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A captivating tale of coming of age in wartime

Memo to youngsters and history flunkies: Don't let the title of this movie throw you off. ``Overlord" has nothing to do with sci-fi, anime, gangsters, martial arts, or the big-screen leading-man return of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Taking its title from a famous 1944 code name for D-Day Allied invasion plans, ``Overlord" is the fictional and factual story of a young British soldier's blunt introduction to manhood. The quiet, black-and-white power of this docudrama will disappoint viewers who come looking for big-budget special effects. But by any name the film deserves to be called exceptional, even if it got virtually no notice or play in the United States when it was first released in 1975.

To begin with, director Stuart Cooper and cinematographer John Alcott ought to have gotten a medal of honor -- not just a Silver Berlin Bear (Special Jury Prize) -- for how skillfully they blend scripted drama (co-written by Cooper and Christopher Hudson) with extensive historical footage and photographs mined from London's Imperial War Museum. Matched right down to the film stock, lenses, and lighting used in period documentaries, the look and tone of this entire work is so captivatingly consistent that you might even have trouble distinguishing fiction from fact in some places, and that's as often because the real thing feels staged as it is the other way around.

Alcott, the Oscar-winning Stanley Kubrick favorite who shot everything from ``A Clockwork Orange" to ``The Shining," gives ``Overlord" a trademark enigmatic quality that's never less than gripping. And the thing is: This is not an especially gripping tale.

The focus of Cooper's movie is Tom (Brian Stirner), who leaves home shortly before his 21st birthday to join a World War already in progress. Tom is a clean - cut and unworldly lad, loyal to his cocker spaniel and attached to his copy of ``David Copperfield." He has odd premonitions about dying in battle, and those visions seem pretty astute when he shows up for basic training that points in the direction of beach landings at Normandy.

But that pivotal fight doesn't happen until the end of the film.

Before D-Day, ``Overlord" is mainly about Tom and his soldier buddies -- Jack (Davyd Harries) and Arthur (Nicholas Ball) -- whiling away the long hours until they're given their marching orders. They engage in conversations meant to reveal their lives, loves, and feelings about the war. They go to motion picture shows, giving Cooper an excuse to have some fun with newsreel clips. And they drop in on dances hoping to see another kind of action, which is how Tom meets ``The Girl" (Julie Neesam) who later pervades his dreams.

``Overlord" is arguably as much about coming of age -- intellectually, politically, socially, sexually -- as it is about the business and cost of war. The sinister-sounding elements of its Paul Glass-penned, throwback musical score aren't just a prelude to images of bombings and mighty military machines; they're a kind of commentary on innocence lost.

This modest film is like a dearly held vintage photograph. It makes a connection to the past that seems worthwhile to carry around with you -- and now that it's finally been rescued from cult-level obscurity (in a new 35mm print, no less), you can.

Janice Page can be reached at

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