Stuart Cooper's superb WW2 drama following a young man's journey from conscription to participation in the D-Day landings was recently released in the UK by Metrodome. Our coverage of the film itself and that release can be found here. This review looks at the earlier region 1 US release from Criterion and particularly the extra features, which differ enough from those on the Metrodome disc to warrant a separate article, despite some inevitable similarities.
I think it's safe to assume that were it not for the earlier Criterion release, the Metrodome disc would probably not have appeared. It was Criterion who, under Stuart Cooper's supervision, carried out the extensive restoration work to produce the high definition digital master from which both the Criterion and Metrodome transfers appear to have been taken. Direct comparisons reveal them to be virtually identical in picture quality, while the rare remaining picture jitter is visible at exactly the same moments on both discs.
As usual for a Criterion transfer the results are hugely impressive. Contrast and detail are excellent, although small allowances have to be made for the fact that John Alcott's cinematography was designed to match his new footage to the archive material, some of which is in startlingly fine shape.
It's a similar story for the monaural soundtrack that graces both discs, although on the Criterion disc this has been encoded in Dolby 1.0 rather than 2.0 and so sits in the centre speaker.
Commentary by director Stuart Cooper and actor Brian Stirner
In familiar Criterion fashion, Cooper and Stirner have been recorded separately and their comments edited together to provide an unbroken flow of information and recollection. Cooper does most of the talking and in content and even structure there is a strong similarity between this and his commentary on the Metrodome disc, almost as if he were working from the same detailed notes on both, which of course he may well have been. There is still some content unique to this commentary, including Cooper's admiration for Len Deighton's novel Bomber – a book I unreservedly recommend by the way – and his singling out of The Thin Red Line and The Big Red One as two of the best war movies of the past forty years. What stands this commentary apart from the one on the Metrodome disc, of course, is Stirner's contribution, which though considerably smaller in quantity than Cooper's is nonetheless welcome and always interesting.
Theatrical Trailer (2:51)
This is the same original UK trailer that appears on the Metrodome disc, complete with the BBFC's AA classification.
Mining the Archive (23:23)
Imperial War Museum film archivists Roger Smither and Anne Fleming discuss Cooper's use of archival footage in Overlord. This covers similar ground to the Interview with Smither on the Metrodome disc, but the cross-cutting with Anne Fleming's interview provides a dual perspective and makes for more visually and aurally interesting viewing. There is also better cutaway material here, including shots of the Overlord tapestry that the film was originally planned to cover the creation of and archive photographs of war cameramen, about whose work considerable detail is provided. Both Smither and Fleming talk about a post-Overlord compilation of D-Day footage as if building up to a screening of the same, of which we only get to see snippets, which left me aching for the full thing.
Brian Stirner reads excerpts from journals of Sergeant Edward Robert McCosh (approx. 8:40) and Sergeant Finlay Campbell (approx. 12:00). McCosh's poetic observations are nicely balanced by Campbell's more matter-of-fact approach, but both make for fascinating listening and include several incidents that were incorporated into the Overlord screenplay. There's also an introduction (2:25) in which Cooper outlines the importance of such documents to the film's structure.
Capa Influences Cooper (8:00)
Cooper talks about the influence of the combat photography of Robert Capa on the look of Overlord, particularly the design of the death premonition. Included are the few surviving shots taken by Capa of the D-Day landings and extracts from an article written by Capa on his experience of that campaign. If you're new to Capa's work, this is a good intro.
Germany Calling (2:06)
I can't tell you how overjoyed I was to find this particular extra on the disc. A WW2 propaganda piece created by Movietone editors and brilliantly incorporated into a cinema sequence in Overlord by editor Jonathan Gili, it consists of shots from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will that have been cut to a playfully instrumental version of the popular 1930s tune The Lambeth Walk. Hilariously mocking the pomp of the Nazi rally and Hitler himself, its timing of movements to music and use of jump cuts and forward-reverse processing are years ahead of their time, prefiguring the scratch video techniques and the matching of news and archive footage to music that were much later to become popular in music videos and TV comedy sketch shows. The print has seen better days, but I'm just glad to have it. For the record the film became known as The Lambeth Goose Step.
Cameramen at War (14:42)
A 1943 newsreel produced by the British Ministry of Information that usefully details and inevitably pays tribute to the work of combat cameramen. The quality is variable, with some dirt and damage still visible, but when it's good it's really good, and some of the included war footage is extraordinary.
A Test of Violence (14:15)
Stuart Cooper's multiple prize-winning 1969 short about the work of Spanish artist Juan Genovés is the film that caught the attention of The Imperial War Museum's James Quinn and ultimately led to Cooper's direction of Overlord. It's not hard to see what sparked Quinn's interest and so impressed the juries at the Berlin, Moscow and Venice film festivals – A Test of Violence is an inspired introduction to the work of this extraordinary artist, exploring its minimalist aesthetic and storytelling qualities through a variety of cinematic techniques, including animation, news footage and live action recreations. Superb.
An essay on the film entitled Man Versus Machine by Kent Jones is joined by an excerpt of a presentation given by Roger Smither to accompany the film's Washington 2006 revival, which although interesting in itself does tend to repeat information from the Mining the Archive feature, but does expand on some of the detail. There is also an extract from Stuart Cooper and Christopher Hudson's novelisation of the screenplay and the usual technical details about the transfer.
The Criterion and the Metrodome discs are neck and neck as far as the transfer is concerned, but it's in the variety and quality of their extra features that Criterion edge ahead, with the inclusion of The Lambeth Goose Step, the Cameramen at War piece and Cooper's A Test of Violence worth buying release for alone. But I still wouldn't be without the interview with Nicholas Ball, Doug O'Neons recollections of working with John Alcott and the Imperial War Museum Archives featurette from the Metrodome disc, and my original recommendation thus still stands. Enthusiasts for the film may find themselves shelling out for both discs or may decide to go with Criterion over the Metrodome – either way, the Criterion release is a must-have.