Blog Archive

12 November 2017

Egalitarian Dream: Sergeant York

Sergeant York is patriotic without being jingoistic, idealistic without being starry-eyed, clear eyed about the deprivations of a background like Alvin York's without being condescending.   

Director Howard Hawks, star Gary Cooper, and a great supporting cast (including Walter Brennan and Ward Bond, two of the finest actors ever to work in Hollywood -- don't miss Ward Bond's paean to large women!) obviously took the greatest care to present York, his family, and his neighbors as intelligent, responsible people, despite their grinding poverty and illiteracy.
Noah Beery, Jr. Gary Cooper, and Ward Bond

The film is largely concerned with Alvin York's early life which prepared him for his later heroism. York's story was simple, and the script follows it closely (with the addition, of course, of a romance). A native of Pall Mall, Tennessee, he was the oldest son of a widowed mother, and worked to support her and his 10 younger siblings. Among the ways he found to put food on the table was hunting, and he was locally famed for his marksmanship. A carouser in his early  years, he underwent a religious conversion. When the United States entered World War 1, he at first declared himself a conscientious objector, but was drafted anyway. His marksmanship was a distinct asset in the Army, and in one incident during the battle of the Somme, he took part in a mission which led to his completely destroying an enemy machine gun nest and capturing 125 prisoners, saving scores of lives.
His marksmanship fed his family

Cooper was the perfect actor for this role; he portrays York as a gentle but extremely determined man, uneducated but thoughtful. Again, there is no condescension in his portrait of this shabbily clad, ungrammatical hero whose early life was one of endless backbreaking labor.

Cooper as York

The film aims to show that York's life in the Tennessee mountains prepared him for the daunting struggle that awaited him and his comrades at the front lines in France -- his physical skill and strength of will underlay his heroism. And it does that without wordiness or preaching.
The real Alvin York

I love this movie not just for what it is -- extremely well-acted. beautifully written -- but what it stands for. During the 1930s President Roosevelt formed a coalition of ALL disadvantaged people, whatever color, whatever religion, whatever ethnicity, and this included poor whites (the sharecroppers and mountain people often stigmatized as "white trash"). This was where Alvin York came from, and this movie followed the President's lead in treating them with dignity and respect.

Part of this country's strength during WW2 came from the fact that all Americans could work together, which was an ideal put forward during the Depression years, and reinforced by films like this, which portrayed a group of people most Americans knew little about as decent and respectable, despite their odd accent and minority religious beliefs.