In the early forties, Gary Cooper seemed to have a corner on the market for squeaky-clean, All-American biographies. After playing Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Alvin York, he would go on to play Yankee legend Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees. While the latter movie was a shallow, deeply clichéd bit of treacle, Howard Hawks‘ Sergeant York manages to get under the skin of the pious country boy who managed to single-handedly take out a German machine gun nest and take 138 prisoners with only seven men.
The film begins in 1916 and Alvin York is a hell-raising but hard working farmer and hunter in the backwater town of Pall Mall, Tennessee. His pious mother (Margaret Wycherly) worries enough about his ways to get the town’s preacher and storekeeper (Walter Brennan) to talk to him, but it takes the love of a woman, Gracie (Joan Leslie), to set him on the straight and narrow and send him to church on Sundays.
Then the Americans enter World War I, and all the men in town are called up for the draft. The newly-devout Alvin takes “Thou shalt not kill” very seriously and registers as a conscientious objector. His appeal is rejected, however, and he has to make peace between his patriotic duty and his religious beliefs. The Army would hate to lose him, since York’s life of hunting in the Tennessee hills has made him an absolute crack shot.
Made in the run-up to World War II, Sergeant York is unabashedly a propaganda film, using Alvin as a stand-in for all Americans, or at least how we wanted to see ourselves back then. He’s god-fearing and reluctant to fight, but rises to the challenge when tyranny threatens our collective freedoms. It’s not subtle but it is sincere and surprisingly effective.
The movie’s portrayal of Alvin’s small-town roots is an idealized, Hollywood version of how simple hill folk live and talk. We know Gracie is destined to be Mrs. York the moment she is photographed in gauzy soft focus. The movie sometimes overplays York’s “aw shucks” cornpone simplicity, but never to the point of being condescending or an insult to the viewers intelligence. For his part, Cooper does a remarkably convincing job as Alvin, justifying the real York’s insistence on casting him. I actually went in thinking that the 40-year-old actor was too old to play the role, but York was close to thirty when he entered the Army, so Cooper’s age is not so much of an issue.
Combat is realistic enough for the period, but obviously sanitized. It does an exceptional job of portraying York’s heroism during the Muese-Arrgone Offensive on October 8, 1918. The geography of the action is clearly presented and easy to understand. The actions that earn him the Medal of Honor are not overplayed or superhuman, which actually makes the movie far more effective as propaganda than it would have been if they had gone all Hollywood. For what it is, a shameless flag-waver, Sergeant York is one of the best of the breed.