Written by Chelsea Spear; Chelsea interviewed director Stuart Cooper in December 2005
U.K., 1975. 85 min. Jowsend. Cast: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball, Julie Neesam, Sam Sewell John Franklyn-Robbins, Stella Tanner; Cinematography: John Alcott; Editing: Jonathan Gili; Music: Paul Glass Produced by: James Quinn; Written by: Stuart Cooper and Christopher Hudson; Directed by: Stuart Cooper.
Every cineaste worth their stack of Criterions has a list of â€œholy grailâ€ movies â€“ films whose titles have been lost to time or whose availability has been restricted due to pressing distribution or legal issues. Chief among mine was Overlord, a British feature from the 1970s that used archival footage from the Imperial War Museum to observe the story of a doomed British soldier. Iâ€™d first heard about the film from John Gianvito, an esteemed local cineaste who recommended it to me after seeing a dreadful short Iâ€™d made that incorporated found newsreel footage. Unfortunately, Overlordâ€™s entire American distribution amounted to a few broadcasts on the esteemed LA pay cable station Z Channel, followed by a weekend engagement at New Yorkâ€™s Walter Reade Theatre in 1985. While bootlegs of the Z broadcast and British VHS tape existed, finding them on the cult-driven black market made for a challenge.
Director Stuart Cooper describes Overlord as â€œa black and white war film made under the auspices of the Imperial War Museumâ€¦the storyline follows a young soldier whoâ€™s called up and trained and sees first action in the first wave on V-Day in June of â€™44. Part of the dramatic hook is that the soldier has premonitions of his own death while going through boot camp and getting ready. The dramatic hook: whether he will survive or not.â€ This may sound like many other war dramas, but the use of archival footage sets the film apart. â€œWhatâ€™s unique apart from the narrative is that we used quite a lot of archival footage, much of which was never before seen. The technical aspect of this is remarkable â€“ the use of the archive set against the dramatized footage is absolutely seamless. You canâ€™t tell where the archive begins and ends.â€
Cooper, a well-regarded American expatriate, had previously made two dramatic features in London, including the acclaimed Little Malcolm with John Hurt. The inspiration for Overlord came from a documentary he had been hired to direct. â€œI was approached to do a documentary for the Imperial War Museum based on a huge embroidery that was to be the World War II equivalent of their tapestry of the Boer War. This would be a huge tapestry to portray. I took the job, I was interested, I shot needlework and some editorial cartoons that had been prepped in London. At the Imperial War Museum they have 39 million feet of footage on WWII. I got into the archive and researched, learned about the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and watched documentaries and newsreels. This was a great opportunity to make a fairly emotional picture using the archive to tell the story.â€
As he watched the footage, a story slowly came together. â€œIt was an interesting process â€“ sketch in the story and see what the archive could support. I couldnâ€™t expect the archive to work into the movie. After I got a taste of the archive, I organized the story and found the archive would support a dramatized story. Because D-Day was important, I was able to find a tremendous amount of footage.â€
An eerie, elliptical drama came of this effort, in which nightmarish footage of minesweepers, missiledropping planes, and disemboweled air raid victims alternates with footage of soldiers training and coping with the realities of war. While the archival footage puts viewers in the thick of the action, the raw, disarming realism of the acting brings to mind the postwar â€œkitchen sinkâ€ movement, which favored straightforward acting and unknown character actors over the stylized approach and matinee idols of the previous generation. This haunting film suggests what the beloved Twilight Zone episode â€œAn Occurance at Owl Creek Bridgeâ€ would look like had Stanley Kubrick helmed it.
Cooper and his crew set out to make a film that looked as if it could be found in the IWMâ€™s archives. Working with the IWM allowed Cooper access to many resources he might not have had otherwise. â€œâ€¦I was working with the IWM. This is what theyâ€™re good at. I used a lot of people at IWM for their props, costumes, and to make sure of authenticity. I built sets at the IWM and they helped with building the barracks. My cast went into boot camp with a platoon of young Marines in Irelandâ€¦The film is totally real and authentic.â€
The filmâ€™s authenticity extended to the cinematography. Cooper scoured Europe for lenses used with 1930s and â€˜40s cameras, used vintage film stocks, and collaborated with cinematographer John Alcott â€“ a favorite DP for Stanley Kubrick and Luis Bunuel â€“ on finding a photographic style similar to that of 1930s and â€˜40s films. â€œWe wanted to make something that looked as if it came from the archive,â€ Cooper notes. They were so successful in this task that at the filmâ€™s premiere at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival, Alcott frequently asked Cooper â€œDid we film this, or was this archive?â€
Overlord received the Silver Bear award in Berlin and became a moderate success in Europe, spawning a similarly well-researched movie tie-in thatâ€™s still used to teach D-Day in British history classes. Cooperâ€™s initial search for an American distributor came not long after the Vietnam War, â€œand we were never able to crack distribution.â€ The filmâ€™s American fans included Jerry Harvey, figurehead and programmer for the influential pay cable station Z Channel. In Xan Cassavetesâ€™ documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, Cooper recounted the memorable trans-Atlantic phone call that led to this broadcast, which took place at 2am with the mercurial Harvey initiating the call by asking Cooper, â€œhow come I donâ€™t know you?â€
Though Z Channel only broadcast to about 100,000 homes in the Los Angeles area, its subscribers were well-connected film industry professionals who knew a good thing when they saw it. On Cooperâ€™s return to California, he found himself at a dinner party with a television producer who saw Overlord on Z and offered him the opportunity to direct A.D. The popularity of this ambitious miniseries â€“ which was shot in Tunisia with 400 speaking roles and a cast that included Colleen Dewhurst and James Mason â€“ led to the second phase in Cooperâ€™s career; namely, the broadcast TV phase. â€œThe best reason [for this jump] is simply that I moved from London to Los Angeles. â€¦ The fare is different. In order to survive, you have to work, and you donâ€™t get the flexibility that you might have in Europe. When I was approached to do a miniseries, I said â€˜I can do that.â€™ Itâ€™s an interesting exercise, and it involved very few elements that didnâ€™t come into play. The downside is that youâ€™re at the top level of network TV, and after making all these esoteric films, I made a huge miniseries — and everyone wanted me to do another one!â€ Many fans of Cooperâ€™s earlier work might look askance at his 1980s and â€˜90s filmography, which ran from the sublime (a remake of The Long Hot Summer with Burt Lancaster and a collaboration with Sophia Loren) to the ridiculous (â€œwomen-in-perilâ€ movies with titles like Out of Annieâ€™s Past that featured Lifetime leading ladies Stephanie Zimbalist and Michelle Phillips). He regards his cable TV movies as boot camp and compares his experiences to those of Roger Cormanâ€™s protÃ©gÃ©es. â€œIf youâ€™ve done something for hire, thereâ€™s always something to learn â€“ even if [youâ€™re not making] another Overlord,â€ he wryly observes.
Ultimately, however, you canâ€™t keep a good movie down. In the Z Channel director commentary, Xan Cassavetes praised Overlord as â€œthe best movie youâ€™ve never seenâ€, and sent a copy along to Jonathan Turrell of vintage film distributor Janus Films and classic DVD canon The Criterion Collection. This resulted in a 22-city theatrical release and a DVD to follow in early 2007, marking the first time Overlord has had theatrical or home video distribution in the United States. Early response has been terrific, supported by rave reviews from none other than Roger Ebert and post-film Q&As that have lasted two to three hours.
After hitting a wall with the initial theatrical release, why is this film hitting such a chord now? In a word, Iraq. â€œThe Q&As have all had to do with the business of war. Wars themselves and dates have changed, but the business hasnâ€™tâ€¦ This is a very authentic look at the human experience of war â€¦ Maybe thatâ€™s where the strength of Overlord lies; the personal relevance and the connection audiences make between what they see on TV. Film connects people, and part of this film is that lesson.â€ Additionally, the use of the archival footage has impressed even film archivists, who have never seen anything like it. Though the rarely screened Overlord is in a class by itself, you can feel its influence in features like Good Night and Good Luck, whose use of archival footage Cooper praises as â€œadventurousâ€. Even the hushed tone and eerie, grotesque visuals of Guy Maddinâ€™s Archangel follow in Overlordâ€™s film perfs.
Cooper will be following up the belated success of Overlord with some adventurous films, most notably a new version of The Old Man and the Sea with Omar Sharif in the title role. He also hopes to shoot the first narrative feature to be shot on the IMAX 60mm film format.
As for myself, I received a copy of Overlord in the mail not long after conducting this interview. After looking through the dregs of Kimâ€™s Underground with the hopes of one day finding it, getting the dust off this cinematic chalice gave me a unique thrill, and I look forward to seeing a print of it (at my favorite movie theatre, no less) with great anticipation.