Sunday, May 31, 2009
Movie Time: Rewind!: Sergeant York
Just been a super busy weekend and I am so far behind on posting that I am not going to get some of the things I wanted to talk about up in time this month. Still I did want to make some time for a new edition of the Rewind, where we turn back the clock and look at a great film from before the year I was born.
As this month celebrates Memorial Day I thought we would take a turn at a war picture. Specifically a film that celebrates the spirit of what Memorial Day is about and for that I chose Howard Hawk's 1941 biographical film, Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper, Walter Brennen, and Margaret Wycherly.
This film is just the sort of rousing patriotic sentiment that was so prevalent during the early 1940's. Our country was at war in Europe and movie makers were interested in keeping the patriotic spirit alive. Sergeant York was the story of the most decorated soldier of World War 1, Alvin York (Gary Cooper). York is a poor hillbilly, growing up in the backwoods of Tennessee. York is a bit of a ne'er do well as is given to drinking and fighting, much to the regret of his well meaning mother (Margaret Wycherly). York gets in fights and disrupts life in his small community, until he meets Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie). Between his new love for her and his remorse at the pain he caused his mother, Coopers converts to Christianity after a bolt of lightning strikes him on his horse.
With the help of the pastor (Walter Brennen) York turns his life around, winning a marksman contest to help raise money to buy a farm on a better piece of land. Unfortunately he is drafted into the army and sent to basic training to fight in World War 1. He tries to file as a conscientious objector due to his religious beliefs, but since his church has no official standing, he reports for duty. After completing his training, he is promoted to a corporal due to his excellent marksmanship and service. Still not wanting to fight though, a sympathetic Army Officer gives him a text on US History and a weeks leave. They both discuss the Bible and different point of views on why York should fight, and York takes the leave to think alone atop a mountain at his home.
York agrees to fight but doubts that he could ever kill. Overseas though, York's platoon is pinned under heavy gunfire and his self doubts erase after watching his friends die. Nearly single handily he surrounds the German lines and kills the Germans with such deadly accuracy, that they surrender to him. He also captures a German officer and forces troops still fighting to surrender. All told he captures 132 prisoners and returns with them to camp. York is awarded the Medal of Honor and a national hero. York returns home to huge parades and his wife, and best of all, a brand new farm to raise his family.
The movie was directed by Howard Hawks, one of his generations most versatile directors. He is able to work in noir, crime, action, adventure, comedy and all with ease. Here Hawks takes his times and really transforms the everyman Cooper from an unlikable sod to a national hero and its a change that doesn't feel forced. The war sequences are great as well. He really takes his time and lets the movie unfold. Character actors like Brennen and Wycherly really flesh out the cast and are great foils for Cooper early in the movie. Cooper himself won the Oscar that year for his portrayal and this is a film that helped sediment him into the public as the bigger than life everyman. The man who always stood for whats right even in the worst of odds.
This was the movie that made me really appreciate what Gary Cooper could bring to a role. Understatement was key. He could play the poorest or mos ignorant character, and yet find a deep meaning inside of him. He manages to make a real life hero bigger than life yet he never takes away what the real York accomplished. He kept me believing that the real reason York did these things was not for glory or duty, but because he felt to not act would have been the greater sin. To let his friends die while he sat by an did nothing would not be what God would want. That by him taking a life, he could end the war sooner
Sergeant York is a really good film. A little action and a lot of acting, all inside a wonderful film that makes you think about how you look at the world. Check out Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, voted one of the most inspirational movies of all time, and the highest grossing film of 1941. You won't be sorry.
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