If there’s anything Hollywood avoids like the plague, it’s patriotism and religion. Most often when love of one’s country comes up in a movie, it is a way of showing a character to be a hypocrite. Religion is even less popular. Too divisive, no real payoff at the box office.
There was once a hero whose life story caused Hollywood to briefly ignore this rule. “Sergeant York,” the story of his life, succeeds because it embraces its contradictions in an earnest fashion. The movie talks down to no one as it shows the life of a unique American hero.
Alvin Cullum York was a Tennessee hillbilly whose horizons did not stretch farther than the Three Forks region of Middle Tennessee where his family had spent generations. A crack shot, Alvin was known as a bit of a hell-raiser when young.
That changed when he underwent a deep religious conversion. Alvin not only became a regular churchgoer but a Sunday school teacher as well. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Alvin’s beliefs led him to apply to become a conscientious objector. When that was rejected, he was convinced to “render until Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and went off to the Army.
In October 1918, Alvin took extreme action to save his men when pinned down by enemy machine gun fire in the Argonne Forest. In one day he single-handedly killed more than 20 German soldiers and captured 132 others. His actions won him a chestful of medals, thus making a pacifist the greatest American hero of the war.
For over 20 years Alvin York resisted Hollywood’s attempts to buy his life story. Like many Americans he supported strict neutrality as Europe edged closer to another war. He eventually grew to believe that we would have to fight and this led him to relent.
To acquire the rights to his story, the producers had to satisfy one condition: Alvin York had to be played by Gary Cooper. Already one of the biggest stars in movies, Cooper was less than enthusiastic about playing a living person. He went to Tennessee to meet York. They found out they both loved to hunt and fish; by the time Cooper left, he had a new friend and agreed to take the role.
York may never have cast another role but his instincts were perfect here. Cooper’s screen persona, a quiet man of conviction, made him the ideal choice. His depiction of Alvin’s spiritual rebirth and his heroism are entirely believable. His performance earned him the Best Actor Oscar, the final step in his march to becoming a movie legend.
Here he is helped by a cast filled with familiar faces. Two stand out. Walter Brennan, who had already acted with Cooper, plays Pastor Pile, the local minister who tries to save Alvin’s soul early on, then counsels him on his duty to serve in war. Although still in his 40s at the time, Brennan looks born to play a wise old man (not the comic relief old man he would later play so often in later years).
Margaret Wycherly, a stage veteran, played Mother York, a simple woman whose hard life taught her to be stoic. Watch the scene when she says goodbye to Alvin as he leaves for the Army. Her words betray no worry but her face says it all. Seeing her as a simple country woman makes it difficult to remember her other big Hollywood role, that of James Cagney’s crime boss ma in “White Heat.” Brennan and the other residents of the cinematic Three Forks area made sure the Southern accents are not overdone, never phony or condescending (important for Southerners like yours truly who are tired of accents that sound ridiculous).
Director Howard Hawks specialized in stories of teams of (usually) men coming together to solve a common problem. There is always an outsider who must learn to fit in. Alvin is a hero constantly fighting, then seeking to fit in, his group. First he fights the call from God until he is (literally) struck by it. Once he finds his place in the church, he must decide how he fits in the U.S. Army. He wants no part of killing, then discovers he can find his way to fight by doing it to save his men. This struggle goes beyond the usual war movie hero’s fight to win a battle.
Everything about the film shows this internal war within its hero. The musical score uses the hymn “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” as a motif. To hear that spiritual song is to be reminded without dialogue of Alvin York’s turmoil.
“Sergeant York” was released in 1941, just as it became obvious to many Americans that this country’s neutrality would not last much longer. Rather than an unambiguous call to arms, the movie depicts the decision to go to war, to legally kill, as a quite personal one. All of the film’s elements work together to produce a thoughtful yet entertaining movie. One does not have to be religious, a Southerner or a veteran to be engrossed in it.