Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sergeant York (1941)

Director: Howard Hawks


As war engulfed most of the world, eventually forcing the United States into the fry in late 1941, one motion picture inspired a great number of Americans to sign up for the war effort. Released months before the attack on Pearl Harbor Sergeant York, a biographical war picture about a hero that served God and country, deeply affected many due to the dire needs that freshly affected the country after the fateful day of December 7, 1941. Due to its time and subject matter the film would become one of the most praised films of the year, as well as one of American cinema’s greatest box office draw in the history of the business.

Country boy...
Sergeant York is a biographical drama/ war film about how a reckless Tennessee farm boy who goes on to become an American hero of World War I. Alvin York (Gary Cooper) is an irresponsible farm boy who happens to have an amazing skill as a marksman. His life changes greatly when he meets the beautiful Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) and attempts to become a responsible farmer to provide for her and a religious awakening within him that converts him into a more pious individual. With the announcement of America’s entrance into the war York is drafted, were at first he attempt to avoid as a conscientious objector, but learns to serve his country from the stories of past American heroes.

...becomes a hero.
Deployed to Europe, York is involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive where he helps lead his detachment to a great victory utilizing his hunting knowledge and sharpshooting to survive the battle, as well as capture 132 German prisoners of war. York returns home to great fanfare, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, but refuses commercial rewards for his actions of war. He states he only enemy soldiers in order to save a great number of lives. As a happy ending, York returns to Tennessee to learn of his fondest reward being the land he worked so hard for in attempting to purchase before the war is given to him by his friends and neighbors.

Separated from time and place of 1941 America (as I obvious had to have viewed it), Sergeant York is a rather overly squeaky-clean biographical motion picture about a man that finds religion and serves his country to great victory in World War I. Within the film is the do-no-well young man played by Gary Cooper begins to become a responsible adult through falling in love with a pretty girl and his eventual religious salvation, which strangely enough is awaken in him by being struck by lightning, creating in him an upstanding gentleman that became a war hero.
The film’s writing does a good job drawing parallels with York’s experiences as a skilled marksman/hunter in Tennessee to his battlefield experience in the trenches of war. This allows the audience to be better involved through the lengthy feature, creating bridges from events that happen from the early scenes in the picture to the later segments. The film is common seen as a war picture, but in actuality the feature is a coming of age movie for a young adult with a heavy Christian undertone. As a biography picture the movie does fall rather flat as entertainment, but does perform the modest task of sharing the overly simplified, sugarcoated tale of the real Sergeant York.

The life story of Alvin York had been a subject greatly coveted for being made into a motion picture for years in Hollywood. As a living hero of World War I, the story of a man that nearly single-handedly won an entire battle for the US, York’s life story was something producers were salivating to turn into the subject of a feel good movie. York, however, was reluctant to simply hand over his story in fear that it would greatly manipulated by Hollywood. It was not until Warner Bros. drew up a contract that allowed York to share in the profits which he used to directly fund a Bible school, created a rule that there would be no smoking in the film, and the stipulation of York having a say in the casting process that allowed the studio to sign a deal to produce the picture.

With this movie deal made with Alvin York, the most important first bit of business was the casting of Gary Cooper as the title character. Although Cooper was much older than York was during the events of the film, Cooper was the choice of the studio and York wanted to play the role of the famed war hero. Cooper was initially reluctant to play the part of the overly goody character, but a visit with Alvin York himself convinced Copper to reconsider the role. With his performance, and perhaps with the help of the timing of the events leading to new found patriotism, Cooper would win the Academy Award. At the ceremony Cooper would honor Alvin York for in his humble acceptance speech, taking very little credit for the win and nearly forgetting the statue while leaving the stage.

The guiding architect of the picture would be that of director Howard Hawks whose past works have included drama such as Scarface, but more recently consisted of Cary Grant comedies Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Many directors where considered for the job, but it was Gary Cooper that lobbied to have Hawks chosen, which lead to Hawks only Academy Award nomination in his long, celebrated career.

Like in many Gary Cooper pictures of the time we once again see Walter Brennan cast in a major supporting role across for Cooper. Here Brennan portrays Pastor Pile, the guiding hand and surrogate father figure in York’s life story. Brennan’s performance of the also all-too-good –to-be-true character is aided by the signature characteristics Brennan brings to the table with his voice and mannerisms. The already three time Academy Award winner would once again be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this performance, but for the first time would not walk away without the prize.

The other major player in the Sergeant Alvin York story was that of his loving fiancée, Gracie Williams, who was portrayed by Joan Leslie. As the studio as looking around Hollywood for the right girl for the part York greatly wanted an actress with the angelic qualities that most actresses did not have, which including one that neither smoked or drank. At only the age of 16 Joan Leslie was still a fresh-faced actress playing a more adult quality role then what her age would suggest. Her appearance here would continue to give her notice as a very young actress with a possible bright future ahead of her.

Released to theaters in July Sergeant York originally played to audiences of a country that was still looking at the war from the outside. Critics initially viewed at the film with eyes of thinking of the film as being a pro-war picture in a society that was being led by a President that wanted to stay away from the subject of war. Initially critics and audiences put down the film as glorifying the tragedies of war when people did not want to think about the subject.

However, with the devastating attack of Pearl Harbor by Japan in December the views on Sergeant York changed immediately. With new eyes from an audience devastated by the first attack on America soil since the Civil War, there was a new found patriotism with watching the film. The picture remained in theaters and audiences were inspired by story of a man’s love of God and served his country. Audiences were stirred with great patriotism while viewing the feature. Stories at the time tell of men leaving theaters and going directly to sign up for the service. Patrons would see the film multiple times to keep their inspirations high at a time where some felt very low. Sergeant York was the feel good war picture at the time America was thruster into the conflict. The feature would quickly become the highest grossing film of 1941, and when adjusting for inflation would be still among the top box office films of all time.

Critics eventually would lavish the film with great praise. At the Academy Awards Sergeant York was nominated for a record eleven categories, including in the running for Best Picture. At the end of the night the film walked away with prizes in Best Actor (Cooper) and Best Editing.

 For a period of time Gary Cooper and the film would travel to rallies raise interest in young men to sign up for the war effort. Gary Cooper was too old to personally sign up for the military as many young men in the film industry did during this time, but he felt this was the next best thing he could do for his country. For his work Cooper was honored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars with their Distinguished Citizenship Medal for his efforts.

It is a sad note as to why Sergeant York, the film, was such a massive success despite it being a rather middle-grade motion picture. However it served a great purpose during after the time it was released as it became an inspiration for a country suddenly in the middle of war that they attempted to stay out of. For its significance in history the film was elected to the National Film Registry in 2008 as a reminder of a certain time in American history when Gary Cooper led thousands to take to arms for the war effort in America.

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