By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
Alvin C. York is a Tennessee farmer with drinking problems who is struggling to make a living for himself and his family. After a series of events force him to reconsider his life, finally ending in a major religious conversion, York becomes a God-fearing man. But the First World War looms on the horizon, and York wants nothing to do with it. Failing to have his conscientious objector status approved, York enters the military somewhat begrudgingly, but with knowledge of the duty he must perform. Distinguishing himself in battle, York becomes highly decorated for his heroism, and is made even more of a celebrity for his earnestness and refusal to allow his War experiences to be exploited.
Legendary Director Howard Hawkes won his only directing Oscar for this film, and his eye for visual splendor is evident at every angle. Hawkes spends more than an hour of the film’s 2-hour runtime focusing on Alvin York as a young man, and the pivotal moments of his life prior to the war. This allows time to build for the audience to get to know him as a person, not just as the war hero he would later become. Hawkes uses these moments to paint York with a broad brush as the quintessential America everyman, warts and all. By not deifying York, Hawkes makes his character one that can be easily identified with, which is simultaneously a good dramatic decision, and a good political decision (considering the fact that this film was meant to move audiences to support the U.S. entrance into WWII).
Actor Gary Cooper perfectly encapsulates this everyman persona, with his plainspoken demeanor and rugged charm, but also in the fondness for vice and propensity for fighting which characterize him early on. Supporting performances from such stellar character performers as Walter Brennan help guide the story along, and give it the credibility it needs to sell itself to the audience. Brennan is dependable as the Reverend Pile, who serves as the moral compass of the film. Credit for the most fascinating performance, however, must go to Margaret Wycherly as Mother York, the matriarch of the York family, and Alvin’s beloved mother. Her stoney face masks a deep longing to see her son clean himself up. Only in brief, fleeting moments does she allow her emotion to come out, and when it happens, it is heartbreaking. Wycherly would go on to play the celebrated role of Ma Jarrett alongside James Cagney in the Gangster Epic White Heat.
The film’s biggest flaw is in occasional overly preachy moments. I’m not talking about the religious elements, those are actually quite reigned in and well conveyed. It is blatantly obvious that this film was made for the singular purpose of getting America to enter WWII. Not that this was a bad aim, if there is any war with righteous reasons to exist, is must be WWII. However, political preachiness does not translate to dramatic momentum, and severely dates the film in the era which it was made. You almost wonder at times if Gary Cooper will break the 4th wall, look at the camera, and demand that the viewer buy war bonds.
Sergeant York largely overcomes the pitfalls of Propaganda filmmaking while managing to be a singular, accomplished work of motion picture cinema.
Take a Drink: any time they call him “Alvin”
Take a Drink: for jingoistic proselytizing
Drink a Shot: for each bible reference
Drink a Double-Shot: when York’s past experiences pay off when doing some killin’