SERGEANT YORK, 1941
Directed by Howard Hawks
Cast: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly
Review by Pamela Miller
A hillbilly sharpshooter becomes one of the most celebrated American heroes of WWI when he single-handedly attacks and captures a German position using the same strategy as in turkey shoot.
Biopics have the been the back bone of filmmaking since films started to be made. There have been countless films about actual people dating back to the silent era with films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and going through recent years with films like The Aviator (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). We’ve seen everyone’s life displayed on the big screen, from sports stars to musicians to political figures to biblical characters. Howard Hawk uses this genre to show the life of a military hero in Sergeant York (1941).
This biopic proved to be a hit, earning 11 Academy Award nominations and it couldn’t have come at a better time. World War II was right around the corner and America was swelling with national pride. So, what better way to honor our fighting soldiers than to show us a film about one of the most famous and award winning soldiers of World War I, Alvin York. The real Alvin York handpicked Gary Cooper to play himself, knowing he was the only actor who could give him justice. Hawks was hesitant to make this biopic, having never ventured into that genre, but jumped at the chance to work with Gary Cooper. All the cards fell into place, and the production began, ending with one of the most well known war movies in film history.
Cooper stars as York, a naïve country boy with a bit of a drinking problem and occasional temper issues. He’s also a terrific shot, winning shooting contests in his small mountain town. When he gets into a bar fight, he decides to change his life around and become a born-again Christian with the help of Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan). He also has the hots for a local country girl, Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), who shies away from his advances. World War I is soon in full swing and York is drafted into the Army. However, this conflicts with his new moral integrity, as he does not want to harm or kill another human being. This doesn’t fly with the United States army and he’s thrown into basic training before being shipped over seas. His dead on aiming skill is soon recognized and he moves up the army ladder. Still conflicted with his religious beliefs, he is sent home to think about killing a few as a way to save more lives. He is swayed by this thought and reports back for duty.
However, his troop finds themselves in a bit of a pickle when the enemy kills a large portion of their company and backs the remaining ones into a corner. York sees the light and decides it’s time to show the enemy what he’s really got. He fires back at the Germans and his incredible marksmanship frightens them all into surrendering. He proudly marches all 132 German soldiers back to his base, much to the surprise of his superiors. When he returns home, he returns a national hero and is given the Medal of Honor. His newfound recognition convinces Gracie that York is the man she wants and the two live happily ever after.
Sergeant York is another feel good, war hero movie. Like in Mr. Deeds, Cooper plays a naïve small town bumpkin and, with his innocent, boyish eyes, he pulls the role off well. He basically mastered the naïve look while also showing off his manly side. There’s always a deeper, more complex thought pattern going on behind those eyes than what he lets on. It’s what has come to be expected of Gary Cooper. As an actor, Cooper is just plain memorizing to watch and York is no exception.
Hawks plays this movie pretty safe. It’s a wholesome, prideful tale, released at a time when war was glorified. It completely shelters us from the reality of the situation but for the sake of what film audiences wanted to see in 1941, it works. In today’s world, it would be interpreted a bit differently. Today’s audiences seek more realism and the truth as opposed to obvious sugar coated falsehoods. This is still not always given to us, but with more modern war films like Platoon, The Thin Red Line, and Saving Private Ryan, Hollywood attempts to recognize the maturity growth of audiences of this genre.