#141. Sergeant York (1941)

I thought The Mortal Storm was really tedious, and didn’t take well to what struck me as melodrama (unsure about whether it really was melodrama, in case somebody wants to correct that), but it was an interesting study in wartime propaganda. The US wasn’t involved in WWII yet, but the likelihood of our getting reeled in was on people’s tongues, and since I guess Mortal Storm couldn’t really give us a rallying story in which Americans are out there on the frontline, making their contribution t the restoration of peace, the movie instead took the route of demonizing the enemy.

Sergeant York, though also preceding the US involvement by a few months, was nonetheless able to rally the nation’s fighting spirit by focusing on a heroic American story from WWI — where the enemy was, conveniently for our narrative, German. And the final product feels almost above rebuke. It’s a true story of a guy named Alvin York who, at the start of the 20th century, was an impoverished alcoholic who happened to be a natural marksman.

sergeant york alvin
Alvin York

The true-to-life- story goes that his friend died in a bar fight, Alvin freaked out at the realization of his own mortality before promptly finding Jesus, and then got drafted for World War I. he was opposed to war, on religious grounds, and so he had a crisis of the soul about whether to side with his church or his country, and when he finally decided to opt out of the war, filing as a conscientious objector, the government shrugged it off, said, “No, you’re going,” cuz apparently his particular branch of Christianity wasn’t acknowledged as a religion.


So the accounts I’ve read of his time in the war suggest that he was identified as an outstanding marksman right away but also had reservations about the conflict (like most of the country) and certainly about putting his talents to use in the service of it. One of York’s superiors eventually leveled with him and had some theological conversation where he conceded that, sure, war’s a nightmare and nobody oughta be too jolly about taking part. But, he says, sometimes you’ve got a genuinely evil enemy, in which case the war is ordained by God. And this war, says the military officer, has been so ordained.

Aren’t they all.

And so York agrees to throw himself into the fight and ends up singlehandedly capturing over 100 German soldiers. I couldn’t find a clear account of how many he killed, but he seems to be responsible for about twenty German deaths. He comes home and gets the Congressional Medal of Honor for his troubles.

York (the real one) remained religious and super humble as a civilian thereafter, never boasting of what he’d done and seemingly shirking the spotlight whenever somebody tried to train it on him. In the late thirties he was a vocal pacifist, discouraging America’s involvement in Europe’s problems, and then finally, when involvement looked inevitable, he decided to allow a movie to be made of his experience in the war. He was persuaded of its potential to motivate and inspire soldiers of a similarly-ordained fight against evil, and also figured he could use his earnings from the film to build a church.

SERGEANT YORK, Gary Cooper, 1941
SERGEANT YORK, Gary Cooper, 1941

So the movie gets made and it stars Gary Cooper, a huge star at the time who for some reason hasn’t popped up very often on the List (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the only other appearance I can recall), and it’s a fucking gem. Beautiful and excciting. I loved it. And of course while you’re watching this piece of propaganda you can get a little antsy, knowing that its craftsmen are working a message into your brain, but I guess the same can be said of most art. That there’s often at least a thesis being pushed if not an agenda.

But anyway: what’s delightful and seductive about Sergeant York, what’s so clever, is that it’s basically two movies in one. With a runtime of two hours and fourteen minutes (uncharacteristically long for the early 1940s), you can imagine how it might feel that way.

The first half of the movie is about his no-good ways as a local hoodlum in Tennessee, drinking too much and starting trouble, until he falls in love with Gracie (Joan Leslie). They’ve got this charming, discreet, rough-around-the-edges romance, and when he decides he’s gonna get a house where they can live together he starts working day and night, hard as shit, on one manual labor gig or another until he can accumulate the moeny. It makes for one of the most stirring manual labor montages until probably Rocky II some thirty-five years later.

He signs up for a sharpshooting contest when he discovers that the winning purse amounts to basically the rest of the money he needs in order to buy the aforementioned property. So he participates in the shooting contest, the whole thing is packed with suspense, and then, after a long go of it, Alvin wins! The money’s all his. He’s got the girl and the money and the respect he’s earned for kicking the bottle and getting to work as a humble blue-collar American!

sergeant york contest

So the scene ends and I was like, “Hot shit, that was a good fucking movie. Goddamn.” So I push GUIDE on my remote, like I’m gonna watch something else now, and I see, to my horror, there’s still an hour left. It was so enchanting and immersive, I forgot there was supposed to be a war plot.

So the movie continues, and I’m a little wary because I feel like I’ve already shot my load on that emotional first half. Then Alvin gets struck by lightning, and survives, and afterward finds Jesus. Bit of a deviation from the actual story, where York turns to religion after he’s been prompted (by his friend’s death) to think about mortality and attendant questions of meaning/purpose — a more believable and, in some respects, more noble route toward religious epiphany but also, I get it, considerably less cinematic.

How’d you find God, Alvin?”

“Well my friend died suddenly in a bar fight and I got to thinkin’ — “

“OK I’mma tell em you got HIT BY LIGHTNING.”

sergeant york romanceBut yeah. So he finds God and, shortly thereafter, he’s drafted into the war. There’s this saccharine and very cinematic moment where, in an effort to nudge him toward war, somebody gives Alvin a book of American history. So he takes the book of American history and a copy of The Bible up to some mountain ledge and he reads them both, apparently, and decides, before the Almighty Sun, that maybe this war is worth fighting.

The ensuing battle scene is wonderful, coming off as a more Hollywood version of All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Big Parade, int hat it’s less about the horror of war than it is about one man’s virtuous triumph over that horror.

Gary Cooper is terrific here. And even though I see in his performance a trace of the smugness I noticed and hated in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and while it does maybe contradict his role as the Humble Savior, it also kinda gives his character a believable edge. Like yeah he’s a really great guy, and he doesn’t boast of his accomplishments, but he definitely has a sense of his own self worth.

Fascinating stuff. I loved it. Definitely one of my favorites from the List to date.


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