young narrator of Randall Jarrell's "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" (see below). Whatever that stuff is, it was not made for war.

He knows from the start he will die, and part of the confusion of first-time viewers of the film is that Cooper shows us Tom's premonitions of his demise, his death fantasies. Because he is a young man with a lively but immature imagination, his premonitions are romantic, glorious, heroic. So, throughout the film, don't be confused when you see him gunned down -- his premonitions of his death and the events leading up to it are just one of the film's three realities.

Admittedly, there is no such thing as "objective reality," but World War II itself is the closest Overlord comes to that elusive concept, because it is presented through "objective," "nonfictional" footage. It is loud (the sound has been added in almost every instance), disturbing and terrifying, while simultaneously horrifyingly beautiful or, maybe, beautifully horrifying. like footage of an F-5 tornado. 

The damn thing has a personality. It is a monster we humans have created in order to protect ourselves and our interests. Heartless, but not brainless, it is our human-made Vortex into which millions, even good-natured little Tom, get sucked up into. As one writer from the Vietnam War said, "War degrades every thing and every person it touches."

As the war footage continually reminded me of this truth, I thought back to how such footage was used in those awful WWII films of my youth. Mainly, they were intercut with shots of, say, John Wayne aiming his weapon at the japs or jerries to make it look like he was actually in the war, which of course he was not. In short, even to a kid, it looked rigged.

Not so in Overlord. It actually follows and, in a sense I can't quite explain, maps out poor Tom's journey to Normandy. Not one frame of it is wasted. Not one frame leaves the viewer untouched by its power.  

So this is the film's "real" "reality." To reiterate, its "film reality" is Tom's training for D-Day and his eventual landing. And finally there is the non-chronological externalizing of Tom's premonitions. This will all become mostly clear to you on re-watching this jewel.

Another war film tradition is the little lady back home, the Cheerleader Motif as someone calls it (actually, I call it that). Overlord, like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, turns that convention inside out. The only girl Tom has back home is a literal "bitch" (his spaniel Tina) as is made clear in a bit of wordplay between him and his friend. But, in his imagination, at least, he establishes a relationship with a character known only as The Girl, and this is depicted in just a few short scenes, only one of which is "real."

The most touching scene between Tom and The Girl is too much of a spoiler for me to describe, other than to say it is masterfully filmed, perfectly demonstrating Tom's blurring of romantic love and romantic death. If I weren't writing this, I'd go watch it again right now.

Does all this attention to Tom's humanity, to his childlike, playful, vulnerable nature make Overlord an antiwar film? This war was a successful effort to save the rest of us from Hitler and his kind, so it's hard to be against that. But Cooper certainly refuses to romanticize it. No one is going to name a street or building after Tom Beddows or any other character in this film. Tom is no more heroic than you or I, regardless of how he dies (if he does die).

Truthfully depicting war and its consequences is probably about as antiwar as a filmmaker can get. Overlord is honest in its portrayal of Tom and the war. The former has a face in which we see his humanity; the latter is faceless -- you know, "boots on the ground," etc. As a true war story, it doesn't have a moral, doesn't make you proud, doesn't really make you want to salute anything.   

There is much more to say about this film, but you'd be better off finding yourself a copy of the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition, listening to director Stuart Cooper and actor Brian Sterner (Tom) discuss its filming, and reading the enclosed booklet written by film scholar Kent Jones. This edition also has tons of information about how footage from the Imperial War Museum was put to use in the film.

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
                              -- Randall Jarrell


  1. I'm declaring Overlord my favorite war movie purely on spec and the power of your commentary. Guess it'll leapfrog River Kwai and Deer Hunter, although I hold a special place for the wedding scene in the latter. I'm Polish after all.

  2. Overlord will definitely overleap those two, "Brahm."

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