Movie Review - Sergeant York

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Howard Hawks
Warner Bros. Pictures
Sergeant Alvin C. York: the most decorated soldier of World War One? No. The most famous? Barring U.S. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, it’s entirely possible. The fellow most famous for what he did during World War One? That would be Sergeant York… or maybe Woodrow Wilson. Suffice it to say that Alvin York—once a drunkard and a violent man, then a radically changed Christian pacifist, and then a drafted soldier in France in 1918—a man who was faithful to his family, his country and his God, despite their apparently conflicting demands—has gotten a lot more attention than your average draftee usually gets. And he didn’t even have to die in battle to get it. All he had to do was take thirty-two German machine guns, kill twenty-eight enemy soldiers, and capture four officers and one hundred and twenty-eight troops—all on the same day—all by himself.

Of course, it didn’t hurt Alvin’s rise to fame any when, after more than twenty years, he finally consented to having a movie made about him, or when film star Gary Cooper consented to play the lead role, or when Gary Cooper won an Academy Award for that role. Playing basically the same character he always did—the all-American everyman—just with a thicker accent, Cooper took Sergeant York, the backwoods-Tennessean war hero, and made him more than just a name on a memorial. He turned him into the personal hero of the all-American everyman (conveniently, right before the United States entered World War Two).

Sergeant York’s worldview deals mainly with religion, war, and how the two mix—generally a positive, appropriate perspective, but not without flaws.

Before Alvin’s conversion, the pastor comes to talk to him about the importance of religion. Alvin is shown as being in need of it. Pastor Pile, though, says that between Alvin and God, they’d have Satan beat. Alvin says that “Religion’s just got to come to a man,” and Pastor Pile says, “It’ll come, Alvin!” Alvin’s mother’s prayer—reverent and sincere—includes, “Lord, if ye can.” The Bible is portrayed as accurate and binding for the Christian, but it is said that Alvin’s church leaves each of its members to have any interpretation of the Bible they see fit—not exactly the most heresy-conscious church leadership in the world. There is mention of “a little religion.” Old Uncle Lige is mildly humorous for muttering random passages from the Bible as he reads to himself.

When a converted Alvin is faced with the draft, he tells his pastor, “War is agin’ the Book,” and Pastor Pile agrees, though their perspective seems to change later on. The movie is “humbly dedicated” to the faith “that a day will come when man will live in peace on earth.”

Alvin’s mother doesn’t condone his wild behavior before his conversion, but she downplays it a bit for the sake of her own dignity, presumably. Those in her presence go along with it, as in “Who’s to blame him if he busts loose every now and then?”

A sixty-day’s note on a property deal may be considered problematic by some families.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Of course, the congregation’s clapping during “Give Me that Old-Time Religion” might be considered problematic by some families.

Alvin and his friends are seen drinking and drunk, but this is portrayed negatively.

There is occasional smoking.

Sexual Content:
Dancing, shy flirting, a couple of kisses, a few joking comments about “that big woman,” and a salesman peddling ladies’ bloomers, pretty much cover the sexual content.

Sergeant York’s slang includes “doggone,” “shucks,” “I’ll be blowed,” “I’ll be danged,” “Gee,” and “dang-swangest”—some of them repeated a couple of times. An incredulous, “Good Lord,” is probably not meant sincerely.

One of Alvin’s fellow soldiers refers to the Germans as “Heinies.”

Violent and Intense Content:
Sergeant York is by no means an anti-war movie—quite the opposite—but it wasn’t designed to make war look glamorous, either. Machine gun fire takes out several men, as do shrapnel and bayonet fighting, though gore is at a minimum. A few of the deaths are more personal, but not played up as emotionally intense.

A fight in a saloon before Alvin’s conversion results in quite a bit of destruction, and injuries that are perceived as more comical than serious. Younger brother George comes to fetch Alvin with a gun in his hands. Alvin at one point contemplates killing a man out of revenge, but this comes to nothing, and is, of course, resolved.

You know, Sergeant Alvin C. York isn’t famous because he was faithful with little and with much, when it was easy and when it wasn’t. Nor is the movie famous because it was faithful (at least, mostly faithful) to the true story. I’m inclined to say, though, that those reasons would have been as good as any. Sergeant York’s bravery during World War One, his capturing all those men and guns, are great accomplishments, to be sure—worth becoming famous over—but, I think first billing should go to Alvin’s conviction that the Bible is the only authority that can bind the conscience. His determination to kill in order to save lives—and that only because he came to believe that the Bible commanded it, not just because a superior officer told him to—should also be worth becoming famous over.

For viewers eight and up (because of the violence), and maybe accompanied by parents, if they’re under twelve (because of a couple of worldview problems), I would Recommend Sergeant York. And I’m not a Gary Cooper fan, either.


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