The 1941 film Sergeant York was the American Sniper of its day. A biopic of Alvin York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, Sergeant York was not only a huge box office hit but it was a film that celebrated American patriotism in the type of unabashed fashion that you would never see in a film made today. Though Sergeant York went into production at a time when the United States was officially pursuing a policy of international neutrality, it was released shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, whether intentionally or not, Sergeant York served as a strong recruiting tool. According to Wikipedia (and we all know that Wikipedia is never wrong), there were reports of young men going straight from the movie to the nearest military recruitment office.
Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours (and running at least 40 minutes too long), Sergeant York is two films in one. The second half of the film deals with the military career of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a plain-spoken and honest Tennessee farmer who, because of his strong religious beliefs, unsuccessfully attempts to register as a conscientious objector. Forced into the Army, York is, at first, dismissed as a simple-minded hillbilly. (His fellow soldiers are amused to discover that York doesn’t know what a subway is.) However, to the shock of his commanding officers, he proves himself to be an expert marksman. As he explains it, being from the country means that he’s been shooting a rifle his entire life.
On the basis of his skills as a marksman, York is given a promotion but he still says that he refuses to kill. It’s not until his superior officer reminds him of the sacrifices that past Americans have made that York starts to reconsider his position. Then, a gust of wind opens York’s bible to a verse about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and York realizes that he can go to war and, if need be, he can kill.
And it’s a good thing that he can! Because World War I is heating up and York may be the only guy around with the strength and confidence to single-handedly defeat and capture over 170 German soldiers.
The army section of Sergeant York is predictable but well-done. As you’d expect from a film directed by Howard Hawks, a lot of emphasis is put on how the soldiers work together. York is portrayed not as being super human but instead as just an honest man who is exceptionally good at his job. There’s nothing surprising about the second half of Sergeant York but Hawks keeps the action moving and Cooper gives a good performance.
To be honest, I preferred the first half of the film, which examined York’s life before he joined the Army. When we first meet Alvin York, he drinks too much, he fights too much, and he’s totally irresponsible. It’s not until he falls in love with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) that York starts to change his ways. The scenes of York in the backwoods of Tennessee had a lively feel to them and it was enjoyable to see Cooper play a somewhat disreputable character. Cooper seemed to be having fun playing a ne’er-do-well and, in the scenes before York finds God, his bad behavior was a lot of fun to watch.
Considering its success at the box office, it’s not surprising that Sergeant York was nominated for best picture of the year. While Gary Cooper won the Oscar for best actor, the award for Best Picture went to How Green Was My Valley.