Monday Movie: Sergeant York, by David Bax
This article originally ran as part of our TCM Classic Film Festival: Special Home Editon coverage.
Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) has a spoiler right there in the title since Alvin York (Gary Cooper) doesn’t even join the army until pretty far into the movie, and even then after much consternation. Then again, back in 1941, York was a better known public figure so one could assume audiences went in knowing how things were going to play out. When we meet York, though, in 1916 backwoods Tennessee, he’s not quite yet a national hero. He’s rather more of a drunken ruffian, in fact, and the bulk of Sergeant York concerns his getting his act together, with the help of his pastor (Walter Brennan) and his best gal, Gracie (Joan Leslie), all of them speaking the whole time in a delightful holler patois. As a real life story of a roustabout turned war hero, Sergeant York has some of the same DNA as Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Here, though, the strains of jingoism serve a more overt propagandistic purpose–released in September of 1941, it’s clearly a “get into the war” rallying cry–and the message is delivered in a sweeter concoction. Hawks is also more confident about his protagonist’s ability to survive with the help of loved ones. Though York may struggle to be heard sometimes above machine gun fire or the din of his homecoming parade, he finds peace in the quiet moments when Gracie instructs him not to look until she tells him to.