His Finest Hour

Washington City Paper | June 2, 2006
Technically a fiction film, Stuart Cooper’s Overlord follows a young British recruit from basic training to his first battle: the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, code-named Overlord. But the 1975 film, which has rarely been shown in the United States, stitches its invented scenes into ’40s documentary footage that’s much more interesting than the newer stuff. Indeed, this hybrid’s overall impact is considerably diminished by Cooper and Christopher Hudson’s pedestrian script.

Of course, mundanity is the goal. Thomas Beddows (Brian Stirner) is an everyday archetype, complete with the nickname that Britain has traditionally bestowed on its foot soldiers. In the opening sequence, Tommy sets out from his comfortable small-town home to London, only to be engulfed by a montage that includes everything from a fiery bombing-raid aftermath to a shot of Hitler looking out of an airplane window. (The latter is probably from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.) When not drilling with his unit, Tommy strikes up a tentative romance and goes to the movies, where he watches more newsreel footage.

Cooper’s schema requires that Tommy, implausibly, not see battle until D-Day. So the scenes of training and R&R are interrupted by a vivid dream sequence that includes ruined cities and charred corpses. The movie doesn’t attempt to hide that this is a premonition: Tommy is cannon fodder, and his story will end on the beach.

The movie means to emphasize the banality of the man’s fate, and it does that job a little too well. Overlord’s documentary-based passages, horrible yet strangely beautiful, elicit strong and complex responses. But Tommy is just a device—one that’s much less effective than the movie’s main conceptual gambit.

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