By Michael Wilmington 2018-11-16

3-1/2 stars

"Overlord" is a discovery, one of those small films swept aside in the tides of film history and later reclaimed. This 1975 British film, beautifully shot in black and white and mixed with actual period World War II footage, re-creates the experience of D-Day as lived by one neophyte British draftee. The young man's name is Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner), and we follow him through his initiation into military life all the way through to the violent landing at Normandy.

Nothing about Beddoes is supposed to be special. He's simply a young man thrust into a vast war machine, uncertain about his own feelings and caught up in a huge mechanism beyond his understanding: Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion of Europe. We watch him go through basic training, get bullied by his superiors, play war games and go to the movies. Eventually he meets a pretty, kind young woman (Julie Neesam) with whom he almost has a romantic interlude. But the war intervenes.

Directed and co-written by Stuart Cooper, an American ex-actor ("The Dirty Dozen"), the film is done in a deliberately anti-heroic, skeptical style. The interweaving of the dramatic scenes and the actual period wartime footage is mostly seamless and often brilliant, creating an open-eyed realism that was the stance of many movies depicting war in the '70s. (Wherever they were set, they were often about Vietnam.)

"Overlord" also reminds you of '60s Eastern European films and of Stanley Kubrick and his bleak, poetic view of war. That last isn't surprising. Cooper's cinematographer here is John Alcott, who shot "A Clockwork Orange," "Barry Lyndon" and "The Shining" for Kubrick, and he does a superb job. "Overlord" got good reviews in 1975 and won Cooper the best director's prize at the Berlin Film Festival. But it disappeared commercially, and Cooper eventually moved into British TV ("A.D."). His other theatrical films included 1974's "Little Malcolm" and 1977's "The Disappearance," both shot by Alcott.

The film survived because of a few persistent admirers, like the late Jerry Harvey of Los Angeles' legendary Z Channel. It surfaced again recently at Telluride. Though you can see why it wasn't popular - it's as downbeat as "All Quiet on the Western Front" but without a trace of sentimentality - it's also clearly an excellent work. Watching it gives you a harsh chill of recognition. War is often this bleak, this cold, this terrible - even when it's a "good war" and a heroic endeavor, like D-Day.


Directed by Stuart Cooper; written by Christopher Hudson, Cooper; photographed by John Alcott; edited by Jonathan Gili; music by Paul Glass; produced by James Quinn. A Janus Films release; opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Running time: 1:28. No MPAA rating. Adult (violence and brief sensuality).

Tom - Brian Stirner

Jack - Davyd Harries

Arthur - Nicholas Ball

The Girl - Julie Neesam

Dad - John Franklyn-Robbins

Mum - Stella Tanner

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