“Sergeant York” stars Gary Cooper as the eponymous WWI hero. The story relates his pre-war life and shows how he overcame a wild youth to “find religion.” He lives in a log cabin with his mother and younger brother and sister. Being hillbillies, the soil of his family land is very poor. When he finds a girl, he wants to marry he sets his mind to buying some “bottom land.” But a rival in love frustrates this ambition and it was when he was set to settle this feud with his rifle that divine intervention steps in. Lightning knocks him off his horse and damages his rifle and Alvin ends up at the church where Pastor Rosier Pile played by Walter Brennan, welcomes Alvin back to the Lord’s flock.
But when America enters World War I Alvin York has to somehow square his biblical aversion to killing with his duties as an American citizen. This conflict and how the reality of the modern battlefield affects him is the climax of the film. As was stated in his Congressional Medal of Honor citation Alvin single-handedly killed 28 German soldiers with his rifle and pistol and in doing so forced the surrender of 132 Germans and 35 machine guns. In the movie York explains to the investigators of his actions that he killed the Germans to stop the guns. As he explains it his actions were meant to save lives.
After the war Alvin returns home and to his great surprise a grateful nation hails him as a hero with a ticker tape parade down Wall Street in New York City. But even more importantly his home state of Tennessee presents him with a beautiful house on fertile land in his hometown.
Sergeant York was made on the eve of America’s entry into WW II. In fact, Pearl Harbor was attacked while the movie was still in the theaters. It is claimed that thousands of young men went directly from the movie theater to the enlistment station. It could be defensibly claimed that it is a propaganda film for the war effort. Nevertheless, York’s war time actions were not exaggerated in any way. Obviously, the supernatural basis of his religious conversion is pure Hollywood but doubtless the portrayal of Alvin York as a simple backwoods man was quite accurate. The reality of poverty in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee was real and the importance of family and religion was true.
Gary Cooper’s portrayal of York is somewhat broad and even comical at times but I find that is one of the charms of the film. The other actors in the Tennessee scenes equally play up the hillbilly stereotypical behaviors. But recognizing those characteristics I still recommend this movie as a fascinating personal story that shows the collision of an older world with the 20th century. Sergeant York was an American original.