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"Sergeant York" (1941) is based on the true life story of Alvin C. York
- a must see. It has every facet of life: struggles and celebrations,
pride and humility, anger and reflections, war and peace, atheist and
faithful, lazy and zealous, in solitude, in combat, in glory, in
contentment of family, satisfying love and rewarding joy. The yin and
yang's of living.
Yes, it's the perfect role for Gary Cooper to portray Corporal Alvin C. York. In fact, York himself had the insight to personally make it a condition for the realization of the film with no other but Cooper to play him. The film encompasses the humble beginnings, the struggles York went through from a seemingly good-for-nothing' fellow (but quite a sharpshooter for mischief or turkey hunting) to becoming a decent faith abiding man with his dream for a good piece of land and a house for the girl (Joan Leslie portrays the energetic & affectionate Gracie) he yearned for. The firm yet nurturing love of his mother was exemplary, in spite of the hardship a widowed woman raising 3 children (York being her eldest), Mama York's enduring strength helped York to go on when things didn't turn out as he expected. She patiently prayed and believed that faith would come to her eldest when the time comes. Besides her kindred, she's well-respected by the pastor, shopkeeper, neighbors one and all.
Glad TCM included "Sergeant York" in their film tributes to Gary Cooper. Besides the family aspect, the soldiers in training, army in battle segments are equally represented. In times of war as we are now, even though those of us who do not have immediate affiliation to men and women in battlefields abroad, it's so easy to simply dismiss the life-risking duty of a soldier. We are lucky to be enjoying 'pseudo'-peace within our country's soil vs. enemy grounds. War is never pretty. Deaths & injured are inevitable. Two World Wars past and we're still learning as history continues. When military situation arises, trust in our leaders may require leaps of faith, including their course of action. The decision to go to war as a peace-advocating nation is never easy - to fight for a cause and "to kill in order to save lives" (referenced in "Sergeant York") seem to be unappealing logic and of reasons hard to understand. Nevertheless, faith & trust we'd need as the film's biographical storyline of Alvin York reinforced.
We only hope our freedom of expression doesn't get overly abused or taken for granted: that journalism, documentaries, television broadcasts, political agenda do not indiscriminately expose information that may compromise safety of soldiers in combat or military strategies - that wars will eventually be unnecessary and global harmony will see the light of day.
Insightful filmmaker Errol Morris' "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" (2003) is a worthwhile & informative documentary film. It's available on DVD.
King Vidor's "Fountainhead" (1949) based on Ayn Rand's novel is another Gary Cooper film with tour de force performance along with a feisty irresistible Patricia Neal. Also in B/W with Max Steiner music. Unconventional, rebellious, conflict and passion, in work and in love, architect and socialite, it's dramatic to say the least. An enduring engaging film.
This movie might not be an entirely accurate depiction of what occurred, but
it certainly is an enjoyable and inspiring movie. And I hope it will inspire
viewers to look into this slice of history. With the internet, that is easy
these days. I found a fascinating bio written by Michael Birdwell on the
Alvin C. York Institute website. Did you know that York considered running
against freshman Tennessee Senator Albert Gore in 1930? Just think: in a
parallel universe, York's son might have run against George
This is one of those movies that stays with you the rest of your life. Watch it!
There are movies that you can barely remember hours after watching
them, and there are movies you can't forget even years later. Sergeant
York is the later. The movie remains etched in my mind and heart.
It is a story clearly told, yet not oversimplified, with characters boldly drawn, yet not caricatured, at least not the main ones. It would be a great story even if it were not true, but it is true, at least in the main. York's conversion by a lightning bolt striking his rifle is fiction, though his heavy drinking, fighting and ultimate conversion are not. So the lightning is cinematic device to shorten the process, and a brilliant one.
Those who talk about it as a war story (and who complain the first part is boring) miss why this film is so great. It is also a love story and a story of family. Joan Leslie is heartbreakingly sweet and lovely as Gracie Williams. We can feel the chemistry, and see that she is a force for good in Alvin's life, who was 30 when he was drafted.
Leslie's portrayal of Gracie is so full of life and youth and charm. Compare that with Margaret Wycherly's portrayal of Mother York, who is old, tired, dessicated of emotion. Yet she is full of wisdom, of understanding Alvin's passion for Gracie. In her eyes, you can see her thinking back to when she was once Gracie, in her long ago youth. It is a silent, motionless look, plumbing the depths of memory -- a master actress's use of silence.
I think most viewers take Wycherly's performance for granted, perhaps assuming we are seeing the real Wycherly. Yet she was born in London in 1881 to a father who was a doctor -- far from the poverty of Pall Mall, Tennessee -- and had been mainly a British stage and film actress. Nevertheless, those who knew the real Mother York say Wycherly's portrayal was spot on. Now that is real acting.
It is curious that this is the role that earned Gary Cooper his first Oscar. We, the modern viewer, have seen that Aw Shucks persona many times. But apparently it fit the real Alvin York, who insisted on Cooper playing him on screen, and was present for the movie's premiere. You can read about Alvin York online, on Wikipedia and on Gutenberg.org, which has a 1920s biography online. In the quotes of the actual Alvin York, you can easily hear Gary Cooper's voice.
Henry Fonda was considered for the role, and matched York's looks more closely. But he was only a few years younger than Cooper, so it wouldn't have helped much with the Gracie-York match up. I think he could have done the role, but Cooper's fit was right and almost magical. Modesty was the hallmark of York, and Cooper had it down, far more than Fonda. Frankly, I don't notice the age thing when I watch it; it's a movie and you need to be prepared to suspend disbelief up to a point. Besides, people who work hard outside tend to look older, especially if they don't have much to eat.
The scene where the family sits down to dinner and Mother York proudly presents the bag of salt is so beautiful. She reminds me of a stray mother cat who will do anything to protect and feed her children, even to the point of starvation or death, herself. And when I buy salt, I sometimes think about this, and how lucky I am.
As to the portrayal of "hillbillies," we must remember that this was an extremely rural mountain area with no road coming in -- the real Alvin pushed the state to build one after the war -- and it was nearly a century ago. People were different. There was little schooling, too, and the real Alvin later raised funds to build a school. While we see Alvin drinking and fighting, we also see hard working, intelligent, gentle people with nice homes, so I don't see any stereotyping here.
As to the war, yes, the story is true. You can read about it yourself. And it provides a great lesson we should continue to remember today and in the future: The only justification for killing people in war (aside from self defense) is to end the killing and end war.
That is what was in York's mind, and he says so, to stop the killing. York was a pacifist at heart. Killing the enemy out of anger, hatred, retaliation or revenge was not in his mind, and should not be in the mind of any soldier. When this happens, it corrodes the soul of the soldier, so that he can no longer feel like a normal human being.
It was also probably what was on the minds of thousands of Americans who enlisted after seeing this movie, which was released months before America actually entered the war following Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. By then, the war had already been raging for two years, and America's entry was consistent with York's hope of helping to bring the fighting to an end.
York didn't lose his feeling for his fellow man. I found this item from the IMDb trivia section interesting:
"Alvin York himself was on the set for a few days during filming. When one of the crew members tactlessly asked him how many "Jerries" he had killed, York started sobbing so vehemently he threw up. The crew member was nearly fired, but the next day, York demanded that he keep his job."
While the attack he lead killed 28 German soldiers, he also captured 132, saving their lives.
Back in the classic era, motion pictures tended to be a lot shorter
than they are now. Even after the three-hour-forty-minute behemoth Gone
with the Wind (1939), few movies ran for more than two hours. For the
1941 production of Sergeant York to come in at two-hours-and-ten, you
can be sure it was warranted.
This is the true tale of Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldiers of the First World War. And yet this is not really a war picture. Instead it depicts the incredible (and largely true) story of his transition from drunken, violent youth, to teetotal pacifist, to reluctant soldier and eventual war hero. It doesn't rush onto the business of fighting it gives equal weight to each portion of his story. We get to know and respect York, even when he is a hoodlum, which the screenplay does by putting him up against rivals like Zeb and giving him struggles to route for him in. When he does go off to war his actions, his expertise and his emotional response, are in context and have far more impact. There's a clever bit in an early scene when the travelling salesman comes to town. Even though the war hasn't touched the characters' lives yet, we are reminded that it's going on by a prominent newspaper headline.
York is portrayed by Gary Cooper, one of many classic actors who really only ever played one type, but within that confinement could show a whole range of feelings and reactions. Here we see Cooper's simple, honest country boy type pushed to extremes. He seems simple and slow as the emotions flow across his face like glaciers, but his genuineness remains constant throughout, and his steady consistency conveys a sort of depth and intelligence that creeps up on you. An actor who immediately appears clever (Henry Fonda was considered) wouldn't have had the same effect.
Director Howard Hawks has become known of a maker of both action movies and raucous comedies, but his style was always steady and thoughtful. Long takes abound in Sergeant York, often with the camera placed amongst people rather than to one side. There's also some wonderful classic Hollywood lighting to be seen here, as in the shot when Gracie runs over to kiss the hero as he's ploughing the land, a kind of fuzzy silver effect that you don't get in colour or even in modern black and white. The chiaroscuro lighting popular in the 50s is much praised today, but with it we lost the soft beauty of these earlier pictures.
Were this an original story for the screen it would appear far-fetched, but here it seems truth really is a little stranger than fiction. There are of course a number of fabrications; I'm sure York didn't really have his gun struck by lightning, and it should be noted that in October 1918 the Germans knew they would soon be defeated and many of them were desperate to surrender. But it's not the romantic embroidering of Alvin York's tale that makes it seem plausible for the screen, it's the rounded care and dedication that has been taken in constructing the movie, the time given to making it feel true.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As a film that Hollywood made in anticipation of our eventual
involvement in WWII, this film was magical and sure did its job in
rallying Americans to the cause. The film is a propaganda masterpiece
and can't help but affect the viewer. While I am sure many today might
laugh at its sentimentality and clichés or some might get angry at its
unabashed Americanism, the fact is that this is a brilliantly made
film. Heck, by the end of the film, I found myself all choked up--even
though I knew that the real story of Sergeant York was a bit different
(though he still was an amazing man).
Speaking of inaccuracies, believe it or not, compared to most biopics, this film actually is mostly correct. The inaccuracies were mostly done for dramatic effect and don't really change the nature of the man or his deeds. Sure, his conversion was a lot less spectacular and he was already married before he went off to war, but the spirit of the film was correct. Leave it to Warner Brothers to get wonderful supporting character actors and a wonderful musical score and great cinematography to work together to make a perfect film for the time. Not surprisingly, the film took home the "Best Actor" Oscar in 1942.
I'd say more but frankly, there are already a ton of reviews on this seminal film. I'd hate to be repetitive, though just had to point out how much I love and respect the film, having just seen it again for the second time.
By the way, get a load of Walter Brennan's eyebrows. I'd LOVE to know what the preacher REALLY looked like!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I started watching this with expectations of seeing a hero right at the
start, and a very human, tarnished man appeared. That shouldn't be
surprising, since what is just so difficult to grasp is that this movie
accurately portrays what happened that day in the Argonne. Wow. You
have to ask: how did a real man do all that? This is what the movie as
a whole tries to answer, and I think it succeeds pretty well in doing
On an external level, it was really fun to watch Gary Cooper, Ward Bond, and Noah Berry, Jr.,partying all over the place; and there was Walter Brennan bringing "old time religion" to the Tennessee hills. I didn't recognize Brennan at first, just his voice. The eyebrows were a bit much, I agree.
The story is an exceptionally deep one, about a man's religious conversion and then testing. I'd like to see another movie today, this time with the real story of his conversion, although the version in this film is powerfully and well done.
The major's comment after York returns from his 10-day furlough really gets at the heart of the matter. The captain is concerned that York's ongoing struggles with conscience will make him a battle risk, but the major understands that York has really proved that he is an ideal fighter -- one who will work away at a challenge until he beats it.
The battle sequences are done with as much authenticity as the sequences in Tennessee were. There really isn't much screen time for the set-up scene in the trenches, but Hawks wastes no chance to convey the hellish battlefield setting, the soul-numbed and battle-shocked human being that stares out at us from the British soldier's eyes, and the nervousness and yet willingness of the new American troops as they wait in the trench for the signal to go "over the top."
This meant a lot to me since I recently found out that the local VFW post is named after a local man who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the same general area where York and other Americans were operating, a week or two earlier than York's action on October 8, and who was killed in action three weeks to the day after York's action and less than two weeks before the Armistice. His story moved me quite a bit; I don't know much about WWI and appreciate learning a little more about it.
In this movie, Hawks also shows York's new status as hero and how he deals with it (which is the same as he has handled all his other tests, by thinking it over until he sees the right way to proceed). That was a good thing to include.
There were a couple of weak spots -- the major's telling York on the battlefield that York's desire to save lives was the most remarkable thing of all. Actually, from all I've read, that is what motivates generally all soldiers, including those who eventually are given medals for their actions. I think the major would have known that, and of course, soon all America would re-learn it.
Also, the last part where she surprises York is totally unbelievable, since the field is right out there by the brook and he would have seen all that probably even before he crossed the bridge. Still, even though it's hokey and you pretty much know what is going to happen, it's enjoyable, and it's a good place to end the movie.
What a wonderful, entertaining and pleasant picture this is depicting
the true story of a home-grown Tennesse hills boy who is subsequently
drafted into World War I and becomes a hero due to his trust in God and
One of the reasons I think that makes this a better picture than other typical propaganda pictures of its time is the fact that this one pays very close attention to the details of the hero's life. Director Howard Hawks dedicates the first half of the film to scenes depicting Alvin York as a drunk who sometimes causes trouble, but ends up trying to win a girl's heart as well as receive a sign from God and begins to turn his life around. This was my favorite part because it gives a real sense of what it was like to live in those days, difficult but worth the work. The supporting cast that makes up these hillbilly characters is nearly impeccable, including Walter Brennan as the local pastor and Joan Leslie in an absolutely sweet, charming and beautiful role as Gracie Williams, the girl of Alvin's affections.
Of course, where would this film be without Gary Cooper, surely one of the greatest stars in classic Hollywood lore. Supposedly, the real Alvin York only wanted Cooper and personally called him up, begging him to accept. He did and it is so obvious why York wanted him. Cooper's combination of the down-to-earth charm and hardworking tenaciousness makes him perhaps the only actor, save James Stewart, that could pull this role off. It worked as the film was a great success, won Cooper his first Oscar, and inspired millions as the United States entered World War II. Today, it still inspires, but perhaps not so much for the heroics on the battlefield as the scenes involving those living in the Valley of the Three Forks. Those were simpler times and it certainly is refreshing to see them again.
"Sergeat York" is one of those patriotic movies made just before America's participation in WW II.The story of a poor dirt farmer who finds Christianity and gets drafted during WW I fits Gary Cooper like a glove.The movie details his early life as a hell-raiser in Tennessee,his finding his Christian belief and the conflict it causes when he is drafted.The last part of the movie is dedicated his heroic act of killing 20 Germans and take 120 prisoners in the Argonne.I liked the tense depiction of trench warfare in this movie. As usual did Walter Brennan turn in an excellent performance as the pastor of York's community.Definitely a movie worth seeing,although it takes a lot of liberties with the actual story.
This movie is a beautiful celebration of sense of duty, Homeland's loyalty and respect for life. The main scene (the one in which York ruminates on the Holy Bible) should be seen by all the new young generations and never forget. Sergeant York is naturally a propaganda movie produced to support the war effort of the World War II, showing to all the Americans a true hero that fights for his country and for freedom but never forgets his Christian values. Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan and all the other principal actors give a deep interpretation of their characters. The superstitious act of touching with the thumb the gun sight is one of the most famous movie's icons.
I was 9 when I saw Sergeant York on the big screen and was so filled with patriotic pride when I saw that huge line of German prisoners coming over the hill, incredibly, captured by one man, Alvin York. His reluctance to go to war and his commitment once he had to is perfectly portrayed by Gary Cooper. His desire to just go home and not cash in on his wartime exploits is heartwarmingly so American. And when he sees the home built for him by the state with his 16-year-old sweetheart (Joan Leslie was actually 16 too) the handkerchiefs came out. What a lump-in-the-throat ending. Tragic that two months after the film was premiered war started all over again.
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