This blog is a study of major motion pictures from its humble beginning forward. Studying and viewing many of the most influencial feature films in chronological order that journey attempts to study each subject with a sense of historical perspective on the medium, its creators, major players, and the audiences it has impacted, understanding that with time each work evolves in the minds of the general public and history as a whole.
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.
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
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,
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
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.