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.
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'
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
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