Most war films follow a familiar storyline: Fresh-faced enlistee suffers, struggles, and prevails to heroism in the end. In such films, even the most the greenhorn protagonist will become a competent warrior and valued member of his squad.
Stuart Cooper’s Overlord (the code name for the invasion of Normandy) takes exception to this premise, with its tale of a young WWII recruit who barely makes the grade and never gets much better.
This 1975 forgotten classic uses archival footage from London’s Imperial War Museum — cities on fire, spectacular aerial combat photography — to fuel a low-budget portrait of a doomed private, delivering a fatalistic view of war that almost overcomes its artistic pretensions.
Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) is an unassuming and well-scrubbed lad eager to serve his country. But after joining the British army, he struggles to accept the dehumanizing codes and conduct of the military. His painful stumble through basic training only leads to disillusionment and self-doubt. But with just a few short weeks until the invasion, Tom has no choice but to accept his fate: line up behind an endless stream of soldiers like himself and march into the meat grinder of Normandy Beach.
Cooper does a decent job of capturing the tedious conformity of military training as Tom journeys from naïveté to bitterness to resignation, but his story is hardly unique. In fact, Cooper seems to revel in the banal, omitting any sense of personality or drama. Tom is likable enough but in a cookie-cutter sort of way. It’s a great illustration of the director’s point, but it doesn’t get us invested in the character’s fate.
Where Overlord impresses and disturbs, however, is in its devastating archival footage. The restored black-and-white images of towering armaments and blazing cityscapes have a terrifying realism that eclipses even the best of today’s computer-generated effects. It reminds us that World War II — our most romanticized conflict — resulted in a hellish inferno of death and destruction.
Some film theorists argue that war movies are incapable of critiquing armed conflict without glorifying it. Overlord may be the exception to the rule. Pvt. Beddows isn’t a hero in the classic definition of the word, but his sacrifice, inconsequential as it may seem in the face of war, was as profound a gesture as he could ever make. Our current administration would do well to remember this.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Oct 20-21.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].