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It's 1916. Alvin York (Gary Cooper) lives in the poverty stricken
Tennessee hills. He often gets into drunken fights to the dismay of
Pastor Rosier Pile and his mother. He falls in love with Gracie
Williams. He stops drinking and works to buy a farm. He wins a
backwoods shooting contest to get the last of the money but the
landowner reneges on the deal. He gets drunk and looks to get revenge.
A lightning strike destroys his gun. He has a religious conversion and
vows to never kill. His change improves his outlook. When America joins
WWI, York is conscripted as a conscientious objector. His commanders
are taken with his shooting skills and York faces a struggle with his
values. On the frontlines, he and his men capture a German position.
When they come under fire, York's religious conviction is tested by the
realities of war. He and his seven surviving men take 132 Germans
This was a highly successful patriotic film released five months before Pearl Harbor. It became a great recruiting tool for the war. I was expecting a war movie but this starts off a little slow. Gary Cooper is a great every man. He has an innate goodness. His religious conversion is compelling. He really fits the role well. One can imagine the idealism really affecting the audience at the time. It's not a simple flag waving propaganda. It's a real portrait of a man struggling with his convictions.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Reported to be Gary Cooper's favorite film role, and probably mine as
well. In the charisma department, he is abetted by the presence of
Walter Brennan, made up to look older than his 47 years. Brennan plays
the local parson and store keeper for this rustic community of farmers.
He appears to be one of the few of this community who has had
significant "book larnin'". Periodically, he showed up to discuss
Alvin's problems and philosophy relating to religion and violence.
Margaret Wycherly plays Alvin's aged widowed mother, with big soulful eyes, mostly silent and slow to move around. She would play Ma Forrester 5 years later, in "The Yearling" : a very similar type of role, in another rustic setting. Both Brennan and Margaret would receive Best Supporting Actor nominations for their performances in this film. Incidentally, Clem Bevans, who played the minor character of Zeke, would play Pa Forrester in "The Yearling": a very distinctive character.
Ex-Little Rascal Dickie Moore played Alvin's kid brother, George. He was the same age as Joan Leslie, who played Alvin's girlfriend and future wife, Gracie. Thus, based purely upon age, George and Gracie seemed a much more likely couple than Alvin and Gracie. 40 year old Cooper came across as more appropriate as her father. Joan was the same age as the real Gracie at this time. The real Alvin was 30: a much more common age spread than the 24 years spread between Cooper and Joan. In those days, a young man often had to wait until he was 25-30 or so before he had the financial means to support a family. In Alvin's case, he also was the sole support of his mother and young siblings. Also, in those days, rural women often were worn out before their time, birthing babies, along with their many indoor and outdoor chores. When looking for a replacement wife, a man often looked for a young woman who was looking for security.
The balance between Alvin's civilian and military lives I though was about right. This is not primarily a war movie, although Alvin's fame derived from one war incident, in which he along with 7 privates captured 132 Germans, along with killing a bunch. I thought the battle scenes in recreating this accomplishment were well done. The dismal trench warfare of the western front cried out for a few publicized heros. Alvin wanted to forget about the war as soon as possible, saying he wasn't especially proud of what he had done over there. It was just a job, to reduce the killing.
To have cut short his civilian life would have much reduced the general appeal of the film. Like the later "The Yearling", it gives a somewhat authentic snapshot of a segment of Americana early in the 20th century that most urban people had never encountered.
York made various demands upon his agreement to sell the rights to his story. Firstly, his share of the profits would go to a bible school. Also, the actress who portrayed his wife must be wholesome, a non-smoker and non-drinker. Third, the screenplay must depict both the good and bad in his character. Fourth, Gary Cooper must play him. In fact, Cooper initially declined the role, and was only persuaded to accept it after meeting Alvin. Alvin had been subjected to repeated pleas to film his life since just after the war. It was only the beginning of WWII that induced him to agree.
The Warners were vehemently anti-fascist and anti-communist. I have proposed elsewhere that several Warner-produced Errol Flynn films in the late '30s and 1940 likely had an intended anti-fascist subliminal message. Beginning in '41, this was transformed into 2 flag-waving biops relating the WWI, intended to promote acceptance of the eventual necessity of a formal entry of the US into the war. The other such film was "Yankee Doodle Dandy", released the following year. Warner later produced several musicals that were also blatant war propaganda films. This includes "This is the Army", "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and "Hollywood Canteen". They also released a number of WWII-related Errol Flynn war films during the war, along with "Casablanca".
The present film and 'Yankee Doodle Dandy" share a number of similarities besides being nostalgic biop flag-wavers. Joan Leslie was the leading lady in both. Cooper and Cagney were both 40 or so, thus much older than the subjects they represented as well as the 16-17 year old Joan. Both were more than 2 hours long(too long for some, but I didn't think so), about 30 min longer than most feature films. Both were either the top or near top box office earners of the year. In both, the flag-waving aspect was diluted by copious time devoted to other matters.
My title is taken from the last line in the film
A hillbilly sharpshooter (Gary Cooper) drafted in World War I despite
his claim to be a pacifist, who ends up becoming a war hero.
"Sergeant York" was a spectacular success at the box office and became the highest-grossing film of 1941. It remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation. It benefited from the attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred while the film played in theaters. The film's patriotic theme helped recruit soldiers; young men sometimes went directly from the movie theater to military enlistment offices.
What I really like about this story is that it is less about the war (despite being called "Sergeant" York) and more about the days in Tennessee. We do not even get to the war aspect until the second half. And that makes this more interesting, as it makes the focus on York's struggle to make a living and his strong beliefs.
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.
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