War Movie Mondays: ‘Sergeant York’

This week’s pick is the 1941 Howard Hawks classic Sergeant York which stars Gary Cooper as the back woods Tennessee hero of World War I. The supporting cast include Walter Brennan (Pastor Pile), Joan Leslie (Gracie Williams), George Tobias (“Pusher” Ross), Ward Bond (Ike Botkin), Stanley Ridges (Maj. Buxton), Dickie Moore (George York), June Lockhart (Rosie York), and Margaret Wycherly (Mother York).

The film was adapted by Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel, and actor/director John Huston, from York’s own memoirs about his experiences.

It was Alvin York himelf who insisted on Gary Cooper taking the role. Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan were also considered for the part, but York still insisted that Cooper was the right choice for the role.

The film is an autobiographical account of York’s upbringing in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee where he is struggling to make enough money so that he may be able to buy a plot of land for himself. He is young, rambunctious, a drinker, and brawler who has good intentions, but is a burden on his poor family who share a tiny shanty.

Pastor Pile (Brennan) sees good in Alvin and tries to convince him to put his faith in god. Alvin is at first against the idea of religion and asks why he should trust in god. An epiphany overcomes Alvin one night after a night of hard drinking and fighting, which makes him change his ways and to put faith in the lord, in order to marry his sweetheart Gracie (Leslie) and acquire a piece of land in order to be a good husband and provider for her.

Alvin takes a position teaching Sunday school to youngsters, a rider comes through the village shouting that president Woodrow Wilson has declared war on Germany. At Pastor Pile’s general store, able bodied men in the region are required to register for the draft. Alvin is told that he must register because it is the law. Alvin is against the idea of war and killing, and wants to be considered by the draft board as a conscientious objector. Pastor Pile helps Alvin write a letter which is rejected on the basis that their religious sect is not a recognized order.

Alvin is drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia for basic training. His commanding officers inform his Sgt. to keep an eye on him in case he is a trouble maker. York eventually proves his devotion to his new position as a soldier by displaying remarkable marksmanship when it comes to firing a M1903 Springfield rifle. As a so called conscientious objector, York is considered for the rank of Corporal by his kindly commanding officer, Maj. Buxton (Ridges) who admires York for his religious believes and tries to convince him to stay in the Army.

This scene is effective on many levels due to the fact that the film debuted in 1941, just before America’s entrance into World War II. The scene shows Maj. Buxton and his adjutant, Capt. Danforth (Harvey Stephens) convincing York that they too are religious men and believe that there are certain times for men to fight and kill when there is a just cause. Buxton gives York an American history book and tells him (and the audience) why we as a nation, must preserve freedom and democracy, and put faith in god so that right always wins in the cause. York feels that by going off to war and killing, would negate all that he has come to believe in. Maj. Buxton grants York a ten day furlough in order to go home and to re-consider quiting the Army. York goes home and decides that he is not just fighting for his beliefs, but is fighting for those that came before him and helped to preserve America and its heritage.

The film then follows York’s 82nd “All American” division and thousands of American Dough-boys to France where they take part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October 1918. York springs into action when his unit is cut down and massacred by a German regiment. York’s self doubt disappears when he is given command by his dying Sergeant to out flank the German positions and single handedly takes them prisoner. York and seven other men, including his basic training buddy from NYC “Pusher” Ross (Tobias), take the German prisoners back to the American lines.

News of York’s exploits travels fast and he is awarded by the French Army, and is given the Distinguished Service Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor by General John “Black Jack” Pershing for his heroism. York returns home a national hero and is given the home he always wanted by the state of Tennessee for his devotion and convictions.

Sergeant York was the highest grossing film for Warner Bros. in 1941 and was nominated for fourteen Academy Awards. Gary Cooper took home a Best Actor award, and William Holmes won for Best Film Editing. The Library of Congress selected Sergeant York in 2008 to be preserved in the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The film also has two other distinctions for being ranked fifty-seven in AFI’s one hundred most inspirational American movies, and that Alvin York is thirty fifth in the ranking of fifty heroes in American cinema.

Sergeant York is not only the story of one man’s exploits in war, but was a rallying film for Americans to realize that another, even more horrible war was lingering on the horizon, a war that America would have to flex its might in order to win and make the world safe for democracy. The scene between York and Maj. Buxton is one of those scenes which was crafted to help Americans justify why they and there forefathers have gone to war and why America must help to preserve peace even in times of war.

Sergeant York is available on 2 disc DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.

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