Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Sergeant York (1941)

Sergeant York
I fully understand why ”Sergeant York” is on the List. I also fully understand why it won two Oscars and was nominated to a heap of other Oscars. It makes perfect sense.

To me however this is a terrible film.

There are a number of story/plot elements I find problematic in general and “Sergeant York” seems to be overflowing with them. I am terribly sorry if I am offending anybody with my views, I certainly realize they are not shared with everybody.

This is the story of the average, simply fellow who does not want any trouble, but is upright and work hard to get what he wants, which are decent things like a better outcome for his family and wife to be or later in the film, to save his outfit in the war. This is so cliché American Dream stuff and so tailored to an American audience that as an outsider I can only feel bemused.

Then we have a massive religious element. I am not a religious person and the emphasis on religious imperatives grates on me. I am perfectly fine with Alvin York having trouble killing people. I think most people have their concerns in that respect. I even do not mind that his reservations come from religious reasons. I know that the intent is to depict Alvin York and his community as a good Christian and God fearing community and that would certainly strike a chord with many people. To me it becomes an expression of the hardships these people live through. There are only two options. Either you succumb to despair, drinking and idleness or you find support in the religion and the congregation to keep you afloat. There is no middle ground.

The patriotic element: I can understand why people may feel very patriotic about their country and I actually do not have a problem with that although the concept of dying for your country has gotten a bad ring to it with suicide bombers and the like.  The trouble here lies with the argumentation that Thou Shall not Kill unless you do it fighting for your country. Alvin York does some soul searching and arrives at the conclusion that that sounds fair enough. Notwithstanding that the fighting takes place in Europe in a war witch is the result up the biggest diplomatic fuck-up ever. Nobody have a clue why they are fighting except to kill the other guy and the people in charge of the carnage are too far removed from it to realize its absurdity. To claim that you are fighting for a good cause and to protect your country is bogus beyond belief. No matter who won in Europe they would be no thread to the freedom and way of life in the US. This was no fight against an evil empire like in WWII, but a very violent squabble between trigger happy European powers. But York buys it and sacrifices his religious and quite human convictions on that altar. Well, that offends me.   

Then there is the description of the war. We do get a massive slaughter. It is difficult to describe WWI without that, but the image is toned down. This is not the devastating innuendo we see in “All quiet at the Western Front” or “The Big Parade”, but a single (stupid) charge where York single handedly shoots and capture several hundred German soldiers. I am not saying this is a lie. Apparently the film is based on the true story of Alvin York. But it paints a very different and glorious picture of a war with real heroes who make a difference and not the senseless slaughter that was the real war.  

When Alvin gets back he gets parade, offers and tons of gratitude including a new house on his plot. This is what you want to see. The country showing its appreciation of the sons who sacrificed much for their country in the war. That may have happened to Alvin York, but reality for the majority of the returning veterans was and has always been very different. They came home to unemployment and a country who soon forgot about them. The List has countless films to that effect.

A final objection to the film is to the storyline. This is a 2 hours and 13 minutes long film. The cover boasts of fighting and shooting and lots of action. An hour into the movie we are still learning about this fellow who tries to make an outcome on his poor plot of land, tries to save money for a better parcel and find his religion. I was thinking that all this hardship might be what causes him to join the army. Nope. This story reaches a happy conclusion where Alvin gets his girl and his land as a sharecropper and lives the life he wants to live. End of part one. An hour and 10 minutes in an entirely new film starts with the US joining the war and Alvin getting drafted. So I get two very different films with only the lead actor in common. If the purpose was to establish the character that could have been done in 20 minutes. Instead I was wondering if I was actually watching the right film. I had to check a later scene to be certain.

“Sergeant York” is a film with the very clear intent, to prepare the population in the US for WWII. It is clearly, even shamelessly, aimed at hitting a note that the average population can relate to, giving them a hero they will like and showing them that such heroism is well rewarded. And people loved it! The heap of Oscar nominations and the massive success at the box office is a testament to that.

It is not just that such obvious propaganda leaves a sour taste with me, it is the effect such stories and films have on people who do not know better. I cannot help thinking of the teacher in “All quiet on the Western Front” who encourage his student for whom he has a responsibility to go out and give their lives for the fatherland and glorious battle. War is ugly business. It always was and will be and any attempt to describe it otherwise is bogus and bound to backfire.

I will however not let my comments end on a bad note. Gary Cooper is excellent as Alvin York and Joan Leslie is adorable as his girlfriend Gracie Williams. Alvin York is very likable and I suppose he was a hero worth celebrating. Especially since his “heroic act” was not for his country or the war but to save his friends from being killed.


  1. For what it's worth, as a born-and-bred American, my objections to the film were identical to yours.

    1. That is comforting to me. I realized shortly into my writing that many viewers would eat this picture raw and find my reservations, well, somewhere between blasphemic and treasonous.
      I generally find it problematic when arts are made to serve political purposes, left or right, and although some might say that everything is political I still think that mass-seduction and mass-coersion is more problematic than most. If I were a war veteran of WWI seeing this film in 1941, coming back from France to absolutely nothing I would probably not be able to recognize the reception Alvin York got.

  2. You make some valid points. I don't necessarily agree with them all, but understand why you feel as you do. This film was released in 1941 for a reason. The USA knew it was going to eventually be dragged into WWII and I suspect films like these were friendly reminders of Mr. Jefferson's quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure."

    1. I entirely agree. The timing here is important. This is not just a biography of an outstanding war hero. It is an attempt to mobilize the population for another war effort. I will not argue that this is not a good and noble purpose. My objection is how deliberately it is trying to manipulate its viewers.

  3. This film is a product of its time. Biographies were always of the "gee whiz" variety in the 30s and 40s. Another Cooper one is Pride of the Yankees. The whole "warts and all" angle of biographies didn't become popular until decades later.

    You are also correct that doing a movie about a World War I hero was done because of the build up towards World War II.

    As for the rest, it seems like it was your expectations not being met that were the biggest issues you had with the film, not the film itself. (My expectations can also affect how I perceive a film.) It was a biography of the man, not just his service in World War I. The man was religious. I don't agree with his beliefs, but I didn't have a problem with them showing them in the movie because they were a real attribute of the real man.

    1. Yes and no. It is true I had different expectations to the film. The 70 minutes "introduction" I was not prepared for and frankly made me rather impatient.

      But I think those unmet expectations are secondary to the audacity of the film to manipulate its audience. It is painting a picture that the public is willing, even eager, to eat while essentially saying that the war to come is a good and right thing. One might agree or disagree with the purpose, but it remains propaganda.

      As I mentioned above the story itself is a good one and I really do not mind that Alvin is a religious fellow. Also the consentious objectioner being drafted is an interesting dilemma. It is the (very obvious) underlying flagwaving white washed agenda I find problematic.