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Sergeant York (1941)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Sergeant York (1941)

In director Howard Hawks' true, inspirational, but unusual biographical (biopic) story, it told of the Great War's biggest war hero (Alvin York), and was the highest grossing film of the year; it was a sensitive, affecting, and compassionate portrayal of York with fast-paced action sequences and some wartime propagandizing (as the US was becoming more involved in WWII). The war film was heightened by Max Steiner's effective musical score:

  • the opening credits sequence included a boom shot down a Tennessee river
  • the authentic war saga offered a portrait of poor mountain boy and sharp-shooting farmer Alvin C. York (Best Actor-winning Gary Cooper) living in the backwoods Tennessee Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf before the US' entrance into the Great War in Europe in 1916
  • his hot-headed brawling, drunken and hell-raising life in Pall Mall changed when he fell in love with grown-up, local, teenaged Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie); although attracted to Alvin, when he asked for her hand in marriage, she rejected him: ("I wouldn't have you on a Christmas tree, Alvin York! Hmm, fine husband you'd make!...Folks say you're no good except for fightin' and hell raisin' and I'm thinkin' they're plumb right"); to impress her, and to steal her away from a rival suitor, Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield), the determined Alvin worked hard to buy some farming bottomland for them sometime in the future as he promised ("There ain't nothing I can't get if I set my mind to it")
In Backwoods Tennessee: Alvin York (Gary Cooper) Fell in Love with Local Girl Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie)
  • later, when an angered and bitter Alvin sought revenge for being cheated out of some bottomland, he had a life-changing religious experience signaled by a bolt of lightning during a thunderstorm; as he was riding along on muleback, a flash of lightning struck closeby, and he awoke on the ground after being thrown off; he noticed that his mangled rifle (with a split barrel) had served as a lightning rod and had saved his life
  • Alvin's fortunes turned for the better when he forgave Mr. Tomkins (Erville Alderson) for selling his promised bottomland to Zeb, and then Zeb offered to let Alvin till the land on a share-crop basis as a way to buy the land sometime in the future; he also learned from a spiteful Gracie, who sternly lectured him while wielding a large knife, that she only wanted him (and not Zeb), and that she didn't care about bottomland or a beef cow: ("If I wanted Zeb Andrews for a husband, I reckon I could get him without your actin' so noble. I done kissed ya, didn't I?... Well, I don't go around kissin' men I ain't gonna be a-marryin'. Now you be a-listening' to me. Am I marryin' a piece of land?...Or a beef critter?...Or a field of corn? No, it's you I'm marryin', ain't nobody else in this here world. Are you hearin' me?")
  • the Great War progressed and by mid-1917, Alvin refused to register for the draft after he had become deeply religious and pacifistic; he vowed to Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan): ("I ain't a-goin' to war. War is killin', and the book's agin' killin! So war is agin' the book!"); his request to register as a conscientious objector (CO) was denied, and he was reluctantly drafted into military service after all appeals failed
  • after a tearful goodbye to Gracie, Alvin was sent to Camp Gordon in Georgia, and impressed his superiors with his great marksmanship by hitting five consecutive bulls-eyes

Boot Training Camp: York in Camp Gordon in Georgia

Five Bulls-Eyes in a Row During Military Training
  • in a crossroads about the direction of his life during a short leave of absence at home, as he sat on a rock ledge, he read the Biblical passage in Matthew: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" - he decided to accept a promotion to the status of Corporal, and was shipped out to Europe to the war front
  • York heroically fought in the Great War during many fast-paced action scenes, including tracking shots of York's scramble through no-man's land; most famously in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in 1918, Sgt. York (almost single-handedly) killed about 25 Germans (some were in a machine gun nest) to save his comrades - by using the tactic of sneaking up on them from behind and picking them off from the rear first: "Just like a flock of turkeys"; he also forced a white-flag truce and captured a large regiment of 132 German soldiers, and escorted them to a camp with only 7 other soldiers

In the War Trenches During the Argonne Forest Battle

York Single-Handedly Cleaned Out a German "Machine-Gun Nest"
Marksman York During the War
  • York became very disheartened by the ambush-killing of his best friend "Pusher" Ross (George Tobias), a Bronx NY subway guard, who died from a grenade blast at close range, thrown by one of the captured Germans
  • afterwards, York explained his reasoning about why he changed his mind about killing - it was to save US lives: "When I hear them machine guns a-goin' and all them fellas are droppin' around me, I figured that them guns was killin' hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren't nothin' anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that's what I done"
  • York became the most decorated soldier of the war both in France and US, with medal ceremonies to praise his bravery; he was lauded by Gen. John J. Pershing, the leader of the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces), and received the Congressional Medal of Honor

The Congressional Medal of Honor Presented by AEF Gen. Pershing to York

The Key to the City of NY from the Mayor

Homecoming in Tennessee - Greeted by Gracie
  • upon his return to the US, he was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in NYC, the key to NYC from the city's mayor, and numerous temptations of wealth and fame; he was assailed with business propositions by merchandizers to promote their products or to make public appearances, but he refused to profit from serving his patriotric duty: ("What we done in France was somethin' we had to do. Some fellows done it ain't a-comin' back. So, the way I figure, things like that ain't for buyin' and sellin'. So I reckon I'll have to refuse 'em. Would you be a-tellin' them that for me, please? And tell 'em I'm a-going home?")
  • he soon chose to return to his Tennessee roots, where he received a major homecoming welcome, and to his surprise, he was gifted farmland and a house on 200 acres of prime bottomland by the people of his home state. Now, there would be "no need to wait" to get married, according to Gracie: ("It's yours, Alvin. It's all yours. They give it to you. The people of the state of Tennessee for what you done....And it's for us"). Alvin responded with complete disbelief: "The Lord sure does move in mysterious ways"

Gracie to Alvin: "I wouldn't have you on a Christmas tree, Alvin York! Hmm, fine husband you'd make!"

The Determined Alvin to Gracie: "There ain't nothing I can't get if I set my mind to it"

A Bolt of Lightning Struck Alvin's Rifle - Saving His Life

Gracie Promising Herself to Alvin: ("It's you I'm marryin'...")

Alvin Was Opposed to Going to War: ("I ain't a-goin' to war. War is killin', and the book's agin' killin! So war is agin' the book!")

Alvin's Tearful Goodbye to Gracie

On a Rock Ledge, Alvin Read the Words: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's"

The Death of Alvin's Friend "Pusher" Ross (George Tobias)

York's Reasoning About Changing His Opinion About Killing

Return to Tennessee: With 200 Acres of Farmland and a House - A Gift From the State of Tennessee


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