Today the mere mention of D-Day inevitably brings to mind the nerve-jangling opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, which brought an unprecedented realism to Hollywood depictions of the Normandy landings. Overlord, a little known black and white British film from the mid-70s, achieves an altogether different kind of authenticity.

Between 1971 and 1975 director Stuart Cooper spent some 3,000 hours sitting in a dark cell at the Imperial War Museum, sifting through original archive film captured by army, navy and airforce cameramen.  He was also given access to the personal diaries and letters of real servicemen, which he and co-writer Christopher Hudson drew upon to produce the screenplay for a film that would combine live action with stunningly vivid period footage.

The man who made this possible was cinematographer John Alcott, the lens-and-lighting genius who had worked on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey  and, a year after Overlord‘s release, would win an Oscar for his work on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Alcott used war-period lenses and specialised lighting techniques to match the texture of the new footage with the archive material, so that it could be weaved into a near-seamless whole.

Named after Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion, the film follows Private Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner), an ordinary English lad who is called up to the East Yorkshire Regiment and leaves home with a copy of David Copperfield tucked under his arm.

We accompany Tom through daily life as he endures the rigors and absurdities of combat training and the boredom and dread of waiting to be mobilised. He enjoys a brief encounter with a local girl with whom he is instantly smitten, but is called away before he can see her again.

960__overlord_X05_blu-ray__blu-ray_Throughout, Beddoes is plagued by premonitions of his own death and becomes convinced he will not survive the war.  On his 21st birthday, as a gift from his parents. he receives a fountain pen and the key to the front door of the family home.  Sitting alone in a copse of trees, he writes to prepare them for the MOD letter he knows will come: “I can feel it,” he says, “the way you feel it when you’re going to get a cold. ”

Overlord is dreamlike and elegiac, fashioning an impressionistic visual poetry from the rural English landscape. Here war is an indiscriminate and incomprehensible force eating up the old certainties of a disappearing England, an idea underlined by Paul Glass’s score, with its strong echoes of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Beddoes’ subjectivity is contrasted with the vast impersonal machinery of the war operation, represented through extraordinary footage of aerial dogfights, beach landings, and cities in collapse. The live action and archive film are so skilfully blended that you’re sometimes left unsure as to which it is you’re watching.  It’s a disorientating experience: one moment we’re hearing birdsong in a country lane – the next, the sound of tearing metal.

The film originally failed to get US theatrical distribution and quickly vanished into obscurity, where it remained until 2008, when it re-emerged in a remastered edition that was issued on disc as part of the Criterion Collection.

I can think of no other film about war that is so intimate and delicate, and so rooted in a sense of personal voice. Overlord is a buried treasure of British film making, with an audacious visual style that haunts the mind.

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