Some five months before the United States entered WWII after Pearl Harbor, Sergeant York (DVD 10210), a biographical film about the life of decorated American solider Alvin C. York, was released. At its heart, the movie resonates a tale of an ordinary man who excels under extraordinary circumstances.
Most of the movie deals with the already adult York, a poor farmer who helps support his siblings and widowed mother in rural Tennessee. Remembered as an exceptional marksman, in his earlier years, York was just as notorious for his fighting and heavy drinking. Somewhat miraculously, a key scene in the film occurs when a drunk York is riding to exact revenge on a neighbor for a soured land deal. Suddenly, lightning strikes York’s rifle and knocks him off his mule. Similar to the Biblical conversion of Paul, York wanders into a nearby church and undergoes a religious conversion.
York does not actually appear as a uniformed soldier until about 1 hour 15 minutes into the movie. Thereafter, he is slowly converted from a conscientious objector to being free from self-doubt in the face of enemy fire. His actual deeds can be easily explored elsewhere, but ultimately, he single-handedly killed 20 enemies, while he and seven
others captured 4 officers and 128 German soldiers. His heroic feats immediately made him a national hero and something of a war celebrity. At the end of the movie, York is offered commercialization opportunities that amounted to some $250,000 ($3.5 million today). Yet the ending reflected York’s own humble origins, and simply requests to return home to Tennessee.
York’s feats from October 1918 initially received little press, until an article titled “The Second Elder Gives Battle” appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in April 1919. The article established the themes that dominated York’s legend, as well as those in the film: the mountaineer, his religious faith and skill with firearms, patriotic, plainspoken and unsophisticated, an uneducated man who “seems to do everything correctly by intuition.”
He lived out the rest of his days rather modestly, and continued to farm, hunt, attend church, and support local charities. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 2, 1964 at age 76. Afterward, his widow sold his farm to the state of Tennessee where it continues as the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park.
The film itself was based on the diary York kept over the course of his stint in the military and the making of the film again reflected York’s humble virtues. He had earlier refused several attempts to turn his story into a film, but seeking to open an interdenominational Bible school, he relented and negotiated the film contract himself. Despite a few isolationists decrying the film as propaganda, Sergeant York received 11 Oscar nominations and was a huge success with audiences. It became the highest grossing film of 1941, and earned Gary Cooper the first of his two Best Actor Oscar awards.
In terms of all the stories and films about WWI, Sergeant York stands somewhat apart. It is not a story about the devastation in the trenches, mass violence, or total war. Despite the underlying religious nature of York’s film experience, in many of these respects, Sergeant York reflects an aspect of WWI film historiography that sometimes receives less attention: that of a generally true story of an individual war hero. This also all occurred at a time when the American public needed further confirmation of U.S. involvement in WWI. Later, he reflected somewhat critically, “I can’t see that we did any good. There’s as much trouble now as there was when we were over there. I think the slogan ‘A war to end war.’ is all wrong.” Yet, York remarkably seemed to live his life the same way he approached his war fame, not completely proud of what he did, but he recognized it had to be done.