Sergeant York (1941)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sergeant York</strong> (1941)

(On Cable TV, January 2019) Not having seen all of Howard Hawks’ filmography, I’m not entirely qualified to say that he’s never made a bad movie, but Sergeant York is a powerful argument that he’s made at least one average one. This is from a contemporary perspective, of course: Back in 1941, Sergeant York was the perfect combination of a veteran director, a superstar actor and the story of a famous WW1 hero. The titular Alvin York was (and remains) a legend in American military history—a rural God-fearing boy who became a soldier reluctantly, but ended the war with an impressive marksmanship record and the Medal of Honor. The film does dive into the duality of York’s character as being both very religious and a terrifying marksman, but does end up chalking it up to divine intervention. That played by gangbusters back in 1941, but from a contemporary perspective this is squarely a propaganda film: the values espoused here happen to be the perfect values to convince a generation of boys to enlist in the looming WW2—humility, obedience, marksmanship and as few moral qualms about killing as many enemies as possible even if you have to go through impressive rationalizations to keep both your bible and your rifle. Gary Cooper is up to his usual all-American bland self: solid without taking up much of the spotlight, an ideal model for the impressionable audience. There are many, many intriguing points of comparison between Sergeant York and the 2014 American Sniper if anyone cares to look. It doesn’t help the film’s blunt-edged persuasive intent that it feels very long, especially—surprisingly!—toward the end when everything should be wrapping up. It’s easy to see why the film was a smash hit upon release, but it has aged far less gracefully than many of its contemporaries, especially for non-American audiences. If Sergeant York still works today, it’s largely because of Hawks’ skills and Cooper’s charisma.

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