Riley Smith’s Review of Sergeant York (1941)

The film Sergeant York is based on the life of Alvin C. York’s 1928 autobiography Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary. The real Alvin York repeatedly refused producer Jesse Lasky’s requests to make the movie, but York eventually agreed so he could use the profits to finance an interdenominational Bible school under the one condition that Gary Cooper star in it. The source material being an autobiography and the focus on Cooper highlight an interesting aspect of the novel; unlike many World War One works where individuality is taken away, this film focuses more on York as a person than the war or any groups as a whole. Sergeant York is thought to be a fairly accurate representation of the real story because the people it is based on pushed for accuracy. The movie was very successful, ranking as the highest grossing movie of 1941 and a press release dated July 2, 1941 states that Sergeant York was the first motion picture to be made into a stage play. At the 14th Academy Awards, the film was widely recognized with many nominations and two awards as Gary Cooper won Oscars Best Actor and William Holmes won Best Film Editing. 

In the beginning of the movie, set in spring 1916, Alvin York causes trouble in town and drinks too much; his mother, Mrs. York, is very worried about him and asks the pastor to talk to him. After almost making a life-altering mistake, Alvin is struck by lightning and becomes a devout Christian. When he is drafted, he faces a religious dilemma and applies to be a conscientious objector. The movie then follows him on his journey in the war after his application is denied. Overall, I found the movie to be well done. Since the movie was made in 1941, the lack of advanced production technique puts a lot of focus on the actors. Cooper has an impressive performance as he is very believable in the small-town role as well as a competent soldier. One of the best parts of the film is how genuine his connections with the other residents of Pall Mall appear. They are a tight knit community and this is an interesting contrast to what we see on the warfront. However, there is not as heavy a focus on York’s bond with his fellow soldiers as most scenes involving them are primarily for comic relief and there are not many emotionally impactful scenes where he interacts with other soldiers. Compelling source material and strong acting create an endearing combination of characters in the film; while York stands out as the one audiences feel the most connected to, his fiance, pastor, and mother contribute to the storyline and deliver the film’s emotional impact. 

While the movie is primarily set in Pall Mall, which is located in northern Tennessee near the Kentucky border, it was filmed in various locations in California. The small town setting is important because York has a deep connection to the land and the natural world has a large role in his life, such as his desire to buy land, and he goes into nature to reflect on going to war. He says “Fellow’s got to have his roots somewhere,” reinforcing how important his home is, and therefore how important the setting is. There are not a lot of extra elements added to the setting, which forces audiences to appreciate nature’s role as well as the acting. The war scenes were created with the help of a military technical director as there were specific aspects of the Battle of Argonne the producers wanted to include. York’s strategy to capture the German prisoners, which mirrored how he hunted Turkeys at home, was replicated to be as accurate as possible. Throughout the film, the lighting is fairly dark, which makes the flashes more jarring, especially when York is struck by lightning. The set enhances the already engaging storyline which traces York’s journey in faith, love, and war. When I watched the film, I was surprised by how little screen time the war has in the film as he does not actually go to war until over halfway through, but ultimately this emphasizes his humanity and shows how war pulls young men out of their plans. 

The movie begins with an on-screen text message thanking those who consented to be in it and states they pray for a day without war. But, since the movie came out right before the US entered WWII, it actually increased enlistment as men signed up for the army right after viewing the film. This begins a chain of conflicting messages within the movie as it can both be seen as anti and pro war. There are symbolic messages about the war’s senselessness. For instance, showing York and all the men going about their day to day lives in their small town with working towards land, interacting with each other, etc is an excellent way to demonstrate how the war is a politicians war, not the war of the men actually fighting it. Mrs. York and her daughter discuss the war as the daughter asks “Ma what are they-a fighting for ” and she replies “I don’t a-rightly know,” which is a symbol of how little people understood of the war, especially those in the country removed from politics. The American perspective, especially one from a man in a small town in Tennessee is an interesting added layer because Americans were traveling across the sea to fight the war so it felt especially useless since it did not even really protect America. As York leaves home, reassuring his family he will return, one cannot help but think of all the men who made that same promise and never came back. Furthermore, York’s religious views are certainly anti war, especially his epiphany as in the beginning of the film he participates in a fist fight over nothing serious(which can be seen as a microcosm for the lack of purpose in the war), but then completely changes his ways even forgiving the men who swindled him. However, there are more subtle pro war themes as a result of production choices. All of the soldiers in the film look like men; the casting does not accurately represent how young many of the men were. Other pro-war elements in the film include how little of the film is actually dedicated to York in battle, very few graphic deaths, and the portrayal of York’s awards after fighting. The movie’s idealized ending most likely contributed to the increased enlistment as Sergeant York is not injured and does not exhibit any severe traumatic effects from the war as the government rewards his actions with the land, which was his lifelong dream, as the movie ends with York and his fiancee preparing for their new life. In some respects it is sweet and enjoyable, but ultimately it is not realistic and could be extremely damaging for a questioning young man to see as it would encourage him to go to war. The movie is a bit lengthy, but is worth the watch for anyone interested in movies based on true stories. 

Works Cited

“Sergeant York.” (1941) – Turner Classic Movies, Turner Classics, 2022, 

For some more information on conscientious objectors in the Great War, check out this article!

https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-conscientious-objection#:~:text=Around%2016%2C000%20men%20refused%20to,were%20known%20as%20conscientious%20objectors.