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 “holy grail” movies – 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. I’d first heard about the film from John Gianvito, an esteemed local cineaste who recommended it to me after seeing a dreadful short I’d made that incorporated found newsreel footage. Unfortunately, Overlord’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 York’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 “a black and white war film made under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum…the storyline follows a young soldier who’s called up and trained and sees first action in the first wave on V-Day in June of ’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.” This may sound like many other war dramas, but the use of archival footage sets the film apart. “What’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 – the use of the archive set against the dramatized footage is absolutely seamless. You can’t tell where the archive begins and ends.”

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. “I 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.”

As he watched the footage, a story slowly came together. “It was an interesting process – sketch in the story and see what the archive could support. I couldn’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.”

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 “kitchen sink” 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 “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” 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 IWM’s archives. Working with the IWM allowed Cooper access to many resources he might not have had otherwise. “…I was working with the IWM. This is what they’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 Ireland…The film is totally real and authentic.”

The film’s authenticity extended to the cinematography. Cooper scoured Europe for lenses used with 1930s and ‘40s cameras, used vintage film stocks, and collaborated with cinematographer John Alcott – a favorite DP for Stanley Kubrick and Luis Bunuel – on finding a photographic style similar to that of 1930s and ‘40s films. “We wanted to make something that looked as if it came from the archive,” Cooper notes. They were so successful in this task that at the film’s premiere at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival, Alcott frequently asked Cooper “Did we film this, or was this archive?”

Overlord received the Silver Bear award in Berlin and became a moderate success in Europe, spawning a similarly well-researched movie tie-in that’s still used to teach D-Day in British history classes. Cooper’s initial search for an American distributor came not long after the Vietnam War, “and we were never able to crack distribution.” The film’s American fans included Jerry Harvey, figurehead and programmer for the influential pay cable station Z Channel. In Xan Cassavetes’ 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, “how come I don’t know you?”

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 Cooper’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 – which was shot in Tunisia with 400 speaking roles and a cast that included Colleen Dewhurst and James Mason – led to the second phase in Cooper’s career; namely, the broadcast TV phase. “The best reason [for this jump] is simply that I moved from London to Los Angeles. … The fare is different. In order to survive, you have to work, and you don’t get the flexibility that you might have in Europe. When I was approached to do a miniseries, I said ‘I can do that.’ It’s an interesting exercise, and it involved very few elements that didn’t come into play. The downside is that you’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!” Many fans of Cooper’s earlier work might look askance at his 1980s and ‘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 (“women-in-peril” movies with titles like Out of Annie’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 Corman’s protégées. “If you’ve done something for hire, there’s always something to learn – even if [you’re not making] another Overlord,” he wryly observes.

Ultimately, however, you can’t keep a good movie down. In the Z Channel director commentary, Xan Cassavetes praised Overlord as “the best movie you’ve never seen”, 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. “The Q&As have all had to do with the business of war. Wars themselves and dates have changed, but the business hasn’t… This is a very authentic look at the human experience of war … Maybe that’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.” 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 “adventurous”. Even the hushed tone and eerie, grotesque visuals of Guy Maddin’s Archangel follow in Overlord’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 Kim’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.

Chelsea Spear Written by: