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Sergeant York would probably make the short list of movies that had a profound political effect on the American public. As an overt 'call to arms' film, it has no equal as propaganda. America in 1941 was deeply isolationist, with large sections of the political spectrum believing that World War One had been a betrayal that should not be repeated. The War to End All Wars had simply reshuffled the deck of injustice and created a European depression that encouraged the rise of Fascism. Two years after Hitler had conquered most of Europe, pro-Nazi legislators backed by powerful pro-German organizations were still blocking America's involvement in the war, to the extent of accusing Hollywood of being a nest of Jews and Bolsheviks making anti-Isolationist propaganda.
Howard Hawks' advocacy movie is an outgrowth of the 30s Warners tradition of taking hard liberal attitudes toward social problems. It's an unusually complicated example of filmmaking, restating history to make a statement about pressing contemporary problems. It's beautifully filmed, emotionally honest and exactly right for 1941.
Alvin York's Mother (Margaret Wycherly) sums up the stubborn, humble rural American attitude in a prayer: "And help us not to be beholden to anybody." That's all the Yorks ask for, even though Mother is overjoyed when her boy knuckles down and determines to better their lot by getting a better piece of land. Alvin York was heaven-sent as a representative of the need for a complacent America to once again go to war in Europe: A Christian in the last war who overcame his pacifist beliefs, saved his command in a daring and bloody single-handed exploit, and became the most decorated hero of the day. York's story had everything: Pacifism versus combat service, Godly rural values against the political mire of war. And the real York had himself remained a fervent pacifist.
John Huston, who helped write the movie version of York, also dealt with WW2's most decorated soldier Audie Murphy, who he described (admiringly) as a "natural killer." Murphy capitalized on his medals and became a movie star, while the equally poor York refused to profit from his war record on principle. Only in the late 1930s did York advocate America's entrance into the war.
Many other pre-war interventionist films tended to preach or tell tales of woe that made it sound as if Europe was irrecoverably lost. Sergeant York pulls out all the stops to get Americans behind its message. It almost shamefully reconstructs the Frank Capra populist formula of 'Mr. Deeds', the naive innocent, staying noble and pure while taking on the evils of the outside world. Instead of asking America to understand what's happening, it keeps its arguments simplistic and personal.
Some of the film's methods are a little slippery, especially when it comes to representations of the Army. The Sergeants are swell guys and the officers are devout leaders that behave like church counselors, engaging with York's pacifist doubts and winning him over with kindness and a book of American History.
Bringing God into the equation is fair play because the sentiments presented are Alvin York's own. The screenwriters cleverly restrict the conflict to a direct clash of God vs. Country on a Kindergarten level, in keeping with the old Capra formula of Simple Stories for Simple People. Cooper uses his entire range of cute gestures at home, and transforms into the sober action hero abroad. A few Bible quotes provide the wisdom -- "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and render unto God that which is God's" -- and dicey pious imagery does the rest. York's conversion to the Good Book can't be an act of his own doing but instead is cued by a cheap miracle in the form of a bolt of lightning. York's patient and understanding commanding officer gives him the choice of opting out of combat ( ! .... !! ........ !!!!!!! ). Alvin takes his old dog to the top of a mountain to meditate on the problem, a visual that suggests the soul-searching of the Apostles, or even Christ's wandering in the wastelands. This is definitely a deck with 52 aces.
On the other hand, Sergeant York doesn't do what we expect it to, condescend to the hillbillies. Hawks and his writers use an hour to paint a warm and fair image of God-fearing, quick-to-fight mountain folk, with understatement and tact. The Tennessee'uns are neither Bible thumping saints nor Dogpatch yokels, and except for York, none are presented as being inherently noble in their ignorance, the load of **** that's still sold regularly in shows pandering to a presumed set of American Values, as epitomized in Forrest Gump.
The film's structure insures that audiences attending Sergeant York would anticipate the moment when Alvin stops with the Golly Gee reticence and starts shooting Germans. Although realistically filmed, the nature of combat is completely opposite the one shown in the openly pacifist All Quiet on the Western Front: York takes a one-in-a-million opportunity and pulls victory from defeat with a perfectly executed battlefield move. Frankly, a more imaginative man might have seen all the ways his plan could have gone wrong, and balked. Alvin York could easily have been the guy who, when given command, ran twenty yards to the left and got shot dead. It might have been presumed that he was running to save his skin. History instead made him into a fabled warrior.
Sergeant York was the wrong movie for a potential draftee to see in the middle of the Vietnam war: It seemed to show on television constantly, as if somebody thought its message still applied in 1969. Several times in the extras on this disc, it's mentioned that film critics do not rank it among Howard Hawks' great films. The literature I read at the time considered it a political abomination, mainly because most of the best critics (many of them Englishmen) were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and reviled the film's glorification of combat. The example most often stated is when York uses his 'gobble gobble' turkey trick on the German soldiers, and it works like a charm. Boys going off to Nixon's war were surely shocked when their experience did not live up to the glorious movie version. 1
In other words, a pro-war movie with 'timeless messages' is going to go in and out of favor depending on how one feels about a particular war. And there always seems to be a war going on to compare it to.
Some of the performances in Sergeant York stand out strongly. Oscar-winner Gary Cooper is clearly in top form and judging his performance well. Walter Brennan does the Gospel singing without over-selling it and carries big parts of the story involving York's draft dilemma. Stanley Ridges and Joe Sawyer make important impressions in the army scenes. Margaret Wycherly gives the entire hillbilly setting credibility on her own. And lovely 16 year-old Joan Leslie provides the life and promise that makes York's struggle and victory something to care about. Sergeant York hits most viewers as a powerful emotional experience. It became an important touchstone for an entire generation going off to war.
Warners' 2-disc DVD of Sergeant York is a solid restoration that makes all those interiors-as-exteriors sets of the Tennessee mountains look beautiful. Howard Hawks definitely strays from his personal style here, to include dozens of to-die-for close-ups, especially of Joan Leslie.
Jeanine Basinger's commentary is one of her best and is highly recommended. She expertly 'places' the film in context regarding its makers, actors and the real Alvin C. York, and brings in a recent Joan Leslie appearance before some WW2 veterans for a stirring finish.
Disc one also has a Gary Cooper trailer gallery and two good short subjects. Lions for Sale is an excellent color piece about training real lion cubs to perform in circuses and movies. The Tex 'Fred' Avery B&W Porky's Preview is about the pig's personally animated cartoon ... all squiggles and stick figures. I think I remember trying to draw my own flip-book after seeing that one.
Disc two presents two documentaries. The new Sergeant York: Of God and Country is a making-of piece that can't help but declare that the movie has a timeless philosophy, as opposed to a specific propaganda function when it was made. It gives an impressive account of the anti-Semitic Dies committee's attempt to stop Hollywood's pro-interventionist filmmaking. But it did confuse me on one point by saying that the studio withdrew Sergeant York only a month after its release, feeling that congressional pressure was threatening the film industry's right to free speech. If the film only came back in 1942, how did it become one of the top-grossing pictures of 1941?
The second show is a 1989 Richard Schickel docu on Gary Cooper's career that carries through on some themes and naturally ducks a few others while showing an admirable set of film clips: Compare the quality of clips with our present restorations, and you'll see why Savant isn't so critical of marginally DVD flawed presentations. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sergeant York rates:
1. To be fair, many film critics of 1969 were poor judges of movies with a jingoistic message. I have a book on Douglas Sirk that captions a picture of a fighter plane from Battle Hymn by implying that war criminal Rock Hudson is strafing glorious fighters for the People's Republic of Korea.
2. When the docu gets to the subject of Gary Cooper's film The Fountainhead, Schickel figuratively throws his arms up in the air in defeat, calling Ayn Rand's Objectivist speeches "incomprehensible." That makes Savant feel a bit better about his own attempt to understand The Fountainhead, which will be coming in about a week.