Overlord (1975): Stuart Cooper’s Powerful WWII Movie, Boasting John Alton’s Brilliant Cinematography

Set around the D-Day invasion (‘Operation Overlord’), Stuart Cooper’s Overlord is a powerful WWII movie about a young soldier’s meditations on being part of the war machinery, and his premonitions of death.

The film world premiered at the Berlin Film Fest, where it won the Special Jury prize.

Beginning with a premonition of death, the film centers on a young Everyman named Tom (Brian Stirner), his relationships with Dad (John Franklyn-Robbins) and Mum (Stella Tanner), his call up and training, his meeting a young girl (Julie Neesam), his journey to France, ending with his death on D-Day at Sword.

Director Cooper also includes footage of the London Blitz and bombing of Europe, which dramatizes the events leading up to the invasion and the risks involved.

Cooper had originally intended to make a documentary about the Overlord Embroidery Tapestry. But when he researched the events of the Normandy landings at the Imperial War Museum, he changed his narrative strategy by focusing on one young man’s journey from call-up to coffin.

The Imperial War Museum allowed Cooper access to original nitrate negatives, and he was also granted access to diaries of soldiers who present at the landing, which were all incorporated into the screenplay. 

About half of Overlord consists of contemporary footage shot for the film, and about half is archival footage from British training missions and the invasion itself.

Cooper and his brilliant cinematographer, John Alcott, succeed in creating a coherent text and a visually consistent look when shooting the contemporary footage by employing old Kodak film stock and original German 1930s military camera lenses.

Unfortunately, initially, due to its grim nature, Overlord failed to get US theatrical distribution and was only shown in select screenings and on TV.

Patterns of Release

In 2006, the film saw its first US release through Janus Films and in 2007 it was also released as part of the  Criterion Collection.

I am grateful to the Classic Program of the 2016 Cannes Film Fest, where I saw this memorable film for the first time.