director Howard Hawks
Howard Hawks was one of the original Hollywood auteurs as so dubbed by Cahiers du cinéma, and Sergeant York has been a long-standing Hawks picture that I had never seen.
As big a success as the film was in its day, one of the biggest box office hits of 1941 and nabbing star Gary Cooper a Best Actor Oscar, it’s an odd movie to take in at the present. It’s quite the propaganda film, made before Pearl Harbor, which actually occurred during its theatrical run. It tries to strike the begrudging nature of a US public not ready to head to Europe by making a hero out of a religious Tennessean who sought to conscientiously object before becoming a war hero. He’s turned to join when considering saving more lives by killing Germans than otherwise.
The ultimate message of heading to war, not out of desire or duty, per se, but through a somewhat stripped down sense of right and wrong was doubtlessly hammered out by the film’s many screenwriters.
What’s even more strange, perhaps, is the very heavy-handed bible-thumping of the film. The real Alvin York (this is based on the true life of a major WWI hero) was very religious and this aspect of the story is given due attention. The first half of the film is about York going from drunken lout to hardworking Christian that includes a lightning bolt straight from heaven to lead him to “That Old Time Religion”. That said, Cooper at times sounds like a Class A hayseed (imagine in hillbilly-speak) “Well, that thar killin’, the Good Book is agin’ it”, not exactly the greatest of free-thinkers.
When you’re cognizant of it, propaganda has an somewhat unpleasant flavor, but that’s not saying that it can’t elevate to higher art. There are other elements of charm here, some of the depictions of the isolated Tennesseans and characters (like the always welcome Walter Brennan). A young Joan Leslie is quite good too. An equally young June Lockhart plays York’s sister (didn’t realize that til after).
I watched this with my kids, who both enjoyed it, though my son was weirded-out until he recognized the propaganda. Then he says, “Aaaahh!”