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Gary Cooper's terse presence dominates this movie. It is also filled with implications that strike true even today. York fought in a war where the balance of power could have changed the course of history. He had to pull himself from the restraints of his religious beliefs to see that the greater good was at stake. We have reached a time when war has pretty much become a religion, or at least it is indistinguishable. We define patriotism in a whole different way. Whatever our Christianity du jour is (because that term has been rendered meaningless by the breadth of belief systems that are at odds with one another constantly), we feel that God is there to direct the bullets to the enemy. The enemy is usually of another religion, which is at the root of terrorism and equally as dangerous. The problem is that the Sergeant Yorks of the world aren't heroic until they take out guns and begin to finish off their fellow men and women. The problem is that in our world today, politicians and zealots send off people to fight. We honor their sacrifices, of course, but how often do we in our easy chairs stop to ask why we are doing this. Gary Cooper does a masterful job in presenting the conflicted York, who, ultimately, had little choice.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a Classic American Movie about a Classic American Hero
portrayed by a Classic American Actor! It just doesn't get any better
Alvin York has been a hero of mine since I read of him and saw this movie as a child. What a Great American Hero...just like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett before him; and, George Patton and Audie Murphy after him!
This is entirely a great achievement. This movie is of great production quality, and, with a great cast; and, there's no one whom I can think of who'd have been a better choice to portray Alvin York than Gary Cooper. In fact, Alvin York wouldn't allow a movie to be made about him unless Gary Cooper portrayed him.
Like many other movies at various times, this movie came out right at a time when America needed to be reminded of its heroes, World War II. Also, because of a hip injury and his age, Gary Cooper was exempt from military service...so, he considered this movie his contribution to the war effort.
This is the kind of movie about the kind of hero portrayed by the kind of movie star that makes me very proud of America and to be American.
*NOTE - For all 'un-non-and-anti-Americans' who gave this movie a low rating and insulted it in any way, I can understand your envy, shame, defeat, and, self-loathing! For all 'Americans' who did the same...go live elsewhere, you won't be missed!
Alvin York may be causing a ruckus every now and again - or often - and
likes to drink a bit. But it hits him one day that maybe he can have
some purpose: a bit of land, a farm, some bottom-land, he can do some
good things with it. But he needs money to buy it, and at the same time
he also is pining for the local lady Gracie. So he keeps at it,
plugging away with work on the land, and even wins a very competitive
bout to win a turkey shoot - low and behold, by golly, he's a perfect
shot! How he is doesn't matter, as the last line says, I suppose, the
Lord works in mysterious ways. But he can't get the farm right away as
someone else buys it. He's despondent, and suddenly, in one of those
real MOVIE scenes (in capital letters) a literal bolt of lightning
comes near his way, gets his gun, and he finds Jesus by walking into
the Pastor's church as the 'Old Time Religion' song booms like a rock
concert. York's hooked.
How he suddenly flips to becoming a full-blown religious man - and he may seem rather mild compared to today's evangelicals, but make no mistake he's basically 'Born Again' as it were - is one of the flaws of the film for me. But of course one has to take it on the context when it was made; it was a film made right on the cusp of World War 2, and as always in Hollywood at the time, the 'Legend-fact-print-Legend' sort of thing is going on (did this really happen, that during a storm he became completely imbued with the religious spirit, enough to teach kids Sunday school and so on)? Perhaps the religion does do him some good - one wonders if he would, on his own accord, apologize to people he was being foolish to (even if they, frankly, were being bigger d***s to him, but then such is the case of the dimensions of the characters).
But up until this point, Sergeant York is the story of this man, told plainly but with visual sophistication and with the usual entertaining pace that Howard Hawks was known for, and it's the simplicity of spirit that works for the film. We see how Alvin is a man who just wants his little lot in life - to get that land, get that girl - and today, or maybe even for some back then, it'd seem hokey. But Gary Cooper sells it so well, he's so damn earnest that you can't really put him down easily, despite the fact that, arguably, he's too old to play the role. He was as well for High Noon, but that didn't stop him from making the character wholly believable and full of genuine spirit. Even when York shows that he doesn't have the best of them ol Book-Smarts, he knows right from wrong, and when he becomes full of the old-time religion he doesn't feel like he should kill - it is a commandment, after all - despite the call for draft in world war one.
There is some interesting conflict there, and yet... we all know where this train is headed. I was glad that there was an hour of set up in Tennessee, to show the world that York came from, the people around him like his mother and the Pastor (he played by Walter Brennan, also playing this Pastor in such a way that's strong and dramatic and even fun that you kind of want to 'Wrestle Satan like a bear' as he recommends). But after this, when York goes of to war, it actually wasn't quite as complex. Yes, there is the moment where York has to question what he's doing - if he really can kill with what he knows as the Bible's commandment, and also the parallel of Daniel Boone's own legend - but there's only limited self-reflection in this story. At best, and something I did appreciate, by the end Alvin doesn't totally 'sell-out' as it were, though he very easily could've. Ironic that he's offered movie rights in the film... wait a minute, ain't we watching the Alvin York story here? The action on screen has some excitement, but the war sequence is also more chaotic than I would've expected, given that Hawks is such a clean, clear storyteller throughout most of the film. Only by the time when Alvin gets to doing what makes him so world-renown does it carry some real clarity and purpose.
It's also hard to see Alvin doing what needs to be done in a war and he doesn't feel really that much compunction about it (oh, Cooper may have a moment when he shies from knowing the number of how many he killed, but... is that enough?) But all the same, the director and star make Sergeant York a fairly memorable movie about this man, and it carries an All-American spirit that is kind of touching. Here is an age before cynicism in such things really took over, so for all of the hokey moments and goofy bits of Southern-fried characterizations (some of the supporting characters are very one note, it really must be said), there's still a purity about it that is appealing.
Many others have commented on this movie, the plot, the casting, and
the character of Sgt. Alvin York. I noticed some things that hadn't
been mentioned, and a couple that may be misunderstood. So, I'll try
not to repeat what others have mentioned, but instead offer more
details about the man and the movie from biographical sources.
The film, "Sergeant York," is a number of things rolled into one very fine production. It's a story of a poor backwoods people, and one of their own who rose to fame without seeking it. It's a story about conversion, faith, and pacifism. It's a story about war, and a man who became a hero unwittingly. In one encounter in WWI, he killed 23 German soldiers and captured 132 more, single-handedly. He did that only to stop the killing of his friends and others. And, after the war, he walked away from many commercial offers that would have made him rich. He said his faith wouldn't let him profit from the killing of men. Truly, he was a remarkable person. But he didn't start out that way.
Alvin York came from "the Valley of the three forks of the Wolf River." He was born on December 13, 1887 in Pall Mall, Tennessee, a stone's throw from the Kentucky border on the Appalachian Plateau. He was the third oldest of 11 children. His two older brothers had married and moved away, and he was the main breadwinner for the younger siblings still at home with his mother after his father's death in 1911. York worked in railroad construction, as a logger, and in other skilled jobs while maintaining the family farm. He also was a heavy drinker who would get in brawls and wind up in jail. And, he attended his mother's church regularly, and often led the singling. At one of the meetings of the Church of Christ in Christian Union, he had a profound spiritual experience and conversion. He was 27 on Jan. 1, 1915, when he changed his ways. He quit drinking and brawling, made amends to neighbors and began to live by the Bible as he learned and studied it.
The Warner Brothers movie made some changes in York's background, but kept very close to his general story and events. The movie was a long- time in the making by producer Jesse Lasky. He was at the New York ticker tape parade for Sgt. York when he returned home from the war in May 1919. He wanted to make a movie and for 20 years sought York's OK to tell his story. York turned him down several times until the eve of WWII. York saw the divisiveness in the U.S. over the war looming in Europe. A second DVD that came with my movie DVD has two special documentaries. "Sergeant York: Of God and Country," is a very good one that tells the long story about the making of the film. Some encyclopedia references give more details about York's post-war years.
When he agreed to having his story told, York initially wanted it to cover just his post-war years. He didn't want to glorify the killing of Germans. But the growing threat of Nazism in Europe, and the treachery it already led to in Germany, changed York's mind. He saw the strident isolationist movement was backed by numerous Nazi groups within the U.S. So, he began to speak out about the need to prepare and to fight a war against tyranny. York also insisted that Gary Cooper play him. Cooper had initially declined, and the bonus special has more details about that. A week after he returned home to Tennessee after the war, York married his sweetheart, Gracie Williams, on June 7, 1919. They were married by the governor of Tennessee in their hometown of Pall Mall. The farm given him in the movie came from a public fund-raising led by the Rotary Club in Nashville. It had 400 acres with a home that wasn't quite fully furnished. It was the only outright gift that York accepted.
York established a foundation for education and devoted himself to community betterment campaigns. He got the first highway built into his hometown. He had financial setbacks as well. But, once he befriended Jesse Lasky and Harry Warner, and he agreed to have the movie made, his fortunes turned around for the remainder of his life. He became friends with Gary Cooper and others, with whom he stayed in contact over the years.
Alvin York was a tall, strapping man. He was every bit as handsome as Cooper, but somewhat different. He had a mustache and a head of full, bushy hair. Photos show his humor and good nature. While he might be quiet at times, he was very gregarious and loved to talk with people. In the documentary, a neighbor and close friend is quoted as saying York "could talk the husk off an ear of corn." York thought the movie was very good and that it told his story accurately and sensitively.
The movie was a blockbuster for Warner Brothers when it came out. Isolationists in Congress accused the studio of violating the Neutrality Act, which it sure seemed to do. They, as do some viewers today, see the film as propaganda, to encourage U.S. intervention in WWII. Of course it is propaganda. How could such a story not be propaganda when released at that time? But it started as an effort to tell the story of a bona fide hero from WWI, whose story had not yet been done. And, who had been pursued for the story for 20 years. That Alvin York finally agreed to the telling of his story on the very eve of WWII, was fortuitous. Or did providence have a hand as well?
I had first watched this during the early '80s on TBS when the station was presenting it on their Academy Award Theatre on Sunday morning. It was my first time of watching a Gary Cooper movie. It was also my first time seeing the true story of World War I patriot Alvin York, from his Tennessee background to his Hell-raising to his conversion to religion to his attempt to avoid combat because of it and then his heroism after he realizes how important his defense is to the good of his country. The film is humorous in spots, romantic when York courts Gracie Williams, touchingly played by luminous Joan Leslie, dramatically intense in the battle scenes, and touchingly heartwarming when the results reach the end. Is it possible this film was made to prepare men to go to battle again in another World War? Yes, it might've been propaganda for that. Still, Sergeant York is such an entertaining and inspirational movie, one forgives some bout of glory-mongering that might have crept in. Walter Brennan was also good as York's religious mentor. And Cooper deserved his first Oscar for this role. So on that note, Sergeant York is still highly recommended. P.S. The reason I watched this again was because I recently started watching the Our Gang shorts-some for the second or third time-in chronological order for review on this site and also other films some of their members appeared in the same way though this one is way ahead of the shorts I'm currently reviewing. So former OG member Dickie Moore plays Alvin's teenaged brother George here. He previously played Cooper as a young boy as the title character in Peter Ibbetson. I always like citing when players from my favorite movie-It's a Wonderful Life-appear in other films so that's Ward Bond as one of York's carousing friends at the bar. The other one was Noah Berry Jr. who is probably best known as Jim Rockford's father in "The Rockford Files". And the commentary on the DVD I watched this on was provided by Jeanine Basinger who does a wonderful job of providing info not only on York but also the people behind this film.
All war films have a vested interest in some degree of propaganda,
usually for or against any armed conflict. But few come close to the
sheer cinematic perfection of "Sergeant York" in this regard. To make a
film so thoroughly entertaining is just an added "plus."
Casting is always a major consideration in any motion picture, and it's not an overstatement to say that without the choice of Gary Cooper in the lead, it would have suffered as a consequence. He was brilliant... his "aw, shucks" demeanor fitting so seamlessly with the role. All of the many other essential performances in this film were equally brilliant, filling the roles of the many characters in York's life with aplomb. This movie does many things exceptionally well, the telling of a man's life and monumental accomplishments with both grace, charm, and heart.
This is a film I never tire of, and never will.
I can't say I find Gary Cooper a great all-around actor. But when he
plays a character that is socially backward or awkward, he does a great
job. In Sergeant York, he is convincing as the real-life Alvin York. I
view this portrayal of a conscientious objector who deals with his
inner doubts a companion piece to Cooper's great performance in
Friendly Persuasion (1956).
This is a compelling story about a simple man of principle. The fact that it is mostly a true story is icing on the cake. The plot, both before and after it involves WWI, is totally engaging.
The hokey religious sub-story is mostly true, too. But the plot does a good job of showing that a man of conscience can interpret biblical passages to support any point of view (or its contrary), and shows that the final decision comes from within the man doing the soul searching if he is a self-determinant, which York is. He may be influenced by others, but his decisions are his own. And he always sticks to his principles.
The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Walter Brennan as Pastor Pile.
There are few stories in cinema that are as compelling as Sergeant York, so I recommend it to all. The main character is a hero in more than war.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
. . . as every corporal has his day, but Sgt. Early becomes a late non-commissioned officer. SERGEANT YORK depicts a "feel good" conflict; war at its best, as comrades who've just had their brains blown out by artillery shell shrapnel are accused of napping on the job, mortally wounded men spin in 540-degree pirouettes straight off the ballet stage as they succumb, and war criminals identify themselves immediately when questioned in a language they can't comprehend so they can be executed on the spot. (No drawn out trials, conflicted defense lawyers, or hangings for them; No Siree, just a quick bullet in their back.) Everything is done by the book, and that Book is the Bible. Hardened German infantry troops are not quite as smart was wild American turkeys, giving an experienced gobbler slayer from Tennessee's Daniel Boone Country a distinct advantage. Going from a Conscientious Objector applicant to America's most decorated WWI hero is kind of like one person going from being Cassius Clay to being Colin Powell. According to this movie, SERGEANT YORK, Corporal Alvin Cullum York's real life war exploits were far easier than making a living on his Tennessee farm. As today's economy reduces millions of Americans to Alvin's Pre-War economic status, expect to see scores more Sergeant Yorks emerging from the woodwork.
Howard Hawks directed Gary Cooper(in an Academy Award winning best actor performance) as Alvin C. York, a Tennessee man who starts off as a drunken hell raiser who is a source of embarrassment to his mother, who still steadfastly stands by him. He turns his life around when, after an accident in a thunderstorm, he sees the light, and converts to his grateful pastor(played by Walter Brennan) becoming a fervent follower, which means a pacifist. He also buys some bottom land, and marries the girl he loves, named Gracie. When WWI breaks out, York is drafted into the army, and does a great deal of soul-searching before deciding to go, and ends up becoming the most decorated soldier of the war, singlehandedly capturing a group of German soldiers by using the same technique applied to winning Turkey shoots! Excellent direction and performances, good script combine to make a memorable film, that is all true, even if it does seem incredible.
Howard Hawks is truly shaping up to be a director who can bring out
timeless movie magic out of any genre. It's easy to see his influence
everywhere in the most charming contemporary mainstream movies. While
this is a war film, the war doesn't come into it until the last hour,
devoting the first to character development. It's almost as if the
character, who begins the film a hopeless brute, proves himself to the
audience and then to the world with his heroic act. He's a very
compassionate and modest character, and with a redemption story behind
him, he's very easy to support, even if there's a hint of silliness
with Gary Cooper playing a character around 15 years younger than
It's a film with a good heart, and although it can be melodramatic, it's very emotional and rarely sentimental. While it's known for being released at a point where American's were going to World War II, there's a debate about whether it's a pro or anti-war film, while it at once encourages Americans to fight, the character argues that it's wrong throughout. I think it's neither, and rather an anti-violence film and tries to prove that wars shouldn't be fought with violence. While it's patriotic nature can be up for debate and despite its heavy-handed religious side, Sergeant York is classic filmmaking and definitely bumps Howard Hawks into being one of my favourite directors of all-time.
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