• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:February 28, 2022

Sergeant York: A Farmer Goes to War


Gary Cooper. Photo: Warner

Producer Jesse L. Lasky was determined to bring the story of decorated World War I veteran Alvin York to the big screen, but York, who was living as a farmer in his native Tennessee, initially had no interest in the project. His demands on Hollywood betrayed a very conservative, but also generous, nature. His share of the profits would be donated to a Bible school that he wanted to build, and the actress who were to play his wife had to be a wholesome person (they found a 16-year-old, Joan Leslie).

York also told Lasky that Gary Cooper had to play him. After talking to York, Cooper finally agreed. It became a role of a lifetime.

One talent: sharpshooting
In the mid-1910s, Alvin York (Cooper) is a young man who lives with his widowed mother and siblings in a house in Tennessee. The family is struggling and Alvin spends his days getting drunk with friends. He has one talent, sharpshooting, and one day it comes in handy. Alvin wants to purchase a piece of farmland and wins enough money in a sharpshooting contest. However, the owner changes his mind. When Alvin finds himself at the bottom, in every way, he survives being struck by lightning and suddenly sees the light – he finds religion, as represented by the local pastor, Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan).

As time goes by, Alvin becomes a much-respected farmer, but when the United States enters the Great War, he doesn’t want to enlist. After all, the Bible tells him not to kill his fellow man…

Hawks’s only Oscar nomination
Howard Hawks wasn’t the expected choice for this film. His latest endeavors were two hilarious screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), but it was allegedly Cooper’s decision to hire Hawks, who was subsequently rewarded with his only Oscar nomination.  The director doesn’t come across as someone who might have agreed with York and most of his films lacked the kind of religious ingredients and overly patriotic sentiments that are part of this film. Still, there’s a lot of warmth and humor in Hawks’s portrait of York’s early life in Tennessee. Together with cinematographer Sol Polito, he stages some of those scenes to great effect. There’s an amusing bar fight involving York and his equally inebriated buddies; the scene where the church welcomes him into their congregation, as they all sing ”Give Me That Old Time Religion”, is likely to move audiences or generate an uncomfortable feeling of cult-like hysteria. Either way, it’s impressively staged – and that’s true of the whole movie.

Sergeant York had a profound effect on the American people at the time of its premiere. It coincided with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the film became a tremendous success, likely appealing to and inspiring audiences across the nation as they were preparing to go to war. The religious and patriotic aspects of the film may seem corny to many people today, but the impact was undeniable – and it’s impossible to disregard the artistic value of this film as a very clever piece of propaganda. Along with Oscar-winning editor William Holmes, Hawks recreates events during the 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive; that part of the movie is explosive, but the filmmakers also carefully depict York’s intellectual journey as he struggles with his faith and the need to fight for your country.

Cooper was perhaps twenty years too old for his part (which is more of a problem early in the film when he’s supposed to be an irresponsible, young fellow), but becomes more convincing as Alvin lands on his feet, a down-to-earth farmer and fighter. Brennan is also fine as his old-time religious mentor. 

Sergeant York 1941-U.S. 134 min. B/W. Produced by Howard Hawks, Jesse L. Lasky, Hal B. Wallis. Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston. Book: Tom Skeyhill, Alvin York. Cinematography: Sol Polito. Music: Max Steiner. Editing: William Holmes. Cast: Gary Cooper (Alvin York), Walter Brennan (Rosier Pile), Joan Leslie (Gracie Williams), George Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly… Ward Bond, June Lockhart.

Oscars: Best Actor (Cooper), Film Editing.

Last word: “I asked [York] how he got religion. ‘I got it in the middle of the road’, he said. So my visualization of that was a mule, getting hit by lightning in the middle of the road. They wrote a remarkable scene of how he got religion and I didn’t believe it. I said if anyone talked to me like that, I wouldn’t get religion. So we got some real people from Tennessee to sing, they got excited, and we brought him to a little meeting house, and while they were singing he got religion. But if you will notice, again, it’s underplaying. If they want to believe it, fine, but you don’t cram it down their throats.” (Hawks, “Howard Hawks: Interviews”)



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