Sergeant York (1941)

Sergeant York (1941), directed by Howard Hawks.

A hell-raising sharpshooting country boy reforms when struck by love and lightning, just in time to be drafted into the First World War. Initially claiming conscientious objector status, he meditates and decides he can participate. During a battle in the Argonne, according to his Medal of Honor citation:


After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine-gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine-gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.

He did this with a bolt-action rifle and a sidearm. It's not clear to me how many enemy soldiers he shot in that action, but by all accounts it was a bunch. Over 20?

This is not the usual Hawks picture and is not a favorite among his fans, although it was wildly successful at the time. It is a reverential look at an American hero stressing historical accuracy, made when York and many others were still alive and gave their permission to be portrayed.

The most serious deviation from history: York did not get religion after lighting struck him and blew up his rifle. It was a long effort by his wife. York said a bolt of lightning was the closest the screenwriters could come to describing the experience.

Gary Cooper is a good fit for York, both men tall and lean, both hard-working country boys; Cooper grew up on a Montana cattle ranch. He was 10 years older than York as shown in the film.

Many familiar faces. Walter Brennan was born to play old men. Joan Leslie moved to Warner and hit it big this year, also featured in High Sierra (1941). She was 16.

Most of the Tennessee scenes are on soundstages with painted backgrounds. When he gets to training camp and France, encountering the modern world for the first time, it opens up into outdoor locations.

This was in the theaters when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and young men left the show and went directly to the enlistment offices. The circumstances are peculiar: before December 7 1941 the country was isolationist and the producers were called before the Senate and accused of making pro-war propaganda. After that date everything changed and Hollywood became part of the war effort.

The image of the sharpshooting citizen-soldier is embedded in American mythology. And how many films deal with the struggle of conscience on whether to go to war or not?

For more background see Sergeant York (film) and Alvin York.

Max Steiner score.

Available on DVD with a detailed commentary track.