April 21, 2013

Sergeant York (1941)
Grade: 78/100

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Gary Cooper, Joan Leslie, Walter Brennan

What it's about. A biopic on Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier from World War I. The movie begins with Alvin as a grown man, farming a humble plot in rural Tennessee. His family includes elderly mother Margaret Wycherly and younger siblings George (Dickie Moore) and Rosie (June Lockhart).

Alvin is something of a hell raiser, but reforms after deciding to court young hottie Gracie (Joan Leslie). He attempts to purchase a patch of fertile land from humorless merchant Tomkins (Erville Alderson), but despite months of hard work and a spectacular win in a shooting contest, he falls short. The land is instead claimed by Zeb (Robert Porterfield), a rival for the hand of Gracie.

An angry Alvin sets off to murder Zeb or Tomkins, but because it is a movie, a bolt of lightning removes the rifle from Alvin's hands and bends it. Thus Alvin is converted to religion, much to the pleasure of local pastor Walter Brennan, who is also the store-keeper for the county.

The U.S. enters the World War, and York is drafted despite his appeals to avoid service as a conscientious objector. A crack shot, he is soon promoted to corporal and is convinced to stay in the Army by Major Buxton (Stanley Ridges). He becomes friends with George Tobias, a fellow soldier and former subway worker from New York City.

Now in France, Alvin and his company are part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive to dislodge the Germans from their long-established trenches. Alvin's men are tied down by a sizeable German machine gun nest. Alvin single-handedly approaches the nest and wipes out its guard. After killing some two dozen German gunners, the rest surrender. York coerces his captors into soliciting the surrender of another German company. York ends up with 132 prisoners despite the support of only a handful of Allied troops.

Acclaimed a hero, York returns to America and ticker tape parades. For his remarkable wartime efforts, the state of Tennessee grants him the same patch of land he previously coveted, and builds a house on it. Wedded bliss with Gracie awaits.

How others will see it. Sergeant York was the most commercially successful film of 1941. It was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning Best Actor (Cooper) though losing in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, etc. The film had intense competition from How Green Was My Valley, and to a lesser extent, from Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a fairly impressive 9K user votes and a high user rating of 7.8, though women grade it slightly lower than do men. User comments on the website lavish praise on Cooper's typically understated performance and are impressed with its exemplified values of courage, accomplishment, religion, modesty, and manual labor.

How I felt about it. Howard Hawks is one of the all-time great directors, and the script writers include another famous filmmaker, John Huston. Although Cooper at age 40 was a few years too old for the role, he was ideal in terms of build, personality, and box office draw.

The casting, however, is suspect in key roles. Cooper was nearly a quarter century older than his fianceé, Leslie. Wycherly was 44 years older than either Moore or Lockhart. Brennan essentially plays two characters, the pastor and store keeper.

A more obvious problem is the first half of the film, which is a morality play than a credible biography, reminiscent of The Devil and Daniel Webster, also from 1941. Although in Webster, the farmer's fortunes improve after he makes the deal with Satan, instead of becoming Born Again.

Indeed, Sergeant York as a whole provides a lesson that devotion to conservative values are rewarded. But there was only one Alvin York, and such courage and accomplishment under fire cannot be reproduced by a Waltons upbringing.

However, this what the Nation wanted to hear in 1941, a few months prior to the entry of the U.S. into World War II. Sergeant York was one of many movies from the era that, intentionally or not, suggested U.S. intervention in the European War. It is interesting, though, that no Hollywood movies from the era depict the plight of China, which since 1937 had endured a brutal invasion and partial occupation by Japan. The majority of Americans had European ancestry and showed greater sympathy toward that troubled continent.