#104) Sergeant York (1941)

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#104) Sergeant York (1941)

OR “The Original American Sniper”

Directed by Howard Hawks

Written by Abem Finkel and Harry Chandlee & Howard Koch and John Huston. Based on “Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary” by Alvin York. Edited by Tom Sheyhill.

Class of 2008

The Plot: Gary Cooper is Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier during World War I. The film chronicles his humble beginnings in Pall Mall, Tennessee, helping his mother (Margaret Wycherly) tend to the farm and wooing the wholesome Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie). When America enters the Great War, York declares himself a conscientious objector, since the Bible teaches him not to kill. His request is denied, and York learns to fight for his country while fighting his own morality.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a stirring bit of Americana” that inspired this country as it entered World War II. There is also an essay by Donna Ross, who manages the NFR’s website. I guess everyone else called out sick that day.

But Does It Really?: Historically yes. Donna Ross correctly predicted that I would find it “hokey” without the correct context, but ultimately you have a reserve a space on the Registry for “Sergeant York”. Cooper’s affable performance helps smooth some rough patches, and the film’s release in summer 1941 helped boost the morale of a nation that was just about to be dragged into another Great War. If nothing else, the film is a memorial to a real-life American hero, and shows that some of our nation’s greatest are just regular people like you or me.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly just the assumption that an audience would have a passing knowledge of Alvin York to begin with.

Title Track: Turns out the title is a spoiler; Alvin York isn’t promoted to Sergeant until about two hours into the film!

Seriously, Oscars?: “Sergeant York” was the highest-grossing picture of 1941 and led the pack at the 1942 Oscars with 11 nominations. It lost Best Picture (and several other awards) to “How Green Was My Valley”, but did manage to snag Best Actor for Gary Cooper (his first) and Best Editing for William Holmes (on his first and only nomination). Most noteworthy among its other nominations; “Sergeant York” lost Original Screenplay to “Citizen Kane”, and despite a career helming some of the greatest films ever, Howard Hawks received his only Best Director nomination (and only nomination, period) for this film.

Other notes

  • How did the king of screwball comedy end up directing “Sergeant York”? Hawks got the job not only because of a push from Gary Cooper (They had worked together in the 1933 drama “Today We Live”), but also because every other major director turned it down.
  • The real-life Alvin York finally relented to release the film rights to his story in order to build a Bible school in Tennessee. He publicly approved of Cooper’s portrayal of him. In addition, his mother, Mary York, was still alive at the time of the film’s release.
  • In response to some of the film’s inaccuracies, York would later comment, “Well, let’s put it this way – I supplied the tree and Hawks put the leaves on it.” That’s actually the best way to describe this film; it gets the major events correct, it just fabricates some of the smaller details.
  • Gary Cooper was about 10 years older than Alvin York was when he fought in World War I, but who care when you got “Rural Jimmy Stewart” to play this part?
  • All of this aside, it’s hard for me to take a film seriously when its lead character is named “Alvin”.
  • Geez, Pastor Pile has more plant metaphors than Chance the Gardener.
  • While watching this I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between this and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Both are stories about real men who serve their country during WWI in films made during WWII. Plus they’re both Warner Bros. films that feature Joan Leslie as the love interest and won their lead actors the Oscar.
  • Gary Cooper was 39 during filming. Joan Leslie was 15. [Extended Shudder]
  • Oh man I don’t know how much more of this thick Appalachian dialect I can take. I need a translator!
  • Lord the first half of this film takes forever. Isn’t there a war at some point?
  • Tompkins’ beard is best described as “Modern Hipster”.
  • York’s spiritual awakening is good stuff, but I can’t stand it when people clap on 1 and 3 during a song instead of 2 and 4.
  • The film’s comic relief “Pusher” is played by George Tobias, aka Abner Kravitz from “Bewitched”. As soon as he started talking about the subway I couldn’t wait for him to be a casualty.
  • Speaking of “Bewitched”, this film shares a title with my screenplay about the bitter (and completely fabricated) rivalry between the two Darrins: “Sargent/York”. I’m pitching it to Ryan Murphy next week as a season of “Feud”. Wish me luck.
  • So York gets over his pacifist views by pretending the Germans are turkeys?
  • Rounding out the cast are recognizable faces like Howard “Mr. Franklin” Da Silva and June “Mother Robinson” Lockhart. Lockhart plays York’s younger sister Rosie and is the film’s last surviving cast member.

Legacy

  • “Sergeant York” boosted morale during WWII (the film was still playing when Pearl Harbor was attacked), and the legend goes that men would often go to enlist as soon as they finished watching the film.
  • Gary Cooper would play another WWI figure in “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell”.
  • The real-life Alvin York continued to raise money for charitable causes for the rest of his life, particularly during his time with the Army Signal Corps in World War II. Despite eventually rising to the rank of Major (as well as Colonel in the Tennessee State Guard), this film’s popularity ensured he would always be referred to as Sergeant York.

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