Sergeant York (1941)

     On September 27, 1941, Warner Brothers Film Corporation released Sergeant York (1941).  The film tells the story of Sergeant Alvin C. York, a reluctant World War I hero from the small town of Pall Mall, Tennessee.  Western film veteran Gary Cooper stars as Sergeant York.

     The film begins with the contrast of a Sunday church service and the wild goings-on of three local boys on the road outside the church.  One of the young men is Alvin York, who acts rowdy to relieve the monotony of farming the poor soil on his top land.  One of the central plot themes of this film is York’s determination to purchase some bottom land.

     Mother York, played by Margaret Whycherly, and Pastor Rosier Pile, played by Walter Brennan, are trying to steer Alvin York back to a straight path but York continues to drink and get in fights.  All seems lost until a local man goes back on a promise to sell Alvin some bottom land.  After getting drunk, Alvin York rides his mule towards the man’s farm with the intention of killing him.

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Gary Cooper from a 1926 publicity photo in the Public Domain

     Lighting strikes his gun and knocks him from his mule.  Much like Martin Luther, Alvin York experiences a conversion and enters the church a few hundred feet from where he was struck.  Pastor Pile is leading a worship session and welcomes Alvin into the church and the faith.

     Over the next year, Alvin York becomes a devout Christian intent on marrying Gracie Williams.  As he prepares for his future, America enters World War I and Alvin York is drafted.  Initially, Alvin registers as a conscientious objector but eventually decides his faith and duty to his country don’t need to conflict with each other.

     Based on his marksmanship skill and natural leadership, Alvin York is promoted to Corporal and eventually Sergeant.  Sergeant Alvin C. York would win the Congressional Medal of Honor and many other awards for his service in the war.  Sergeant York also steadfastly refused to cash in on his exploits during the war after he came home.

     Sergeant York only agreed to have his life made into a film if Gary Cooper played him in the film.  Warner Brothers owned the rights to the film but Gary Cooper was under contract to MGM.  Robert Osborne with Turner Classic Movies discussed how Warner Brothers was able to get Cooper for the movie.

     Gary Cooper was born on May 7, 1901 in Helena, Montana on his father’s ranch.  Cooper grew up with a father, who was much like many of the western roles he would play later in life.  After graduating from college, Cooper began acting in films.  Before his career was over, Cooper played in 118 films as the star of “A” list feature films in most of them.

      Gary Cooper was married to Sandra Shaw from 1933 to 1961.  However, Cooper had numerous affairs despite his wife’s fidelity.  In the conduct of his personal life, he couldn’t be more different than Sergeant York.  Gary Cooper died six days after his 60th birthday on May 13, 1961 from prostate cancer.

     Sergeant York is a long feature film for the time period coming in at about 134 minutes.  Sergeant York is available on Amazon and DVDs.  What do you think of this film?  Could it be made today?

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