BACK-STORY: “Sergeant York” is one of the great American classic war movies. It was directed by Howard Hawks (“Air Force”, the original “Dawn Patrol”) and starred the biggest Hollywood star of that time – Gary Cooper. It was the first major American biopic that told the story of a living person. The desire to avoid law suits and controversy led to great efforts by the studio to keep the film accurate and authentic. Of course, the main effort was to keep Alvin York happy. York (true to his portrayal at the end of the movie) was not interested in taking advantage of his fame. However, persistence on the part of producer Jesse Lasky eventually wore York down. York drove a hard bargain and insisted on veto power over the screenplay and would accept only Cooper playing him. The movie was a huge success and was the highest grossing film of 1941. (The studio insisted on the outrageously high ticket price of $2.20!) The movie was also critically acclaimed and garnered eleven Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Actor (Cooper over Welles in “Citizen Kane”) and Editing.
OPENING: The national anthem plays over the credits. Words tell us we are in the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee in 1916. A church congregation’s hymn is interrupted by the drunken carousing of Alvin York and his drinking buddies. York uses a pistol to etch his initials in a tree.
SUMMARY: A scene in the town general store establishes that the townspeople are isolated hillbillies. Mention of the hostilities in Europe evinces puzzled looks and “What war?” remarks. As far as their opinion, it is summed up with “t’ain’t none of our business”. They may be isolated but they represent the prevailing opinion of the American public at the time the movie began production.
|"You want me to do what with this?"|
York and his buddies (Ward Bond and Noah Beery, Jr.) go to their favorite bar. It straddles the Tennessee – Kentucky line so Tennesseans can step into “wet” Kentucky to get a drink. Naturally, a humorous bar fight breaks out. It seems that York will fight if pushed. File this away for later. The cinematography puts the audience in the middle of the fight and the piano player literally controls the tempo of the scene. York returns home to his saintly, put-upon ma (Margaret Wycherly). She enlists the aid of the sagely pastor played by Walter Brennan. Pastor Pile tries unsuccessfully to reform the hell-raising York who is only willing to concede that he will be open to the idea in the future. The pastor predicts that religion “may come like a bolt of lightning”. Spot on prediction!
Isn’t there supposed to be a romance somewhere in this 1940s movie? York reacquaints himself with the girl- next-farm named Gracie (Joan Leslie). She is 16 and he is 28. Before you cry “creepy”, remember these are hillbillies. Before York can properly court Gracie, he must become the stereotypical American landowner. A montage portrays his efforts to raise the cash to buy some bottom land. In the montage is rail-splitting, of course. The last of the cash comes from York’s victory in a turkey shooting contest. All he has to do is get the bird to pop its head up and it’s over. (I wonder if this would work with humans.) Would you believe the property owner has sold the plot to York’s Gracie competitor? York gets drunk and has bloodshed is on his mind when the Lord intervenes with that predicted lightning bolt. The Lord adds sound effects in the form of a hymn from the nearby church just in case York is thick-headed. York takes the hint and is born-again. He even teaches Sunday school. Redemption accomplished. What is left?
|"Is the target that huge circle?"|
War! It comes in the form of a speeding rider and bold-faced headlines. The bumpkins quickly agree that now it is our business, except holy-roller York who has a fundamentalist belief that thou shalt not “tech someone off”. He refuses to be drafted, but even with the help of the pastor he cannot get an exemption which accurately reflects the niggardliness (look it up in a dictionary before you have a cow) of draft boards in WWI. He ends up at Camp Gordon in Georgia. It’s like a fantasy boot camp for adult men! York makes friends with a guy from, you guessed it, Brooklyn. Pusher (George Tobias) is the urban opposite of the rural York. He teaches York what a subway is and York teaches him to kill the last turkey in a line first and work your way to the front. Their tough drill sergeant curses York out for his pacifist leanings. Just kidding, instead of curses he uses snide remarks. That changes when York impresses everyone at the rifle range with his Robin Hoodesque prowess. Damn it, this guy could be a killing machine if not for those pesky morals.
York’s commanding officer (who gets a commission for every dead German killed by his unit) tries to get through to York. He gives the dead-eye a civics lesson that must have had the audiences nodding. He unfairly throws in a reference to Daniel Boone. That was below the belt! York holds his own with his adherence to the Fifth Commandment (that’s the one about killing, you heathens). However, he agrees to go on a ten day furlough to contemplate the commander’s duty trumps religion argument. York takes along an American History textbook. It’s God versus country. On a hillside with his dog, York struggles until: 1. the wind blows the Bible open to the “render unto Caesar” passage 2. the dawn comes up 3. patriotic music swells. (The Founding Fathers say “I see your lightning bolt and raise…”)
At the 1 hour 37 minute mark, we are finally off to war. A trench episode introduces our soon-to-be-hero to bombardment. Brit: “ If one has your name on it, there’s nothing you can do.” One has the name of a comrade on it so York is introduced to death. From here on, he’ll be putting the names on.
On Oct. 8, 1918, York’s unit goes over the top (to “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The mission is a frontal assault on a machine gun infested hill. The trip across no man’s land is fraught with touchdown signaling deaths. The camera keeps us informed of York’s progress as well as that of his generic comrades. When the assault stalls, York and 17 others are ordered to flank the ridge. In the process, they surprise a group of Germans at breakfast and take them captive. Unfortunately, this draws the interest of two machine gun nests on the hill which proceed to spray the area pinning down captors and captive alike.
York takes it upon himself to rectify the situation. He becomes the killing machine his commanders had hoped for. The quartermaster also loves his not wasting bullets on missed shots. His turkey hunting experiences come in handy with is appropriate because everyone knows the Germans are the turkeys of Europe in intellect. (Germnas don't read this blog, do they?) Oddly, six Germans charge York in a row instead of the line he had outlined in the barracks. No matter, York “techs them off” in random order with his captured Luger. Picking off the others from front to back results in the surrender of the entire unit. York gathers up the prisoners, one of whom dastardly kills Pusher with a grenade. (WWI or WWII – they are still evil!) York (and the seven surviving Americans) returns to American lines with 132 prisoners. He is an instant hero.
CLOSING: York recounts his exploit to his commanding general to verify for the audience that his superhuman feat was indeed the real deal. When asked what motivated him, York simply says that the machine guns were killing his men and gave him no alternative. York receives several medals including the Medal of Honor from Gen. Pershing. He is thus rewarded for fighting for his country. He declines all endoresement offers and refuses to profit from his fame. His returns home to a brass band playing at the train station. (A scene brilliantly parodied in “Hail the Conquering Hero”.) The state of Tennessee rewards York and his new bride with an idyllic farm and they live happily ever after
Acting = A
Action = 6/10
Accuracy = B
Plot = B
Realism = B
Overall = B+
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on their tolerance for corn. Certainly there is nothing offensive in it. The combat is 1940s intense and has only a brief glimpse of blood. The romance is appealing and not schmaltzy. Cooper is charismatic and likeable. A patriotic American woman should enjoy the plot and it won’t hurt if they are religious. I would think non-American females might be left cold by it. What say you, Caroline?
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: “Sergeant York” is admirably accurate. That’s what you get when you have an American icon and his persnickety peers watching over your shoulder. Plus the producers had to be aware of a backlash from the isolationists if they laid it on too thick. If you stick to the facts, you are on safe ground. The screenplay was based on York’s diaries and he was hands on in his and Gracie’s depiction. However, he did bow to some Hollywood tweaks.
The movie is strongest in the authenticity area. The country store, the York home, the church, and the border bar are all rendered with an attention to period details. The portrayals of the common folk are also strong. Warner Brothers provided a great company of hillbilly-looking character actors. Older viewers will recognize many of them (or so I was told). The accents ring true. Cooper is in a league with Meryl Streep here. The faces are truly rural American. Wycherly hardly has to speak to communicate.
As a biopic, you certainly get the gist of the York story and if he was happy with it, who are we to complain. With that said, allow me to complain. First, the things the movie does not tamper with. York was wild and alcoholic in his early life. He did get in bar fights and was actually arrested several times (not shown in the movie). He did become born-again before U.S. entry. He did claim exemption as a conscientious objector and was aided by Pastor Pile. He did refuse to kill until talking with his commander and pondering on a furlough. Most importantly, the Medal of Honor incident is substantially depicted as it was. The post war epilogue is fine. He did refuse endorsements and was given a farm. Lastly, all but the Pusher character are real people who demanded they be accurately portrayed.
There are a few Hollywood touches. York was the third of eleven children and after his father’s death he helped raise the younger eight. The movie has only room for two. This is understandable as is the decision to simplify his conversion story. There was no lightning bolt. York gradually moved to redemption and it was capped off by a revival meeting. There also was no rifle range revelation. Speaking of rifles, the movie has York using a 1903 Springfield and a German Luger. In fact, he was armed with a 1917 Enfield and a Colt .45. It was Hawks who came up with affectation of licking his sight before aiming. A nice touch. And to be overly picky, the German officer did not use a bugler to call in more Germans to surrender, but used a whistle.
There’s a weird moment when York returns to America and is staying at the Waldorf Astoria. He flicks the light switch several times as though astounded by electrical lighting. Are we to believe that he encountered no lights at Camp Gordon or in France? None of this is egregious. The very end approaches that status, however. The postcard-worthy farm house and farm are a great exaggeration. There was no farm house and the farm was heavily mortgaged which caused the York’s financial problems for years. If I was York I would have vetoed this cruel joke.
CRITIQUE: “Sergeant York” could not have been much better considering when it was made. It is definitely in the top rank of black and white war films. It is technically masterful. The sets are obviously painstakingly prepared. The no man’s land set was constructed by 300 workers and entailed the use of five tons of dynamite and the defoliating of 400 trees. The indoor sets are particularly commendatory. Look around the rooms for the little details on the walls. The lighting is often mentioned by critics. The score by Max Steiner makes use of patriotic songs, folk tunes, and hymns. We hear “Give Me That Old Time Religion” several times in the background. This could have been cringe-inducing, but the music is not used to ham up the emotions. It just matches the already clear theme of the scene. The cinematography is fine. Nothing artsy.
The acting is a strength. Cooper is at his best and said it was his favorite role (ironically, he was reluctant to play it). He is a master of underacting. He deserved the Oscar, although Welles’ fans might dispute that. Brennan and Wycherly were nominated for Supporting Oscars. The rest of the cast is perfect for their roles. Such great faces, especially Wycherly. (Watch for her portrait in York’s Waldorf Astoria room – there were no roaches in that room!)
The screenplay is a marvel of achieved themes. The film can be viewed as two parts. The first part takes York from disdain for religion to Bible-thumping . In general, the dynamic is between the religious people (exemplified by Mrs. York and the Pastor) and the hell-raisers (York and his compadres). The second half has him make the shift from fundamentalist belief in the Old Testament to love of country, duty, and honor. His evolution from pacifism to interventionism mirrored York’s actual feelings in the 1930s. He began the decade, as did many Americans, disillusioned with the results of WWI and the machinations of the bankers and weapons makers to get us involved. However, partly through conversations with Lasky and his experiences with the movie, he switched to pushing for U.S. entry and even went on publicity campaigns for the movie. His involvement in the Fight for Freedom organization was the opposite of Lindbergh with America First. In this respect, the movie York and the real York stand in for the American public. The post script adds the third theme of reward for serving your country well. Oh, and throw in "killing for your country is not a sin". So go to it, guys.
The combat scene lasts less than fifteen minutes, but is quite good. I show it to my American History classes to prep them for their letter from the trenches which requires them to go over the top into no man's land. (The other clips I use are from "Paths of Glory" and "The Lost Battalion".) I have to admit that my students laugh at some of the deaths which include a rare 360 degree twirl while signalling a touchdown (which is shown from a different angle seconds later - why waste acting like that?). See it in the clip below. The action is well done and it helps that it closely parallels the actual event. It is superior to the Medal of Honor scene in "To Hell and Back".
The film is in many ways typical of the war films made during that era. However, it does have an two interesting diversions. First, the American officers are portrayed in a positive light. They are not martinets, uncaring, or incompetent. York’s CO and his second speak to him almost as an equal and are sympathetic to his dilemma. The movie is refreshingly lacking in military cliches. More significantly, this was the first movie about WWI that did not have a strong pacifist vibe. This was clearly due to the motivation of the producers to encourage U.S. intervention and was a distinct gamble when you consider the predominately pacifist feelings of the public not long before the movie was released. Pearl Harbor could not have come at a better time for this movie. You could make a case that “Sergeant York” is the rare significant war film that is not anti-war. Compare it to “All Quiet…” and “Paths of Glory” to see what I mean.
CONCLUSION: Does “Sergeant York” belong in the top twenty? It depends on how you define “greatest”. If you read it as “most important”, then you can make a case for it. It’s effect went beyond simple entertainment. It is a very entertaining film, but it also tells an important tale of a warrior that deserved the coverage (similar to Audie Murphy’s “To Hell and Back”). More significantly, it played a role in American intervention in WWII. The most popular film of 1941 encouraged Americans to see the positive aspects of involvement in the world conflict. The attack on Pearl Harbor seemed to confirm that theme.
To see clearly the evolution of war movies, compare "Sergeant York" (1941) and "To Hell and Back" (1955) to their modern equivalent "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989). We've come a long way, for the better.