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Sergeant York - A Classic Biopic

Gary Cooper as a Real-Life War Hero

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Our dashing hero

Sergeant York DVD Cover

The biography of an American hero of the first world war, Sergeant York firmly established Gary Cooper as a great leading man. A backwoods farmer from Tennessee, Alvin York wrestled with his pacifist views and his duty to God and country, and eventually won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courage in wartime France.

The real-life York refused to allow money-making ventures based on his battlefield experiences, but relented and allowed a movie to be made when he saw the rise of fascism in Europe in the '30s and '40s. The film become a huge hit in 1941, and earned the Best Actor Oscar for Cooper.

The Plot

We meet York as a young farmer supporting his widowed mother and siblings, a crack shot who works hard but takes to drinkin’, fightin,’ and fussin’ of a Saturday night. When he is unfairly denied a piece of prime farmland he’s worked day and night to buy, York almost takes a violent revenge, but a literal bolt from the blue shows him the error of his ways. Alvin York becomes a deeply religious man, and is on his way to a peaceful life with his sweetheart, Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie).

Although the war in Europe is all but unknown in his secluded valley, even York is called to sign up for the draft. With the help of his pastor, he applies for exemption as a conscientious objector, but is called to serve. He’s quickly identified as a natural leader and an exceptional shot, but his superiors know he's still deeply conflicted. They ask him to read American history alongside of the Bible, and York returns to Tennessee to decide whether he can reconcile his pacifist duty to God with his duty to his country.

The climax of the movie details York’s truly astonishing heroism, as he takes out several German machine gun nests (using backwoods turkey-shooting technique) and captures more than 130 German soldiers with only eight American troops left to his command.

The Cast of 'Sergeant York'

Cooper is appealing as the lanky, plain-spoken farmer, and he looks terrific in the World War I uniform. Margaret Wycherly shines as his long-suffering and steadfast mother, and look for a young and hollow-eyed June Lockhart as his younger sister.

A spry and slender Walter Brennan plays York’s preacher, and a roster of solid character actors fill out the movie as farming neighbors, Army companions and friends, and the dignitaries who welcome York back from the war.

It’s shame so much of the movie was obviously shot indoors on sound stages, when the real mountains of York’s Tennessee home would have suited the sweep of the story so much better. Still, the meticulous sets evoke the hardscrabble life of pre-war American farms.

The Bottom Line

Sentimental and a little slow by modern standards, Sergeant York is an inspiring and deeply patriotic movie. York’s hesitation to go to war, and his ultimate decision that he can save more lives by the use of force than he can by refusing to fight is a moral dilemma that faces every soldier - and every nation - in time of war.

The real Alvin York’s refusal to profit from his heroism is well told here, and a reminder that we could use more heroes like Sergeant York.

If you liked 'Sergeant York'...

You may like other Gary Cooper films, such as High Noon, Friendly Persuasion, or The Pride of the Yankees.

'Sergeant York' at a Glance:

Year: 1941, black and white
Director: Howard Hawks
Running Time: 134 minutes
Studio: Warner Brothers
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