Gary Cooper delivers a marvelous performance as the acclaimed World War 1 hero in Sergeant York but the film is propaganda of the era.
Alvin C. York’s (Gary Cooper) story was a dream for any studio executive in the 1930s. Here’s a guy who was not only a religious man but a grew up poor in Tennessee. York may have been a pacifist but conscientious objectors were required to serve. His service record includes killing two dozen German soldiers and capturing another 132 soldiers during the Battle of Argonne. This is a story that practically sells itself to any audience!
It is honestly impossible to address the film without mentioning the elephant in the room. This was necessary propaganda in order to get an isolationist America to enter World War II. In fact, the screenwriters had to change some of the actual story for this reason. Studios tried several times in getting a film made by York refused many offers. Finally, Warner Bros. made York an offer he couldn’t refuse. Upon coming back to the States, York would tour the country while advocating against war.
Because Five Came Back includes John Huston, there’s plenty of insight into Sergeant York in the Mark Harris book. York may have been an American hero upon return but he is not without his flaws. Harris uses the term “unreconstructed racism” in discussing the soldier. York even refers to producer Jesse L. Lasky as a “fat little Jew.” This is the type of language that would get a person cancelled in 2020!
Gary Cooper may have won an Oscar for the role but the actor didn’t initially think he was right. At 40 years old, could Cooper be able to portray York during his youth? Watching an older actor play somebody at a way younger age can certainly take someone out of a film. But Cooper’s age really does not matter in this film. What matters is that he is able to build up military enlistments. The message of this film is that you can be anti-war in general but still rise to the duty of serving the nation in war. Again, this is the main reason for telling York’s story at all. Or what goes for the Hollywood version of York’s story.
As late as 1939, York was still speaking of an isolationist America. The war outbreak in Europe led York to change his tune. Suddenly, York goes from being an isolationist to campaigning for American intervention. Who else to turn to but an American hero from the Great War?
When John Huston took over as screenwriter, he added things to the film that led Warners to pay hush money to York’s platoon mates. This film had to work not just as a Hollywood story but propaganda to intervene in Europe. York’s post-war life isn’t really in the film for this reason. Instead, we get the York who fought in the war–only Huston exaggerated and went overboard. As Harris notes, Huston sounded “faintly embarrassed” about his work on the film.
Initially, William Wyler was asked to direct the film. Wyler asked off because the story didn’t appeal to him and Goldwyn loaned him to Fox for How Green Was My Valley. Wyler wouldn’t last long on the film because John Ford ended up behind the camera as director.
A two-disc special edition was released on DVD back in 2006. Warner Archive gave the 1941 classic its first-ever release on Blu-ray. I’ll get to the bonus features shortly but this release does not include Richard Schickel’s documentary on Gary Cooper.
Sergeant York is an instance in which filmmakers knew they were making propaganda for American intervention during World War II and it shows throughout the film.
- Commentary by Film Historian Jeanine Basinger
- Making of Featurette Sergeant York: Of God and Country
- Classic Cartoon Porky’s Preview
- Vintage Short Lions for Sale
DIRECTOR: Howard Hawks
SCREENWRITERS: Abem Finkel & Harry Chandlee and Howard Koch & John Huston
CAST: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges