Sergeant York (1941) – Howard Hawks

 

The next film in my viewing line-up following my screening of All Quiet on the Western Front for the chapter on war films for the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film is this biopic based on the diary of Alvin York, himself.

This may seem like an odd statement, but this film does not seem so busy and frenetic as some of Hawks’ other work. It seems quite content to be a simple tale, refusing to be rushed about a man’s time in the Great War, and his longing to be back home with the woman he loves, working his land.

Gary Cooper stars as the titular Sergeant York. He plays it with a folksy charm, who initially starts off as a bit of a troublemaker, and a little rebellious who enjoys a drink or three as he grows up in small town Tennessee. Events, before the war, of which there is actually very little, change him to a pacifist, and a devout Quaker, but that can’t change the fact that he’s a fantastic shot.

In this quiet little place, gatherings in the church, and the general store, are the main social interactions. It’s filled with hard times, small town gossip and a pastor (Walter Brennan) who does his best to look after his flock. The pastor makes time for Alvin, working to keep him on the right track.

sergeantyork1

In the interim Alvin has become smitten with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) and tries to win her over. He dedicates himself to it in fact by trying to get enough money to buy a parcel of land, working day and night, scrimping and saving every dime. And as such becomes a man that he and the town respects, it is here that he finds religion, taking the Good Book to heart, living by it, and refusing to be swayed by any other word.

When the States becomes involved in the Great War, York petitions for exemption to the draft, citing his pacifism and religion. It’s overruled, however, and he is thrust into a much larger world than he knew existed as begins his training and makes a name for himself as a crackshot.

But it isn’t easy for him, and while he is still State-side, he wrestles with his conscience, his God, his nation’s history and his place in all of it. He finally realizes he must do what he can, and travels with his comrades to face the Germans.

At the front, in sequences that are nowhere near as frenetically portrayed as they are in the previous films on this list but still brutally and terrifyingly conveyed. Trench warfare was a horror. York proves himself a hero, in what must have been an amazing occurrence and his actions allow him to leave the army and return home for his justly earned desserts.

The story is gentle, engaging and sets up the home front and characters nicely. Everything is done at a nice steady pace, so unlike the speed and rapid fire dialogue that was Hawks’ signature.

SERGEANT YORK, Gary Cooper, 1941

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