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The perfect film to watch each and every Memorial Day
on 27 July 2004
Gary Cooper was 40 years old when he made "Sergeant York," and his Southern accent is weak at best, but those things do not end up detracting all that much from his performance or this film. Directed in 1941 by Howard Hawks, "Sergeant York" has strong propagandistic elements. A whiskey-drinking hell-raiser, Alvin C. York undergoes a religious conversation when lighting strikes his gun and almost kills him. His goal in life becomes getting himself a piece of bottom land so he can propose to Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie). Things go against him, but Alvin holds his temper and does what the Good Book tell him to do. Then World War I breaks out and Alvin is drafted. Unable to get status as a conscientious objector because of his religious beliefs, Alvin has to come to terms with the obligations of citizenship versus the dictates of scripture. The film is surprisingly even handed in showing Alvin debating the matter with his superiors. In the end he comes to the only conclusion possible for men of conscience forced to go to war: killing is justified to save lives.
On the Argonne Forest battlefield Alvin, made a corporal because of his marksmanship, becomes a hero when his unit is trapped and he single-handedly kills 25 and captures 132 prisoners. Called the "greatest civilian solider of the war" by General Pershing, York received the Medal of Honor, France's Croix de Guerre, and basically every high medal the Allies could bestow upon him. But while the film does a first-rate job of showing York's heroic exploits, ultimately it is more about the man that the solider. Cooper's sense of dignity is well-suited to the role, which gives more weight to York's life in the hills of Tennessee than to the war in Europe. What he learned back home clearly stands Alvin in good stead on the battlefield.
The supporting cast of "Sergeant York" is truly outstanding, with George Tobias as "Pusher" Ross, Ward Bond as Ike Botkin and Robert Porterfield as Zeb Andrews. Both Walter Brennan as Pastor Rosier Pile and Margaret Wycherly as Mother York received well deserved Oscar nominations in the supporting category. Brennan marvelously underplays his role as Alvin's spiritual leader while Wycherly is simply the anchor for the entire film. Mother York says little and moves slowly, but everything comes out through her eyes. The scene where Alvin finally gets home from the war and sees his mother at the train station is especially touching: his face lights up completely and her "I'm right glad to see you, son" is the equivalent of other people crying and screaming for joy. In addition to Cooper winning his first Oscar as Best Actor, William Holmes receives one for Film Editing. This is one of those movies I never get tired of seeing and it remains the ideal film to watch on Memorial Day.