Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly
Why am I watching Sergeant York a second time? Well, two main reasons. One: it’s been several years since I saw it, and I owe it to the film to watch it a second time before writing this piece. But that’s not the real reason. The second reason is that the dang thing clocks in about two and a half hours and it’s taking up a lot of space on our DVR hard drive, so I might as well get it over with and watch it again so I can delete it and free up the space.
The film follows true life hero Alvin York (Cooper) starting with his humble beginnings in Tennessee as a wayward drunk. Inspired by the pretty Gracie (Leslie), he tries to turn his life around and become an honest laborer, even finding religion with the help of the pastor (Brennan). Just as he does, however, America joins World War One and Alvin is forced to join up despite the fact that he objects to killing based on his newfound Bible-motivated pacifism. After a battle with himself, he finds it morally right to fight for his country and pulls off an impressive act of heroism. But really, Alvin just wants to get back to Tennessee, to Gracie, and to his mother (Wycherly).
Y’know, I’m really coming around on Howard Hawks. I had no idea this film was his when I watched it the second time around (I wasn’t paying attention, clearly, during the credits), but now that I am aware of that fact, I can see these little Hawksian touches I’ve come to recognize in his other films that are in 1001 Movies. And, while I’m on it, dude has eleven – ELEVEN – films in 1001 Movies. That’s more than the likes of Buñuel, or Bergman, or Wilder. And there’s really a pretty remarkable range in terms of subject matter and types of films in those eleven movies.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t hold Sergeant York to be the pinnacle of Hawks’ filmmaking abilities – in fact, it’s probably the last one of his in 1001 Movies I would choose to watch – but I do see his sly sense of off-kilter humor, even of subverting expectations, that graces the likes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rio Bravo and Red River and His Girl Friday. It’s in the way Alvin meekly, while inebriated, waits for his mother to throw a pail of water in his face. It’s in the bar fight scene, played far more for laughs than danger or poor moral choices. It’s in the traveling salesman trying to hawk ladies’ bloomers to the pastor. It’s in the wholly charmingly comical romance, one that never gets too sexy, between Gracie and Alvin. For a movie called Sergeant York, Alvin spends most of his screen time not a sergeant at all, but of course, that’s on par for Hawks. You’re expecting a war film with a title like that, but it’s truly not. Far more about York the farmer than York the soldier, it’s not at all what I remembered or expected. But that’s Hawks for you.
I remember being bored stiff the first time I sat through – yes, sat through – Sergeant York. I wasn’t as bored this time, but it’s still a bit of a ridiculous pill to swallow. My best summation of Sergeant York is Hollywood sanctioned propaganda. With World War Two already raging in Europe and the US awfully close to being drawn into the fray, Sergeant York’s ridiculous aw-shucks, we’re-on-the-side-of-right theme makes sense, even if it doesn’t make it palatable. With its choice of a hero being a person who undergoes several rather unbelievable changes in attitude, all while remaining ridiculously humble, it’s clear that Sergeant York intended to inspire a contemporary audience to adopt similar philosophies. There is no subtlety – none at all – in the film, a fact which rubs me the wrong way, frankly. It’s waving its American flag from the opening to the end, all while preaching loudly from the pulpit that it’s best to remain humble and serve the Lord. It’s awfully hard to swallow this kind of, well, propaganda in this day and age. But then, I keep on telling myself, this film wasn’t intended for me. It was intended for a different audience. And Hawks’ episodic structure, along with his odd little touches of humor, made it a little easier to sit through a second time around. But it was still a bit of a chore.
I like Gary Cooper, but I don’t love him, and I certainly don’t love him as Alvin York. Frankly, I don’t think Cooper is a very good actor. Whenever I see a film of his, he’s always himself. He’s always, ALWAYS, Gary Cooper. He can’t help himself. He never morphs into anything other than who he is. He was never Alvin York to me, just… Gary Cooper, the same Gary Cooper from Ball of Fire, or even High Noon. He was just wearing a different costume in this film. When you add onto this his frankly painful rural Southern accent, and I’m sorry Mr. Cooper, but I’m laughing at you. Hearing him say with such rigid delivery “Them thar hills” is so far from believable, I dare you not to laugh either. He’s not exactly helped along by his fellow actors, with Brennan playing his usual caricature (this time he’s a preacher, that’s totally different!), Wycherly as York’s unbelievable saint of a mother, Joan Leslie’s histrionics as giggly Gracie, and York’s fellow soldiers portrayed as nothing more than a series of one-dimensional heavily-accented cartoons. Put all of these together, and you have a mass of performances that don’t really do much to help the movie.
Overall, I liked Sergeant York a bit more in its second go-around due to Hawks’ slightly crazy touches of humor and zaniness, even in this, a piece of propaganda. But it’s still propaganda, and utterly unsubtle propaganda at that. And Gary Cooper is still awkward as all get-out with his stupid Southern accent. And it’s still long. I like Howard Hawks, I do, but this is not my favorite film of his.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10. Small note: I recognized Howard Da Silva in a small role as one of Alvin’s Tennessee neighbors, which made me happy, as Da Silva played Ben Franklin in 1776, which I love.