“Well I’m as much agin’ killin’ as ever, sir. But it was this way, Colonel. When I started out, I felt just like you said, but when I hear them machine guns a-goin’, and all them fellas are droppin’ around me… I figured them guns was killin’ hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothin’ anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that’s what I done.”
‘Sergeant York’, directed by Howard Hawks in 1941, is an American biopic about a farmer, played by Gary Cooper, who joins the army and fights in the First World War, becoming the most decorated soldiers of the conflict. The story starts in Tennessee where Alvin York is volatile, hard-drinking poor labourer. His only skill is shooting and he uses this to scrape money together to buy a plot of land to impress a girl. When the land is sold to another man, he goes on a binge, but after a lightning storm, he discovers God. He is drafted into the army, but is initially reluctant to fight because of his religious beliefs. His superior officers help him reconcile his faith with his patriotic duty, and he goes to Europe. When there, he manages to kill and capture a large number of German soldiers almost single-handedly becoming a hero back home. On his return he is feted, but he resists awards and goes to his hometown where he finds his girl and newly built house waiting for him. The film is a well-made, solid, if sentimental, piece of patriotic propaganda. Made before the attack on Pearl Harbour, it is also clearly an attempt at preparing the country for the inevitable war, and the box-office returns were reflective of its success. The film is full of dodgy accents, stereotypes and simplified concepts, not least the painfully linear way York moves from conscientious objector to killer with only a book about the history of America as the catalyst for his conversion. For all this, the war scenes are surprisingly shocking and visceral. There is very little attempt to romanticise the war when York reaches it, the only romantic part of the film are the opening and closing scenes in Tennessee, giving the film a pleasing arc from heaven to hell and back again.
Would I recommend it? Actually – yes! For all the forced propaganda and awkward politics it is well-made and does the job. The pacing is great, and you can see its influence on countless war movies made after. Watch in a double bill with ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ made ten years before for more balance. Or ‘Forrest Gump’.