Sergeant York (1941)
Gary Cooper as (another) Pride of the "Yankees"...
11 November 2018
Gary Cooper was the ultimate American hero, a gentle giant whose humble charm and subdued sex-appeal exuded no less than humility and decency. Sure there was Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck, but Coop was the 'folk', the everyday man every American could relate to while still admiring him. He wasn't the man you better had as a friend but the one you couldn't picture as anything but one.

And all throughout his career, he'd portray nice and decent fellows that would incarnate American values during times they were much need: the Great Depression and war. Today, Cooper is still the only actor who has three characters featured in the AFI Top 100 "Heroes and Villains", all heroes of course. There is Lou Gehrig from "The Pride of the Yankee" and "Sergeant York" and Will Kane from "High Noon", for which he won his two Oscars for Best Actor. And his role as "Sergeant York" in Howard Hawks' movie of the same name, released at the war fever's peak, is known for having prompted many viewers to enlist. I guess that's what you call "inspiration", one of the good sort.

I often mention Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" and how its commercial success also stirred a wave of hostile comments and even violent actions against Arabs. I wouldn't dare to make comparisons between the two real-life figures played by the two Coopers, however, it's interesting to see that the two films that praised American values and the pride of belonging to a 'great' country and even portrayed men who didn't exactly "enjoy" their heroism, elicited different reactions, which reveals a sort of double-edged sword nature in patriotism. And "Sergeant York" is nothing but a patriotic movie.

The first act notably is a continuous exaltation of the good book's teachings as well as the frontier spirit. It opens in some shackle town over the hills of Tennessee with Pastor Pie (Walter Brennan) struggling to make his voice heard while men outside ride horses and shoot at trees. One of these hell-raisers is Alvin York, apart from his marksman skills he's a good-for-nothing hillbilly in your typical overalls, the son of a widowed mother (Margaret Wycherly) struggling to ensure their impoverished family a living. Anyway, something is just lacking in his life and booze sure doesn't look like the right answer.

Comforted by the pastor's words, he tries to give his life a meaning and spend sixty days of hard-labor to earn enough money to buy his fiancée Gracie (Joan Leslie) a land. Basically, the whole first act shows (none too subtly) the coming to a realization of a man that being skilled with his hands isn't enough. On a stormy night, he's stuck by a bolt of lightning and has an epiphany, he joins the church and sings along with the folks. "Gimme that old time religion". Whatever Hawks' stance about religion is it does portray it with as much fervor as the brandishing of the American flag, a country built by pioneers, as if both were sides of the same American soul's coin.

I gather the film is showing this American soul as something deeply rooted in the natural environment and if it wasn't for the pioneers, the homesteaders who tamed the wilderness, America wouldn't have been the same, the Bible just kept them away from turning wild between themselves. That's a way of figuring it, and while I'm not American, I guess "Sergeant York" does justice to these values, maybe too much as sometimes, the grandstanding poses with the mystical cinematography and Max Steiner's religious themes were so insisting it flirted with propaganda. Brennan was good (despite these damn distracting eyebrows) but I wish the film didn't sanctify Wycherly who played every single scene with heavy-handed solemnity, and not the warmth of Jane Darnell's Ma Joad.

The film wonders too much in the realm of religious quests and such that by the time the war sequence starts, we have the feeling it's all these values that made York get rid of the German machine-gun nest and arrest more than a hundred of prisoners by himself rather than simple bravery. It sure owes a lot to the way his hunter instinct played and the tragedy of watching his comrades getting shot, but the film did such a good job as portraying as a simple man working by the book, that never is the simple fact that he was a man with guts and courage brought up without carrying religious or patriotic undertones. It's got to be about the flag, the book and the upbringing in good old Tennessee.

"American Sniper" had the same frustrating tendency to insist on one man's righteousness, starting with flaws that never fooled. At least "Sergeant York" had the merits to highlight the moral conflict within a man who didn't want to kill but could find the answer in the Bible, you know what they say about rendering to Caesar. And because the man questioned that before, because it was Cooper, and because there was something truly honest about him, I could accept its preachy moments. Besides, I have a hard time believing that destiny or God didn't move in mysterious ways indeed when they waited for one month before the end of the conflict to give York a chance to shine and become one of the most decorated and celebrated military heroes of American history.

I just don't want to believe that it all has to do with belonging to a certain country or a certain religion. This review is written one hundred years exactly after the end of that deadly conflict, on November 11th, 1918. None of my ancestors died in this conflict (not to my knowledge) but this review is respectfully dedicated to all its victims, civilians and soldiers, French, American, British, German... from the "Sergeant Yorks" to the cowards.
2 out of 2 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.

Recently Viewed