Revisiting Sergeant York: Why the 1941 Gary Cooper-starrer, while flawed, exemplifies Golden Era Hollywood

Srikanth Srinivasan

Sep 28, 2019 10:12:27 IST

'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read moe from the series here.

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Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), starring Gary Cooper as World War I hero Alvin C York, was the biggest box-office draw of the year and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Even so, it isn’t cherished the same way the classics of the period are. The film doesn’t feature in critics’ polls nor do cinephiles count it among director Hawks’ finest. There are reasons for this.

Produced by the Warner Brothers, Sergeant York is ostensibly a prestige picture, very different in tone from the studio’s lean, mean films about the “little guy”. Intended to celebrate Alvin York’s personality and exploits, it’s too reverential of its subject, taking artistic omission or modification as sacrilege — understandable given that the studio had a tough time convincing York to let them make a film of his life. Moreover, it’s not as muscular and economical as the regular Hawks picture, with its pious solemnity and overlong acts and coda.

Yet, Sergeant York is full of those fruitful tensions and contradictions typical of Golden Era Hollywood — that glorious period of film production between the 1920s and the 1950s.

The film opens with a church service by Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) in a village tucked away in the mountains of Tennessee. As the pastor talks about God’s stray sheep, he’s interrupted by the sound of gunshots. It’s York and his pals, drunk and raising hell on a Sunday morning. Disappointed, York’s hardy, suffering mother (Margaret Wycherly) requests the pastor to pump some sense into her wayward son. The pastor tells York that a “fella’s gotta have roots in something outside his own self”. The sermon doesn’t move York, but he does change.

 Revisiting Sergeant York: Why the 1941 Gary Cooper-starrer, while flawed, exemplifies Golden Era Hollywood

Poster for Sergeant York

The first half of the film unfolds like a religious parable, tracing a boorish, vengeful drunk’s transformation into a forgiving Christian. The first turning point comes in the form of Gracie (Joan Leslie), the girl York intends to marry. To that end, he works day and night to buy some “bottom land”, a piece of field in the valley more fertile than his barren ranch on the hills. When cheated out of the deal by the landowner, he sets out to kill him, only to be struck by lighting on his way. Saved by what appears to be a miracle, York trudges into the church, having seen the light.

This Damascus conversion is only the first of York’s two major transformations. After York, the champion of turkey hunting, turns non-violent, America decides to enter the Great War. The year is 1917 and, after an unsuccessful attempt at abstaining from drafting, York enlists as a conscientious objector. His sharp-shooting skills at the training grounds gain him a promotion, but he refuses it. His superiors have a long conversation with him, handing him a book of American history, and emphasising the price one must pay for freedom and Christian living.

Still unable to reconcile the commandment against killing and his duty to protect life, York retreats to the countryside, where another supernatural intervention turns his attention to Matthew 22:21 in the Bible. This military reasoning — now a foundational belief of American foreign policy — relieves York of his dilemma and he submits to earthly authority with gusto: not only does he kill German soldiers, but he almost singlehandedly captures 132 more in a bloody operation.

The film follows York’s outward spiral, from his self-centred individualism to his coupledom, to his community membership, and finally his American citizenship. This corresponds with an opening up of the film’s consciousness as it moves from the secluded life in the hills, to the national melting pot that is the army, and to the veritable international forum that is the war trenches. Hawks is in his elements when dealing with the egalitarian camaraderie of the recruits at the army camp, and the idea of inverting the village topography in the war field is interesting. But for the most part, he’s clamped down by the material’s reverence.

Hawks and his cinematographer Sol Polito shoot a good part of the film in Warners’ house style, full of lights and shadows, but York’s transformation scenes are conceived with a preciousness and sentimentalism closer to Frank Capra territory. His second conversion is a baroque sequence filmed on the edge of a rock, with the silhouette of York and his dog set against the sunset, as the conflicting demands of the pastor and the captain on the soundtrack. Once York’s moral quandary is resolved, the film goes down the hagiographic slope.

In his Oscar-winning role here, Gary Cooper refines the naïf character he developed in Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). Forty years of age, Cooper interprets the character with a boyishness endearing in its absurdity. He grooms himself awkwardly in front of a mirror as “Ma” fixes his pants and makes his meals. His characterisation as a great shooter who eschews violence gives him a power that pays off at the end. That he could finally kill the German soldiers the same way he shot turkeys back home bestows on him an aura of innocence beyond corruption.

Cooper conveys his entire character with a play of his fingers, especially his thumb: he adjusts his suspenders, dabbles with “bottom land” soil on a plate, turns the page with a lick of his thumb, hesitates with his left hand and, more remarkably, wets the aim of his rifle with saliva before shooting — a single gesture that seals his status as a son of the soil untainted by war, business and the big city life.

Sergeant York isn’t significant, however, for Cooper’s performance as much as for its crucial historical situation. It was made at a time when America had not yet entered the Second World War. The political discourse was divided between isolationists, such as Charles Lindbergh, who didn’t want America to get involved in Europe and those, like the Communist Party of America, who wanted to intervene on humanitarian grounds. These tensions are palpable in Sergeant York, made by Warner Brothers, the first studio to pull its films out of Nazi Germany. Both producers, Jesse Lasky and Hal Wallis were Jewish, as were two of the film’s four writers. One of the co-writers is filmmaker John Huston, a well-known anti-Nazi. Their film clearly calls for an American intervention. The facts from World War I are superimposed on current events. The Germans officers in the film are cunning and back-stabbing, a far cry from Jean Renoir’s uprooted gentlemen, while Britishers and Frenchmen are good blokes.

One the other hand, the film is directed by someone known to be casually anti-Semitic and fronted by the symbol of cornfed Americana, Cooper, who testified against suspected communists in Hollywood after the war. The film’s duality is apparent in its ambivalence towards York’s village. With their blissful ignorance of the war and geographical isolation, the villagers are depicted as being on the wrong by the script, but Hawks treats them with an affection and respect that files down their rough edges. The discrepancy was, of course, resolved by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour months after the film’s release. Now, to be in the war and to be an American and a conscientious Christian were not a contradiction in terms.

The film’s success is testified by the soldiers it encouraged to enlist in the army and by the fact that Sergeant York was presented as an evidence of communist influence in Hollywood during Senate hearings in September 1941. By December that year, though, all this was a footnote.

Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B

Updated Date: Oct 08, 2019 12:42:26 IST