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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Sergeant York

Sergeant York, which earned Gary Cooper his first Oscar, is a jingoistic, pro-religion film that was the biggest grossing movie of 1941. It's easy to see why, as it was playing in theaters when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred--many male viewers went straight from the cinema to the recruiting office.

It is the story of Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I, who took out a German machine gun nest, killing two dozen men and taking 132 prisoners. He was also a conscientious objector, who had to balance his religious beliefs against the call of his country. Needless to say, the latter won out.

The film was directed by Howard Hawks, one of my favorite directors, but he seems constrained with this film, as if he was afraid to offend anyone. The war part of the film only occupies a small part--most of it is on York's transition from drunken hellraiser to sober worshipper. Cooper is too old for the role (his fiancee is played by Joan Leslie, who was only sixteen years old--Cooper was forty) and his cornpone shtick wears thin quickly.

York is drafted, as his request for an exemption is refused. At training camp he is revealed to be a crack shot, and is promoted to corporal. He waivers, though, and his major gives him a furlough to go home and decide. It's ironic that this is during World War I, a war that the U.S. had no special obligation to enter; the country was under no threat of invasion. Essentially York is asked to decide between God and Woodrow Wilson.

Sergeant York is terribly dated. There have been other films about conscientious objectors, such as Friendly Persuasion and Hacksaw Ridge, but they handle the issue better (the former is during the Civil War, which requires a young man to defend his family, despite his Quaker beliefs, and in the latter the soldier does not use a gun, but instead is a medic). By comparison, Sergeant York seems a cop-out--Thou shalt not kill, except when Uncle Sam says so.

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