Alvin York a hillbilly sharpshooter transforms himself from ruffian to religious pacifist. He is then called to serve his country and despite deep religious and moral objections to fighting becomes one of the most celebrated American heroes of WWI.
Just like a turkey shoot!
Alvin York of Tennessee was a simple backwoods farm boy who liked a drink and a scrap, then one day, fuelled by drink and anger in his heart, an event gave him religion and a new found respect for life. However, the advent of World War 1, and his subsequent call to duty, tore his pacifist state of mind apart, torn between a patriotic sense of duty and his religious beliefs, Alvin York of Tennessee was to become the name on everyone's lips in 1918.
Sergeant York is pretty much close to being the perfect template for biography movies. It stands out (as it stands up proud) because the makers have the willingness to tell the tale from the humble beginnings of the central protagonist. They then ease it through to the end without feeling the need to rush there. Some allegations of it being a tad slow for its own good may well be valid, but for those of us who crave ultimate detail and flesh on the bones of main characters, well Sergeant York is a peerless joy. By the time that the critical point in York's life is realised, we the audience care so much because we have been party to his life story. From hard working farm boy to falling in love with Gracie, and onto his World War 1 heroics, Alvin York feels like one of us because of the work that all involved have done here.
Producer Jesse Lasky literally spent years trying to persuade the real life York into letting him film his story, the humble and modest Tennessean kept refusing until finally relenting with some conditions. One was that the proceeds go to charity (truly befitting the man that), two was that a non-smoking actress play his wife Gracie, and another that Gary Cooper play the title role!, well he got his wishes, and what a result it turned out to be. Cooper was initially against taking the job but soon relented after a meeting with York himself. Cooper then requested that Howard Hawks direct, which turned out to be the case - but only after the studio failed to attract Michael Curtiz, Henry Koster and a few other notable directors of the time.
As it turned out this was a perfect subject for Hawks, Alvin York boasting all the human traits in a man that Hawks admired, and with Gary Cooper operating on full tilt the resulting picture is a stirring emotive classic that never falls to gung-ho over bearing theatrics. In fact the critical war sequences here are wonderfully subtle. Backing Hawks up is the excellent Sol Polito, whose photography is precious - have a look at one scene as York sits on a cliff edge with his hound, contemplating his being in the war, it's shot in half silhouette and just gives me tingles on my spine.
Critics of the time were mixed on Sergeant York, and many people felt that the film was over propagandist in its aims?, well time has been kind to the film and personally I find the story, and the technical brilliance on show, to be truly remarkable. 10/10
Warner Bros. Pictures by Howard Hawks, Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston, Alvin C. York, Tom Skeyhill, Sam Cowan.
Stars: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias.
Genres: Biography, Drama, History, Romance, War
Keywords: patriotism hero world war i u.s. army war firearm conversion conscientious objector infantry one man army hillbilly war hero war propaganda
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