Sergeant York (1941): Hawks Biopic Starring Gary Cooper in his First Oscar Role

If The Grapes of Wrath celebrated the tenacity of country folks and simplicity of rural life with protest and anger, Sergeant York, released in l941, performed the same ideological function in a quieter, and sentimental, way. Bosley Crowther provided the best advertisement when he described the film as having “all the flavor of true Americana, the blunt humor of backwoodsmen, and the raw integrity peculiar to simple folk.”

Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning two (for acting and writing), Sergeant York became the year’s top grossing film. Based on Alvin York’s diary, the film set precedent by presenting the saga of a celebrity still alive. Sergeant York traces its hero’s life from l9l6, in “the Valley of the Three Forks,” to the end of WWI. It is a tale of transformation of a Tennessee mountaineer-farmer, from an obscure hillbilly to a great national hero. As such, it belongs to genre of films about ordinary protagonists who become extraordinary, as a result of charismatic personality and social circumstances. The film demonstrates the democratic credo that heroes are not born, but made, and that they could come from the most remote and unlikely places.

Please read below our review of Gary Cooper starring vehicle, A Farewell to Arms

The young Alvin York (Gary Cooper) is a fun-loving man who likes to drink and to brawl. Back home, he is reproached by his mother (Margaret Wycherly), who believes that “a little religion won’t do him any harm.” Similarly to Ma Joad, Mother York is another Mother Earth, a widow aged beyond her years by the hardship of mountain life. Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan) explains that the issue is not praying, but believing. However, York holds that “there ain’t no use for a feller to go out lookin’ for religion,” to which the Pastor replies, “it’ll come when you ain’t even lookin’ fer hit, like a bolt of lightnin’.” The film cherishes historical tradition and continuity: A close-up of a pine tree’s carved trunk shows: “Dan’l Boone Kilt a Bar Here l760.”

Shy with women (as Young Mr. Lincoln’s hero), York’s courtship of Gracie Williams (Joan Lesley) is understated. He is contrasted with his rival, Zeb Andrews, a “smart,” arrogant guy who talks a lot; Zeb is shown helping Gracie knitting! An inevitable brawl kicks Zeb out of the way–and out of Gracie’s life. “Why did you fight” asks Gracie. “Because I’m gonna marry you,” says York. “Ye’re no good, ‘cept fer fightin’ an’ hell-raisin’,” she says, but York is determined, “A piece of bottomland would make a heap o’ difference. There ain’t nothing I can’t get if I set my min’ to it,” he says, repeating a familiar phrase uttered by other heroes (Young Mr. Lincoln). York brings soil to his house and looks at it with fascination, but his mother says “Folks who live at the bottom look down at folks at the top; always like that, no change.” “I’m gonna get it!” he states with heroic determination. Hawks uses a montage, showing York plowing the barren land with two mules and a crude plow share–a single man pitted against Nature with its vast lands and big skies.

Like most heroes of this fiction, York wishes to own his own land. Swindled and cheated–the land promised to him had been sold–he sets out to kill the man. “I took your word,” says York, for whom a man’s word is more binding than a contractual agreement. The Pastor and Gracie try to console him, “it don’t make difference.” “It does to me,” he says, “This land was mine. Nobody’s going to take it away from me.” Struck by lightning during a storm, York experiences a moment of revelation and subsequently becomes deeply religious. “Give me that old-time religion,” he asks the Pastor as he goes into church. Drafted for service in World War One, York registers as a conscientious objector. Major Buxton gives him an American history book, which evokes the name of Daniel Boone. Isolated in Nature, he absorbs its contents, coming to terms with his own feelings about defense and freedom.

This scene has similar effect to the one in Young Mr. Lincoln, wherein Lincoln discovers the meaning of the law. In both, the hero must understand the new principles for himself and from within. The film stresses York’s great conscience struggle before joining the army. “Obey your God,” says the Pastor’s voice, countered by Major Baxton’s dictate, “Defend your Country.” A reconciliation of the two symbols, God and Country, is required, and York reaches the conclusion that the two are in harmony because they mean the same thing. In Young Mr. Lincoln too, the two symbols, the Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac, both sacred (standing for God and Nature) provide the base for Lincoln’s authority because they mean the same thing. (In John Ford’s The Searchers, the Bible and the gun are also sacred objects and symbols of the new American frontier).

As was the custom in many films of the l940s, Sergeant York begins with a “message” narration: “Before America entered the World war, the people of this secluded land had lived almost wholly apart from the civilization that had flourished around them. Isolated in remote village, rocky highlands–with few schools–untouched by railroads or highways–they had retained the customs, the tools and weapons of their colonial ancestors, their simple, hard ways of life–and their belief in God.” Indeed, the community, in which the Pastor is also the proprietor of the general store, is not up to date; the newspapers are at least three-day-old. Its economy is rather primitive, based on barter; York exchanges eggs for a bar of soap. The film concludes with York’s return to his routine life in Tennessee, observing his land. It thus goes full circle: the transformation of York from ordinary to extraordinary (international war hero) and back to ordinary citizen (peace-loving farmer).