Here's one thing you're not likely to see much of in World War II movies: actual footage. And here's one D-Day film you're not likely to have seen despite its being made decades ago: Overlord, an unrated British film that would probably earn an R rating today for occasional harsh language and brief nudity. The British film profiles the life of Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner), an English recruit, as he prepares for the June 6, 1944, invasion of the European continent codenamed Operation Overlord.
The story of how the film was unknown to American audiences for so long goes like this: Director Stuart Cooper's collaboration with Academy Award--winning cinematographer John Alcott to create a different sort of World War II film produced an initial buzz by winning two awards at the Berlin Film Festival in 1975.
Around the same time, Overlord enjoyed a brief and limited run in European theaters before slipping into obscurity until the Telluride Film Festival in 2004. There, many American critics discovering the film nearly 30 years after its creation heaped praise on Overlord. Two years later, Overlord finally made its American theatrical release in 2006 to a small number of art house theaters. On April 17, Overlord was finally made available to a wide U.S. audience when the film was released on DVD.
Overlord differs from traditional D-Day movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan in at least two important ways. First is the movie's use of archival footage from documentary and newsreel B-roll. In a masterstroke, Cooper and Alcott used film and cameras similar to the ones used by wartime cameramen to ensure the film could move seamlessly between archived and new shots.
The idea was a magnificent one, especially considering the amount of amazing vintage footage the filmmakers uncovered.
The footage, which accounts for nearly one-third of the 85-minute film, gives Overlord an authentic feel unmatched by previous war films. At times you see young men disembark from landing craft or in dinghies and tossed into rocks by a tempestuous sea during training exercises. At other times, bizarre war machines with what looks like a gigantic threshing wheel on the front purposed to chew up razor wire on the Normandy beach. Or a massive rocket-powered reel-shaped wheel used to detonate mines in the surf. Those sorts of absurdities may have never been a part of the popular conception of what D-Day was like-but there they are in archival footage.
Another powerful effect of the archival footage: It helps Overlord contrast the parallel storylines of the raging war and Beddoes' lonely wait to enter into action. It's a Junebug versus hurricane scenario in which Beddoes' entire life is blown around by war currents. Unlike Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan or John Wayne in The Longest Day, the only action available to Beddoes is to wait for his time to jump off the landing craft with the Allied forces and wade ashore. He feels powerless in the face of almost certain death.
In this context, Beddoes tries to convey his feelings to his parents in a rambling letter as he waits for deployment. He's of mixed mind: Part of him seems fixated on his imminent peril. Another part of him focuses on trivialities as a sort of situational anesthetic: "We all think the invasion can't be far off. It's like being part of a machine which gets bigger and bigger while we grow smaller and smaller until there's nothing left. . . . I wish I had some news. Yesterday, I saw a fox," he notes, before turning serious again. "I don't think I shall live to see the end of this war. Sounds silly, but this war has killed so many people already. I'm just going to be another one. Of that, I'm sure. I feel it. . . . I didn't know whether I should tell you." Most will be happy that the director wasn't so ambivalent in storytelling.
The Longest Day (1962)
John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and 41 other named stars help power the epic retelling of the Battle of Normandy from both the Allied and German perspective. The multiple directors tell stories that range in scope from personal vignettes to panoramic war scenes. Based on the Cornelius Ryan book of the same name, which includes over 50 pages of veterans listed as firsthand sources, this classic adaptation-while missing the Spielberg bells and whistles-has not lost with age its rank as the lodestone among D-Day retellings.
Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood star in a tale of an American general taken captive by Nazis before the Normandy invasion. Because the general has knowledge of the Allies' D-Day plans, American and British forces team up for a rescue mission.
The Big Red One (1980)
A veteran sergeant (Lee Marvin) leads a squad of inexperienced conscripts through the horrors of the European theater. When confronted with Holocaust concentration camps, a young private (Mark Hamill) must come to grips with his pacifism.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Held as the quintessential representation of D-Day violence, the Steven Spielberg film follows a captain (Tom Hanks) as he leads a squad on a mission to save one mother the grief of losing all four sons in a single war.
Band of Brothers (2001)
HBO forever canonized Easy Company's drop into Normandy-and its decorated march across Europe-in a six-disc, 999-minute sweep. The time invested (or reinvested for perennial fans) is worth the lesson: D-Day by no means ended the war and a soldier's work is never done in a day. Bulldog grit and tenacity remain the currency of soldiers everywhere, summed up by Brothers' hero, Capt. Winters: "We're paratroopers-we're supposed to be surrounded."