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Many of the best films have portrayed real-life events -- and Sergeant York is no exception. Gary Cooper as Sergeant York delivers an Oscar-winning performance as a Tennessee hillbilly who, for personal and religious reasons, doesn't want to kill anyone and refuses to join the war on the Western Front in WW I. After much soul searching, he eventually dons a uniform and ships out to France. Using uncanny marksmanship skills acquired from years of living in the back woods, he prevents his platoon's position from being overrun by the enemy by methodically mowing down a few dozen German soldiers. One of Sergeant York's secrets to shooting accuracy is wetting down his sights with a bit of saliva to prevent glare. He emerges from the war as a hero, marries his favorite girl, moves into a house given to him by the State of Tennessee as a symbol of their gratitude, and lives happily ever after. Great stuff, and all true. A stunningly moving film that everyone should see.
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.
*** 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.
I love every aspect of this movie, especially Coop's performance. This is (in my opinion) his greatest performance because he was the perfect representative of America's veteran's coming home from a major war and stating clearly that he is not proud of what he did in his service to his country. In the film (as well as the real Sergeant York) he is offered several thousands of dollars (possibly millions) and he refuses it for those reasons stated above. This is my idea of a true hero and what better role model to have than Gary Cooper.
In this day and age of FRAUDS like Jessica (The 8 day POW) Lynch, this movie is like an oasis in the desert! "Coop" does a flawless job as Sgt. York, portraying his sincere humility like a champ and telling the story like it was! And I love Mr. York's quote; "this is Uncle Sam's Uniform, it ain't for sale!" Mr. York turned down more than $250,000.00 in endorsement offers, and was finally GIVEN 100 acres of land in Tennesse by the grateful people of that state; which was all he wanted. Jessica (The 8 day POW) got more than $3,000,000.00 for her "Heroism" York was a TRUE hero, even though it happened more than 85 years ago. I wish we had more soldiers like him!!!!! A truly great film with great acting and a story line that sticks very close to the truth. And c'mon, Hollyweird, please try to get this one on DVD before the NEXT millennium. It's one of the BEST films ever made.
This movie is not a complete waste of time but I do not believe it can
justify the high ratings it receives here. Sergeant York actually
picked up some Academy Awards so it is interesting to note the movies
it competed with at the time: Citizen Kane, Suspicion, The Little
Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, Yankee Doodle Dandy, How Green Was My
Valley--In short, some of the greatest movies ever made. The stilted
acting and predictable script makes the movie appear older than it
actually is. Made in an era before the discovery of irony, the heavy
handed wartime propaganda film seems cartoonish today. The idea that
Gary Cooper beat out Walter Huston (All that Money Can Buy) or Orson
Welles (Citizen Kane) for best actor says more about Hollywood's
patriotism at the time than it did their ability to recognize or reward
a great performance. A similar observation could be made about it's
Film Editing award.
I found Max Steiner's score to be particularly disappointing. For an interesting comparison look at Sea Hawk, a wartime film made by the British two years earlier as they prepared to enter WWII (with music by Korngold). For a great movie from the era, see any of the movies listed above. For an exercise in tedium see Sergeant York.
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.
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.
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