• Director: Howard Hawks
  • Writers: Harry Chandlee, Aben Finkel, John Huston, and Howard E. Koch, based on Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary by Tom Skeyhill and Alvin York
  • Starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly, Ward Bond, Noah Beery, Jr., June Lockhart, and Dickie Moore
  • Accolades: 2 Oscars (Best Actor – Gary Cooper, Best Film Editing), 9 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor – Walter Brennan, Best Supporting Actress – Margaret Wycherly, Best Director – Howard Hawks, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream (with cable subscription) on the TCM app, stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The American entry in our World Cinema Winter Festival was selected randomly from those remaining American entries on the 1,001 Films to See Before You Die list that I have yet to see, and it was a huge success for two Hollywood giants at the time, the director Howard Hawks and the actor Gary Cooper. Not only would both men receive Oscar nominations for their work (with Cooper winning), Sergeant York was the biggest hit of 1941, not least because the patriotically-themed movie was still in theaters when Pearl Harbor happened. The story goes that many men went directly from movie theaters showing Sergeant York to the Army recruiting office in December 1941. Yet despite all of that impeccable pedigree, boy oh boy is this movie not for me.

Sergeant York is based on the real story of an American World War I hero, Alvin York (Cooper), who grew up dirt poor in rural Tennessee and, after being drafted into the army, sought an exemption as a conscientious objector based on the particular, highly pacifist version of Christianity taught by the local pastor (the great character actor Walter Brennan). However, his request is denied. When he finds himself in actual combat in Europe, York turns out to be a hero and leader of men, single-handedly killing dozens of Germans through his skills as a sharp-shooter and leading his handful of men to capture hundreds more. He is given more medals than will fit on his chest and a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, but rejects the many offers of riches he receives in order to return to the family farm in Tennessee and marry his fiancee, Gracie (Joan Leslie). To his surprise, he finds that the state has purchased prime land (which he wanted but wasn’t able to get earlier in the movie) for his new farm and built a house for him. This, at least, he accepts, and the movie has a happy ending.

Hollywood had sought the rights to York’s story for years, rights that Warner Bros. was able to secure just in time for the next war to start after the studio agreed to finance the creation of a bible school in York’s hometown. There is a persistent story that York would only allow the movie to be made if he was played by Cooper, but in fact this demand was made up by producer Jerry Lasky when he begged Cooper to take the role, going so far as to sign York’s name to telegram he wrote to Cooper. Alvin York is not really remembered today as a cultural figure outside of the existence of this movie, but I think it’s important to understanding this movie to know that he was a major cultural figure at the time, a symbol not just as a war hero, but a “mountain man” war hero who was represented an older, simpler, more virtuous America. He was portrayed in the press as sort of a latter-day Daniel Boone (a guy who gets namechecked in this movie several times), whose skill with a rifle came from hunting back home and turned down fame and riches to go work hard on a farm with his mother and sweetheart. Side note, I’m not trying to be mean here, honestly, but there’s a picture of the real-life Gracie on Alvin York’s Wikipedia page and, um, let’s just say that in the long history of Hollywood casting extremely good-looking actors as less good-looking real life people, there are few bigger gaps between the relative looks of an actor and the person than actor portrayed than Joan Leslie and this lady.

This rural heritage being key to York’s whole thing, this movie goes all in on it, and we spend well over the first half of this movie with pretty much every single character doing the most over the top versions of Appalachian accents you will hear in your life. Maybe these accents are accurate to early-20th century Tennessee, given that in a time before widespread radio, TV, or even electricity in that part of the country, I’m sure there was much more regional dialect variation. But I mean, if you haven’t seen this movie, however you are imagining the accents, they are way crazier than that. As for my reaction to all this, I think it’s less that I have a low tolerance for this sort of thing than that I’m not particularly charmed by it, and I think I’m supposed to be, because otherwise the first hour plus of this movie doesn’t have a lot going on.

Then we get to the second part of the movie, where York is in the army, and that was not for me for other reasons. Look, I’m not going to sit here and start morally judging individual soldiers for doing their duty in the middle of a war. What I am going to judge is what this movie thinks its own point is, and that is that pacifism is all well and good as long as you don’t have any actual reason for violence, and then you should go ahead and kill people. There is literally a scene where Cooper looks anguished while he hears, on the one hand, quotes from the town pastor, and on the other, quotes from a book of American history his commanding officers gave him. The quotes speed up until the words “God” and “Country” are literally alternating, the simplest possible version of this debate. The thing is, the movie never seriously seems to consider the possibility that “God” might be the right answer, or, rather, seems to think that God is fine with killing people as long as it’s vaguely in the American national interest.

So again, not talking about the actual real-life actions of people fighting World War I here, but this movie’s combo of poor people-sploitation, or whatever this is, and wild flag-waving of the most bland, empty, and unconsidered variety really left a bad taste in my mouth. At the time, though, it was widely beloved, and even today Sergeant York has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. Cooper’s win was accompanied by numerous other Oscar nominations, including for Brennan, whose loss in the Best Supporting Actor category was likely assuaged by the fact that he had previously won the trophy three separate times, a record that stands to this day, and for Margaret Wycherly, who plays “Mother York” in the movie. Somewhat unusually in the Hollywood of her time, Wycherly was mostly a stage actress who took screen roles sporadically, having been a Broadway star since about 1905, way before movies were a thing. 

Sergeant York is a somewhat random (in some ways literally) American entry for our World Cinema Winter Festival, but perhaps it is at least a little representative of how America thinks about itself. And it does benefit from having a towering (also in some ways literally) performer at its center in Cooper, who somehow makes parts of this movie work in spite of being surrounded by unremitting caricatures. The consensus is this is a very good movie, and if you are not me, there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll like it. So there’s that.

One thought on “SERGEANT YORK (1941)

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