Friday, May 1, 2009

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941)

Gary Cooper was a boyish 41 when he played the part of the young Tennessee prodigy Alvin York, first a great tear-away drunk, then a lightning-struck Christian guided by the densely-eyebrowed Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan), then a love-struck suitor of Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), and finally a soldier of great courage and initiative, both a sharpshooter and a natural strategist on the battlefield. But first, for the sake of the story, he had some growing up to do, which happens when he falls for Gracie and decides to buy some bottomland, selling a mule and some furs and a clock and other stuff, and working very hard for a lot of people. In the two months he’s got to raise the rest of the money, he works desperately hard and with a sort of glow of dedication. But at the end of the time he’s just a little short, asks for a few more days, and the geezer with the land for sale reluctantly consents. So Alvin goes to a shooting match and naturally enough wins it all—but the geezer shows up to say he’s sold the land to Alvin’s rival. Alvin looks thunderous, Gracie tells him it doesn’t matter, he answers that it does to him, and strides off.

When war with Germany breaks out and a draft is mandated, Alvin is set against registering because his understanding of the Bible is that God declared that killing is wrong. The Pastor helps him apply for conscientious objector status, which the government denies because the Pastor’s church is not one with a tradition of opposing war. So he goes off to the army. Somehow they learn that he tried to get a deferment and keep their eye on him—but when he behaves politely and when he shoots multiple bullseyes on the target range their opinion of him changes. He rejects an offer of promotion, but a sympathetic officer discusses biblical passages and offers him a book on American history and a furlough to read it. Alvin reads and thinks up on a mountain, and the wind opens his Bible to the passage about rendering unto Caesar those things which are Caesar’s and unto God those things which are God’s. That does it for him, and he returns, accepts the promotion to corporal, and they’re off to France.

Just as a big battle is about to happen, there’s an interlude in the trenches, during which a plucky Cockney teaches the Yanks how to ignore the incoming artillery shells that are going to miss them—and then he’s killed (a nice touch, plucky Britain and Britons, in 1941). The battle begins without the promised screening barrage, and many of Alvin’s company are killed or wounded, including his sergeant, who tells him he’s in charge. So Alvin decides that the machine guns need to be taken out and does it himself, using folksy hunting techniques. He captures 152 German soldiers (with only 8 Americans) and becomes a hero, decorated by the French, British, and American generals. Later, the sympathetic officer asks him how many Germans he killed, and Alvin answers that he doesn’t know. The way he looked at it, they were killing his men and he had to stop it, that’s all—he only killed the enemy to save lives.

A tickertape parade in New York is nice, but offers of corporate money to advertise products revolts him. He doesn’t mean to profit from what he did.
So he goes home, tells Gracie they will have to wait a few years until he can save up enough to buy their place, and she leads him to the spot where the grateful state of Tennessee has paid for the land and a house and everything. The story ends with the happy couple walking hand-in-hand towards the house.

Some other points are worth mentioning. The movie struggles between the earnest desire to portray the hillbilly folk as simple, good people and the irresistible temptation to caricature them. The way the mountain folk speak is mannered and absurd, but Cooper pulls it off, matching the quaint diction with a look of innocent gravity (his specialty). The gravity of Mother York (Margaret Wycherly) is particularly well-done; she has small, almost beady, intense eyes and a well of reserve. And there is a nice bit of character balance bringing in a Bronx subway trainman nicknamed Pusher (George Tobias) to impart a bit of urban naivete, Pusher uses his experience with trains as a metaphor for understanding the world (when he's mortally wounded his last words are something about catching the last car), just as Alvin uses hunting and mountain culture metaphors.

Finally, while the issue of Alvin’s convictions is handled cleverly, I can’t help thinking the arguments that sway him are sophistical. There is no doubt that the character is selflessly heroic in action, and it is true that the movie acknowledges he is a reluctant soldier, but the argument of patriotism is a little weak in the delivery, and especially suspect because of the swelling upsurge of sentimental-patriotic music as Alvin reads the book about American history. But of course there is a polemical thrust to WW I movies made in the early 1940s—it’s meant to show Americans going to the aid of an embattled Europe, and it’s purpose is morale-boosting, resisting isolationism, and inspiring American youth to a patriotic fervor.

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