Sergeant York is a weird landmark film when it comes to my crossing films off of the 1001 list. Not only is this the final film from 1941 that I had left to watch, but also this is the final Howard Hawks film. Hawks has 10 films on this list (including Red River, His Girl Friday and Only Angels Have Wings) and I have watched 7 of these in the last two years. Just one of those happy accidents I guess.
Some historical facts before I start. Sergeant York is a biographical film based on the life of Tennessee native Alvin York, a religious and pacifistic man who finds himself being drafted into the First World War. York only agreed to have this film be made so he could use his money to build the bible school of his dreams.
Oh, and this was a film with a profoundly anti-war feel that ended up becoming incredibly popular after the Pearl Harbour. This final bit feels incredibly salient. Whilst this film isn’t exactly frank about the horrors of war, there isn’t a single person that you come across that is completely settle with war.
Considering that this was coming out when they would need manpower for the Second World War I am surprised they didn’t actually go whole hog on the patriotism angle. I’m glad they didn’t as that’s ended up spoiling Mrs Miniver. Instead it’s the extreme religious angle that rankled me, but that’s who York was and I bet in real life he was far more overt than in this.
As a story of an individual Sergeant York feels utterly remarkable. By remarkable I mean I take a lot of his feats with a sizeable grain of salt. So much is made of his ability as a sharpshooter that actually seeing what he is meant to have been able to do feels like someone found a way to play Skyrim with the most forgiving auto-aim in gaming history. Then again, I know nothing about marksmanship so maybe he was just this fantastic.
Speaking of fantastic – full praise has to be given to Gary Cooper as Sergeant York himself. I know that, retroactively, some people think that Orsen Welles deserved the Best Actor award over Cooper… but I would wholeheartedly disagree. This is one of the few times where I have really gotten behind a Gary Cooper performance (I said performance, as I have always found him dashing). Yes, the other is his turn in High Noon.
I came in expecting something schmaltzy and instead I got something that felt earnest, even if it had a slight propaganda tinge in the beginning of the third act. It’s worth a watch on a grey winter morning.