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Bucket List Movie #475: Sergeant York (1941)

Updated on January 7, 2015
Howard Hawks.
Howard Hawks. | Source

Today's BLM, 1941's Sergeant York, is a tricky one for yours truly, because it's a 1940s biopic that takes place during WWI, one of the most wasteful wars in human history. I've grown wary of biopics for their oft-unacceptable lack of accuracy, and if you think recent biopics are guilty of this, the ones made in the 1940s were even more egregious. People still gripe about 1946's Night and Day, which featured Cary Grant as straight as a line, all-around nice guy Cole Porter.

Yet Sergeant York holds remarkable significance. It tells the story of Tennessee-born WWI hero Alvin York, a mountain-dwelling pacifist forced to enlist in the war who rounded up 132 German prisoners with only seven other men to aid him. York was awarded the Medal of Honor among others, and became a modern day folk hero. Hollywood hounded him for years to bring his story to the screen, but York turned down every offer. In 1940, he finally relented, but on three conditions:

1. That his share of the movie's profits would go toward the construction of a bible school.

2. An actress with a wholesome image be cast as his wife Gracie Williams (a very young Jane Russell was briefly considered, if you can believe it).

3. Gary Cooper would play York. Despite Cooper being more than a decade too old to play him, York was adamant. No Cooper, no movie.

Well, York's conditions were met, and everyone reaped the rewards. Rising starlet Joan Leslie played Gracie, adding to her now impressive resume of classics (High Sierra, Yankee Doodle Dandy). Cooper won the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of York. Best of all? Sergeant York was the highest-grossing film of 1941; in fact, it remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time, adjusted for inflation. I'm confident York's school was built, and he had plenty of dough left for himself.

But is Sergeant York any good? Does it pass the test of time? Does it positively answer all those annoying and trite questions critics (or dilettantes pretending to be critics) like to ask? At ease, soldiers, and read on!

The real Sgt. Alvin York.
The real Sgt. Alvin York. | Source
Gary Cooper as York.
Gary Cooper as York. | Source

Pall Mall, Tennessee in 1916 is a simple place, where women still wear bonnets and the town pastor also runs the general store, which has what is probably the only phone in the area. It's the type of place where everyone knows everyone else's business (you know, the type of place old people lament is lacking nowadays, conveniently forgetting how awful it was). The York family live high in the mountains, where they struggle to grow crops in the rocky soil. Mother York (Margaret Wycherly) sighs and worries over the drinking habits and rowdy behavior of her oldest son, Alvin (Cooper), as do his two younger siblings.

Tiresome Trivia for the Day: In real life, Alvin York was actually the third of eleven children. For the sake of storytelling and economics, his siblings have been whittled down to two, George played by popular 1940s child actor Dickie Moore, and Rosie played by a very young June Lockhart.

Alvin regularly staggers to a tavern on the Kentucky state line, engages in barroom brawls, and shoots his initials into trees during church services. Wise old Pastor Pile (Hollywood's favorite wise old man, Walter Brennan), urges Alvin to seek out God before his lifestyle takes a turn for the worse.

Eventually Alvin falls hard for pretty neighbor Gracie (Leslie) and decides to buy a plot of land in the lowlands. He is given only 60 days to raise the money for it. He works hard and comes close, but the deal goes sour, and an enraged Alvin seeks revenge. But while riding one night, rifle in his hand and killin' on his mind, Alvin and his mule are struck by lightning. They survive, but the gun doesn't, and this serves as an epiphany to Alvin, and he returns to church, studies the Bible, and changes his ways for the better by shunning violence.

She's also embarrassed that he's 40 years old and won't move the hell out.
She's also embarrassed that he's 40 years old and won't move the hell out. | Source

Unfortunately, Alvin's newfound pacifism couldn't have come at a worse time, for the war in Europe is escalating, and young men are enlisting or being drafted. Alvin doesn't want to fight, believing the Bible is against war, and tries to entreat to the higher-ups to be exempt as a "conscientious objector". Despite his efforts, the Gandhi approach fails to move anyone, so Alvin is forced to enlist, lest the authorities come after him.

Despite the ribbing he receives for his hillbilly ways, Alvin wins the admiration of his officials with his flawless shooting skills, and receives a promotion to Corporal. But Alvin is still conflicted about participating in the war, not wanting to turn his back on all the Bible taught him. He is granted a 10 day furlough to think things out. Recalling what our forefathers, including Tennessee's beloved hero Daniel Boon, did to help make America great, Alvin decides to continue his service. Along the way, he is forced to put aside his values for the greater good, performs the act of heroism that will make him a legend, but he never loses sight of what is important to him: just getting home and marrying Gracie.

Joan Leslie was 16 when this movie was released. Ruminate on that for a while.
Joan Leslie was 16 when this movie was released. Ruminate on that for a while. | Source

I feel like a dreadful snob for admitting this, but Sergeant York does tend to feel a bit quaint these days. That isn't to imply it's bad, just that I feel it was very much a product of its time. It was released just 2 months before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, so I can imagine that it resonated with all the young men preparing to enlist. Still, all the sermonizing and the hit-or-miss attempts at the Tennessee dialect ("bear" is pronounced "bar", for instance) will either elicit giggles or boredom for some vieweres. Cooper's age is hard to ignore (as is Leslie's, who was only 16), and his accent is a little hokey, but he does his best with what he's given, even if Alvin is made a little too saintly in the last third of the movie. I don't mind characters who reform, but that doesn't mean they can't still feel human. The ending also feels 10 minutes too long.

Leslie is cute and spunky as Gracie, but I was disappointed that she was merely the love interest and nothing more. Seargent York was directed by Howard Hawks, a masculine director in the vein of John Ford; unlike Ford, though, Hawks allowed the women to shine just as much as the men. His couples were allowed to be more or less equal on some level. He directed Cary Grant and Jean Arthur as snarky lovers in Only Angels Have Wings, Grant and Katherine Hepburn as screwballs in love in Bringing Up Baby, and Grant and Rosalind Russell as an ex-couple in the newspaper world in His Girl Friday (he liked working with Cary Grant, can you tell?). The women in those movies seemed to have their own identity (though Susan in Bringing Up Baby has been accused of being the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Here, though, Gracie just feels like the "girl back home".

If you're a cynic to your core, steer clear. If you want to get your old-fashioned "A-muhr-ican" patriotism going, Sergeant York won't disappoint.


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