BY SHANE CRABTREE
When you hear words such as farmer, conscientious objector and medal of honor, what do you think? No doubt, there is a little bit of confusion, as the aforementioned words have no complete association. But give it approximately five minutes — after that, you should be able to see the word correlations.
This week, we will be looking at “Sergeant York,” a 1941 non-fiction biographical film directed by Howard Hawks. Starring our very own Gary Cooper, the lead actor for “High Noon,” the film transports viewers around the world, from 1916 rural Tennessee to the trenches of World War I France and Belgium, all the while following the life story of one man — Alvin York, a down-to-earth country boy who was challenged to a task that seemed nearly superhuman.
Hawks starts viewers off with a glimpse of everyday life in the pre-World War I Tennessee countryside, where Mother York, played by Margaret Wycherly, overhears a group of townsfolk discussing her ne’r-do-good son, Alvin (Cooper), who spends more time drinking and gambling than working. However, Alvin has one redeeming quality — he is a self-made master sharpshooter.
When young Alvin is not out on the town, however, he is hard at work plowing his farmstead’s rocky hillside and hunting annoying, chicken-thieving foxes. During one such foxhunt, Alvin meets the girl next door, Gracie Williams (portrayed by Joan Leslie), with whom he falls madly in love. Determined to win his crushes attention and to break his family out of their financial crisis, Alvin enters a marksmanship competition, the winnings being the most fertile farmland in the region. When Alvin is cheated of his prize, he enters a rage and attempts revenge on his rival.
The film’s climax occurs when Alvin is drafted into combat in spite of filing as a conscientious objector, meaning he refused to fight due to his religious background. This is where Hawks goes to work, changing the emotion and pace from a relaxed, almost spiritual level, to a high-speed, dark and violent one. Placed in the center of the Argonne Offensive, where some of the most brutal trench warfare occurred, Hawks and Cooper cooperate to formulate a vivid reenactment of trench warfare at its worst.
There is no question that this film comes highly recommended. It does not carry the feel of a 1941 film, as it moves quickly and hits hard emotionally. And obviously, if “Sergeant York” was not a good film, it would not be part of this column, so certainly make the effort to check it out. Be assured, there will be no regrets.