Wednesday 17 September 2008

Sergeant York (1941)

This one's so obviously a patriotic American picture that Gary Cooper's name appears in stars and stripes, even before we hear My Country, 'Tis of Thee. It's also about as American as it gets, given that it begins in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, with Walter Brennan trying to deliver a sermon at a meeting house while drunks are shooting up the place outside. For a picture about a pacifist who becomes a war hero, it sure starts out strangely, given that we first meet Alvin York as a drunken hellraising hick and it continues strangely too given that the war doesn't arrive until over an hour in.

York is a ne'er-do-well, that's for sure, but he's an all-American ne'er-do-well in the classic form. He certainly has all the credentials: he's big and handsome in a rugged backwoods way; he can fight at the drop of a hat, hit hard and enjoy the exercise; he can drink to never get sober and yet shoot straight as a die while drunk as a skunk; he can dig up the ground with just a mule and a hand held plough; he's as honest as the day is long; and he can fall in love at first sight. Of course he's also dumb as a cluck when it comes to women.

What's more, he can do anything he wants to if he only sets sight on it, and he does too, even when it's completely dumb. He misunderstands young Gracie Williams's reaction to his mangled proposal of marriage as a need for some bottom land. The York farm is on top land, which isn't as good. So he finds a piece of bottom land that's for sale and works night and day to raise the money, coming out only a few dollars short. He's given a few extra days and to raise the last amount he takes on the local beef shoot. As the prize bull goes in parts to the top five shots, he lands all five of them to win the whole bull and put it up for cash money.

Once he raises all the money that he finds out that the previous owner has gone back on his word and sold it to someone else. He gets all drunk in reaction and goes after that previous owner with murder in his mind that he gets hit by lightning and struck by religion all at once. And now that he's paying attention to the book, which firmly decrees that thou shalt not kill, that he becomes a pacifist and along comes the draft. The US has declared war on Germany and President Wilson has required all young men to register. He becomes a conscientious objector but they draft him anyway and his major introduces him to another book: The History of the United States.

Sergeant York is a true story, though given that this is a Hollywood movie from 1941 that would usually mean that Alvin York was real and he was in a war somewhere. As York is written though, Gary Cooper is the perfect man for the job: in fact he's so much the perfect man for the job that it was obviously written for him. Reading up on the history of the film, apparently the real Alvin York didn't want a film to be made about him at all, only relenting when World War II broke out and granting his consent only if Gary Cooper played him (and also that his share of the profits would be contributed to a Bible school and that only a decent actress could play his future wife). Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for a powerful and resonant performance but he's playing himself as surely as anyone else ever did.

As a film it's folksy and hokey, full of all the sort of backwoods language you'd expect, and the details of the war scenes so conveniently mirror the lives and past events of the character back home that the scenes stretch credence to a huge degree. Then again the truest stories have to be the least believable and this one is apparently true, at least the most unbelievable part of it. Liberties were taken with York's life back in Tennessee, but during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, he really did attack a machine gun nest, take down 32 machine guns, kill 28 of the enemy and capture 132 prisoners. He consequently won the Medal of Honor and a whole host of other medals from countries all across Europe.

The film did pretty well for itself with awards too. Cooper's Oscar was one of two, the other one going to William Holmes, the editor, but there were seven other nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Howard Hawks. Two other actors were nominated, for their supporting roles: Walter Brennan as Pastor Rosier Pile, who sees the goodness in York from moment one and has the patience to see him through; and Margaret Wycherly as York's mother. She's wonderful here, though she's more obvious in White Heat as another tough and famous Ma.

York's fiance is Joan Leslie, who gets very little to do but does it well, and there are the ever dependable likes of Ward Bond and Noah Beery Jr to help out too. I didn't recognise June Lockhart at all as York's younger sister Rosie, 24 years before she'd Lost in Space. His younger brother George is Dickie Moore, who made a career out of playing younger versions of leading characters in films. It's amazing how many famous actors his child characters grew up into.

What's most important to posterity though is how well this film captures a certain something. It's a film full of simplicity and goodness and the fact that there's a war in it really doesn't matter that much. York means something and stands for something, and that sort of thing is rarely handled with such simplicity today. There's a great scene soon after York finds religion that he seeks the forgiveness of a couple of people who he thought ill toward. Some could call them hokey or dumb, but when people look back and talk nostalgically about classic Hollywood and the simplicity of morals, this is precisely what they're talking about. I'm just surprised it was so low on the AFI's list of most inspirational American films: 57th, below such others as Pinocchio, Hoosiers and Star Wars.

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