Monday, March 14, 2022

#2,723. Sergeant York (1941) - The Men Who Made the Movies


On October 8, 1918, Alvin C. York, a Corporal in the United States Army serving in France, led an attack against a German machine gun nest. During the skirmish, he single-handedly killed at least 25 enemy soldiers and assisted in capturing over a hundred more. For his bravery, York was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and received the Congressional Medal of Honor as well as awards from France and Italy, making him one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I.

I sincerely doubt that Howard Hawks’ 1941 film based on this heroic individual – aptly titled Sergeant York - is an entirely factual account of its title character’s life and service, but it does feature what I consider to be Gary Cooper’s finest screen performance.

As the movie opens, Alvin York (Cooper) is far from the gallant hero he would eventually become. The son of a farmer in rural Tennessee, York, as a younger man, was prone to drinking and raising hell, which landed him in all kinds of trouble. Hoping to curb her son’s behavior, York’s mother (Margaret Wycherly) asks the local preacher, Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan), to convince Alvin to reject sin and put his trust in the "Good Book".

Eventually, Alvin York does find God, going so far as to teach kids the Bible at the church’s Sunday school. Engaged to marry Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) and hoping to get a small farm of his own, Alvin is none too happy when, at the outbreak of World War I, he is informed he must sign up for the draft.

With the help of Pastor Pile, Alvin tries to avoid military service, claiming his religious beliefs make him a conscientious objector. Alas, York’s appeals are rejected. He is drafted into the Army, and during basic training proves himself a sharpshooter. As a result, York is promoted to Corporal and put in charge of instructing his fellow recruits on the finer points of shooting. 

It’s during the war, however, that Alvin York truly distinguishes himself, balancing his love for God with what he ultimately sees as his duty to the United States of America.

Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, Sergeant York would win only two, one of which was Best Actor for Gary Cooper (the other was for Best Editing, awarded to William Holmes). From its early scenes, like when York and his buddies Buck (Noah Beery Jr.) and Lem (Howard Da Silva) get into a barroom brawl, to the moment his character finds religion (the result of a lightning strike) and straight through to his service during the war, Cooper’s portrayal of the title character never falters; he plays drunk, pious, and brave equally well.

His performance, coupled with Hawks’ mannered, patient approach to the story (York’s various shifts in personality are never rushed; each is given ample time to play out), did their part to take what might have been a sappy, melodramatic biopic (and there are certainly moments when Sergeant York teeters on the edge of that particular precipice) and transform it into something much more substantial.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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