Sergeant York (1941)

 

 

 

Director:  Howard Hawks

Starring:  Gary Cooper (Alvin C. York),  Walter Brennan (Pastor Rosier Pile),  Joan Leslie (Gracie Williams), George Tobias ('Pusher" Ross), Stanley Ridges (Major Buxton), Margaret Wycherly (Mother York), Ward Bond (Ike Botkin), Noah Beery, Jr. (Buck Lipscomb), June Lockhart (Rosie York), Dickie Moore (George York), Clem Bevans (Zeke),  Howard Da Silva (Lem).

Oscars: Gray Cooper

Story of Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) who fought in WWI.  

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"High in the heart of the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, is the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf, and her in the spring of the year 1916 . . . "

Hillbilly country.  Pastor Rosier Pile is trying to give a sermon, but outside there's so much shooting from a group of hooligans that he can hardly be heard.  He has to cancel the sermon and call it quits.  Outside Pastor Pile is shown how Alvin York shot his initial into one of the trees.  Mrs. York comes over and they show her Alvin's initials.  She is not happy.

Alvin and his two friend are drunk and riding their horses slowly down the path.  Pastor Piles owns the Rosier Pile General Merchandise store.  In it is the post office of Pall Mall, Tennessee.  At the store the headline in the newspaper is that the "Germans Smash at Verdun", but the men go right by it to the local news.  Cordell Hull is speaking not too far away trying to run for Congress again.  A salesman tells the Pastor he really wants to sell him some of his wares on account of the war.  An old man says:  "What war?"  The salesman says the war in Europe. The Germans might reach Paris.  The old man says they don't think on it much.  A young local asks the salesman if he is looking for trouble?  No, says the salesman. 

The conversation turns to Alvin York and his buddies and their antics.  Mrs. York enters the store and stops to listen.  The old man motions to the men to look behind them.  Everybody shuts up when they turn around to see Mrs. York.  Her family is very poor.  She and the pastor talk about Alvin and the pastor agrees to come up to the house and speak to Alvin.  Back at home mother sends Alvin's brother to go fetch him at the Tennessee-Kentucky border.   

Alvin, Ike and Buck are in a tavern having some drinks.  George York comes in with a rifle in his hands.  Alvin tells him to get out, but George levels the rifle at Alvin and tells him:  "Ma wants you.."  One of the fellows on the Kentucky side of the tavern laughs at Alvin having to go home to his ma.  Alvin takes offense and hits the fellow.  This start a brawl in the place.  Alvin stops fighting when one of his friends missing the Kentucky man and hits Alvin in the face.

Alvin gets back.  Mother doesn't say a single scolding word to Alvin.  The Pastor comes out and talks with Alvin.  He tells the young man that the Satan has a hold of him. Alvin agrees with him.  He also agrees that he needs religion to help him establish deep roots.  Pastor Pile says religion will come to him possibly like a bolt of lightning.

Alvin and George go out hunting with their coon dogs.  The dogs go right past a farm house.   Alvin runs across the front of the place, but when he see a young pretty lady and stops in his tracks.  Gracie tells Alvin that the dogs went that away, but Alvin just continues to stand and stare.  George doesn't know what's wrong with Alvin.  Alvin ignores George and walks over to talk with the girl.  He tells her that he remembers her when she was just a little thing.  After awhile he leaves saying he'll see her again. 

Alvin straightens his hair out while looking in the mirror.  The family watches him trying to figure out what's wrong with Alvin.  George asks about what his father and grandfather had when they married.  They had this farm, a mule and six coon dogs.  Ma figures that maybe Alvin is thinking about marrying.  She asks about the girl and Alvin says it's Gracie Williams. 

At Gracie's place a young man named Zeb is talking to her about going to the dance coming up over at Thompson's Mill.  Alvin comes up to the house and greets Gracie and Zeb.  Zeb gets a little jealous and starts interrupting everything that Alvin says to Gracie.  The fellows are about to come to blows until Gracie tells them both to hush up.  Zeb, however, starts up again with Alvin.  So Alvin asks Gracie for some water, so she will leave the two men alone.  Alvin goes over and grabs Zeb by the shirt collar and pulls him off the porch. 

When Gracie returns it's only Alvin sitting there.  Gracie looks and sees Zeb walking away from the place. Gracie is troubled and she puts two and two together and accuses Alvin of running Zeb off.  She tells Alvin that Zeb has just as much right to be here as Alvin does.  "No, he ain't", says Alvin.  Gracie asks him:  "Well, why ain't he?"  Alvin says:  "Cause I'm a-going to marry you."  This completely shocks Gracie and she steps back from Alvin.  She says:  "Well, you might of told me about it."  Alvin says"   "That's a-what I'm doing."   She is so flustered that she gets mad and says: "Look here, I wouldn't have you on a Christmas tree Alvin York!"  Alvin thinks she is rejecting him for Zeb because Zeb has rich bottomland soil and he only has land where it's hard to grow things and he tells her so.  This accusation upsets Gracie even more and she says people say Alvin is no good.  Alvin gets mad and walks off.  Gracie starts to cry as she runs into the house. 

On his way home Alvin grabs a handful of bottomland soil.  At home he puts the soil on a plate and shows it to his mother.  Mother says:  "It's queer how the folks that lives on the bottom looks down on the folks on top.  Always that way.  Ain't no changing it."  Alvin says he's going to change it.  Mother says his father tried to get a piece of bottomland but had to give up in the end.  Alvins tells mom that he's not saying that he is better than his father, but he knows where there's some bottomland to be had and he's a-gonna get it. 

Alvin talks to the owner of the land.  He sells him his mule and some different things for $50 dollars.  The land will cost $120 dollars.  Alvin asks how much time does he have to get the $70 dollars?  Six months. 

Alvin takes a job taking the rocks out of a man's land and gets paid 75 cents a day.  He gets another job splitting rails.  George helps Alvin.  Alvin sells a fox pelt to Pastor Pile for $3 dollars.  He also clears land and plows land for money.  While he plows Gracie comes to see him.  She is a bit flustered.  Alvin kisses her.  Then she kisses him and says:  "That's what I was wantin' to tell yah."  She slaps her hadn to her mouth, turnjs around and runs off.

It's September 24, 1916 and Alvin has earned $44.35 dollars. 

Alvin and George try to move a rock, but it isn't budging.  Alvin's piece of wood breaks as he tries to move the stone.  He says he gives up.  He can't do it.  George tries to tell his brother that he can do it, but Alvin just reiterates that it can't be done.  His time is up tomorrow night.  He yells out saying he can't get the money and asks:  "How?  How am I going to do it?"

Alvin goes back to the bottomland owner and asks for a four day extension.  He says he's going to win a beef and turkey shoot and then sell "the beef critter" for money.  The landowner says Alvin won't win, but Alvin is convinced he will win. So the man says he will wait the four extra days. 

Alvin wins the beef critter.  He then conducts a shooting contest of his own.  Everyone has to put in a dollar who is going to compete.  This gives Alvin enough money to pay the landowner.  The land owner comes to the contest accompanied by Zeb.  Alvin gives the landowner the money, but the man says he just sold the land to Zeb.  Alvin is furious.  He tells the man that he gave him his word that he could have the extra time.  The fellow just says that it wasn't in writing.  Alvin is mad enough to fight both men, but the shooters hold Alvin back and Ike tells the two men they better get the hell out of Dodge.  Gracie tries to calm Alvin down by telling him the land doesn't make any difference.  The still angry Alvin says:  "It do to me."  Buck and Ike follow behind Alvin as he leaves. 

The three buddies go back to the tavern.  Ike and Buck try to calm Alvin, but they can't.  The two fellows are scared that Alvin is going to kill someone or maybe two someones.  As Alvin rides his mule through the rain storm, he rifle is hit by lightning and the barrel is twisted open.  The rifle is useless.  Alvin takes this as a sign from God that he is not to kill anyone.  Alvin walks straight over to the church and goes in.  Pastor Pile is shocked at the sight of Alvin in church.  Everybody gathers around Alvin as they sing "That Old Time Religion". 

Alvin goes over to see the landowner, who gets very scared upon seeing him, but Alvin assures him that he only came to buy back his mule.  The landowner now gives Alvin a reduced price on the mule to make up for what he did to Alvin. 

Alvin now goes to see Zeb who hides from him.  York assures everyone that he comes in peace, so Zeb comes out of hiding. Alvin says he wants to work for Zeb on the new land he recently purchased.  Zeb says that he will let Alvin share-crop the land and in a couple of seasons Alvin will have enough money to buy the place.     

Alvin goes over to talk to Gracie.  He starts praising Zeb saying he's a Christian man and a generous man and that he (Alvin) would understand if Gracie chose Zeb. This makes Gracie so angry that she shakes her paring knife under his nose and tells him that if she wanted Zeb she could have gotten him without Alvin's help.  She says that the only things she wants from Alvin is himself.  Then she starts crying and runs into the house. 

Alvin now teaches Sunday school to the children.  While he teaches, Alvin sees a man named Luke riding fast toward the general store.  When Luke arrives he yells at the men:  "It's war.  President Wilson has done declared war against Germany."  

All the young men seem to be signing up for the war.  Alvin comes in to the general store and Pastor Pile asks him if he is going to join up for the Army.  No is the answer, because the Bible is a'gin killing, so war is wrong.  Pastor Pile tells him that at least he has to register, but he can get an exemption for being a conscientious objector.  All he has to do is write the draft board a letter. 

Alvin's application for conscientious objector status is turned down by the draft board.  Pastor Pile asks if Alvin can appeal.  Yes, there are two levels of appeal, Nashville and then Washington, D.C.  The pastor tells Alvin that he will write the next letter for him right away.

Alvin shows Gracie where he plans to put up their new house.  Gracie is thrilled.  Now Alvin is told the pastor wants to see him pronto.  The pastor has bad news for Alvin.  He has been drafted.  His appeal was rejected.  And if he doesn't go, he will be arrested.  Alvin says he will fight against being drafted, but then says those were sinful words and he takes them back.

Alvin packs his clothes getting ready to leave.  He grabs his mother's arm and says he gotta be going.  Just as he is about to step out the door, Gracie comes in.  She cries and hugs Alvin.  Gracie kisses him, says goodbye and runs away.  Alvin says:  "I'll be a-coming back." 

Camp Gordon, Georgia.  Alvin and Ross are digging ditches along with the rest of the guys in their outfit. The commanding officer asks Sgt. Early to keep an eye on Alvin York because in his records they have down that he is a conscientious objector.  He wants a weekly report on the man. Ross talks about the subways in Brooklyn and Alvin says he has never "heird" (heard) of something called a subway.  After Ross finishes marveling about the pronunciation of the word "heard" he tells Alvin all about the trains that travel underground in a tunnel.  Ross says they call him the "Pusher" since it was his job to help pack the people into the subway cars.  Bert Thomas is another of Alvin's buddies and he helps in the explanation of the subway. 

York's turn to fire at the target.  The sergeants watch him intently.  York gets a bull's eye and the sergeant gives him a clip of five bullets to fire.  He gets a nice cluster of five bull's eyes. 

Major Buxton calls in Alvin C. York.  York is nervous about what the Major might tell him, but the Major just tells him that Sgt. Parsons has recommended York for the rank of corporal with special detail as instructor of target practice.  Captain Danford approves of the recommendation.  York thanks the men, but says he doesn't want to be a corporal.  The Bible says that he shouldn't be shooting people.  So the Major and the Captain try to talk to York about why it's necessary to fight.  He says Daniel Boone of Kentucky fought for freedom and America is still fighting for its freedom.  And the cost of freedom sometimes means the loss of men's lives.

York is not convinced and says he needs to do some thinking about it.  So the Major gives him a furlough of ten days.  If York comes back still not thinking that fighting is right, the Major says he will put him in for the status of conscientious objector.   

Back home Alvin goes up to the top of the mountain to read his Bible and think about what is the right thing to do.  He stays up there all day and into the night at times.  The wind blows and turns the pages of the Bible.  He reads the passage about rendering unto Caesar the things which are Ceasar's and rendering to God the things that are God's.  

York reports back to base.  He wants to stay in the army.  The Major is pleased.  York will be made a corporal.

"Soldier s now  --  fully trained and equipped for battle  -- the All-American Division sails for France."  From France York sends a letter home to the family.  Pastor Pile reads the letter to the entire family. Alvin has seen some of the sights in Paris. 

But now Alvin C. York is on the battlefield.  The stands with other soldiers in the trenches.  The explosion of a shell throws dirt all over Alvin and his neighbors.  The British fellow knows when the shells will come close and when they will go overhead.  Bert Thomas is killed by a piece of shrapnel. 

"The second week of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (aka the Battle of the Argonne Forest), October 8, 1918."   Alvin was at the Battle of Argonne at Argonne Forest, France (Sept. 26- Nov. 10, 1918), which was part of the Grand Offensive, aka the Hundred Days Offensive.  The moves for the night are discussed.  There is a German salient is holding up the Argonne advance.  The commander says they have got to get rid of that salient.

The men are waiting for the barrage.  If they don't get it soon, the men are going up and over anyway.  The barrage doesn't start so the men start moving out.  The Germans are on the hills and they prepare for the onslaught of the Americans.  A lot of American soldiers are dying while trying to reach the German defense sites.  The man in charge tells his men to take cover.  Alvin is with a group of soldiers that are given the job of trying to get behind the German lines and come at them from behind.  The guys get into the German trenches.  They attack a line of German soldiers passing by them and kill them. They get right behind the German lines but are seen by two Germans are K.P. duty.  The Americans hurry up and get on top of a ridge overlooking a little valley.  The German soldiers just start surrendering without much of a fight.  The Germans on the ridge on the other side of the small valley see what's going on, signal to their fellow Germans to drop to the ground and then they start firing the machine guns at Alvin and the others.

Most of the Americans with Alvin are dead or wounded.  Command is transferred now to Corporal York.  So he moves ahead, takes aim at the machine gunner and kills him with one shot.  Another German takes over the machine gun, but he is killed by another American soldier.  There are two men left in the machine gun nest and Alvin shoots both of them.  Now York gets up to the top of the other ridge and gets behind the machine gunners in other nests.  He starts working down the line taking out the machine gun nests.  In one nest the guys keep their heads down.  Alvin does his turkey gobble sounds and they show themselves.  York gets both guys.  With a pistol and his rifle York knocks down seven German soldiers coming straight at him.   

York gets into a perfect position overlooking a long line of Germans fighting in the trenches.  He starts at one end and starts killing the German soldiers.  The others don't notice what's going on, so York just works his way down the line, just like he would do in a turkey shoot.  York shoots so fast and hits each of his targets, so that the Germans in the trench put up a white flag.  York tells the German commander to tell the others behind him to put down their weapons and walk down the hill.  Soon all the Germans in this section are walking down from the trenches to the valley floor. 

One of the prisoners in the valley throws a hand grenade at Pusher and kills him.  York runs over to his friend.  Pusher has time to say:  "It's the end of the line" before dying.  Now York walks over to the German commander and has him order his men to drop their belts.  He issues the orders and the belts drop.  Now York orders the commander to get his troops moving.  They come up behind another line of Germans fighting the Americans.  York threatens to kill the German commander if he doesn't tell those men to throw down their weapons.  The commander has the retreat sound called on the bugle.  And her comes a whole passel of Germans. 

The Americans below can't believe their eyes.  York marches the POWs to a place for prisoners.  He asks the fellow in charge if he can leave his prisoners with him.  The fellow says yes, but when he turns around to look he can't believe it.  York says he counted 132 heads.   Now the fellow says that's too many for them to handle.  York protests that he only has eight men to watch these 132 prisoners.  He needs help.  The fellow can't believe it when York tells him that eight men captured all these German soldiers.  Now he says he will provide some help to York. 

The news that York by himself capture 132 German soldiers goes through the ranks of the soldiers like wild fire.  As the story travels, the number of soldiers and the number of high ranking officers cited keeps getting bigger and bigger. York's own commander asks Alvin why die he do it?  York says that he had to stop those men up on the ridge from firing in order to prevent further deaths.  The commander is amazed, saying:  "You mean to tell me that you did it to save lives?"  "Yes, sir."  The commander is even more impressed now by Alvin C. York. 

Now Sgt. York is given medal after metal by the different Allied countries involved in the fighting. 

York comes home to a hero's celebration.  He gets to meet Cordell Hull of Tennessee.  There is a ticker tape parade for York down 5th Avenue, New York City.  He receive a key to the city and is put up in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  They even have his mother's photograph in his room.  They set up a telephone call from his mother to York.  Then he wants to talk to Gracie, saying he will be home real soon.   

Tennessee Society honors hero is the headline of the New York Standard.  Wall Street suspends activities to cheer for York.  The he goes to a reception given by the Congress. 

York is getting tired of all this celebration and asks Cordell Hull when he can go home?  Cordell pulls out a pile of offers of jobs and positions as spokesperson for different firms and products.  Hollywood even wants York to become an actor.  Hull says the offers total to around a quarter-of-a-million dollars.  Alvin tells Hull:  "I ain't proud of what happened over there.  What we did in France was something we had to do.  Some fellows done it ain't a comin' back.  So the way I figure, things like that ain't for buying and selling."  He asks Hull to tell the fellow he isn't interested and is a-goin' home.

Back in Tennessee Alvin is greeted by his family and Pastor Pile. He is very proud to tell his mother that he is back.  In the car ride back to Pall Mall, the pastor says that Alvin is the great thing that has happened in this area since Daniel Boone and Andrew Jackson.   Alvin then asks about the bottomland he wants to buy.  Is it still available?  The pastor lets off Alvin and Gracie at the piece of property.  Alvin is amazed that somebody has fixed up the old bridge over the creek to the property.  He stops to tell Gracie that they will have to wait two to three years for the wedding, because he has nothing to offer her.  Gracie tells him that he doesn't have to worry about that. She tells him to keep his eyes pointed down until she says he can raise his head.

When Alvin raises his head he sees the home of his dream already build with corrals and animals.  Gracie says it's a present from the people of Tennessee to him for what he did.  Alvin says:  "The Lord sure does move in mysterious ways."  Now the two of them walk and then run up to the house. 

 

I saw this movie a long, long time ago, when I was a kid.  At the time, I thought Gary Cooper was just terrific as the shy, slow-talking country boy who became the shy, humble war hero.  I liked it then.  It probably was a little maudlin, but many American films are maudlin.

Charming film.  The story of Alvin's fine family and his love story with Gracie are both just great.  And the story of his heroic deeds is also impressive.  And to top it all off is the grand reception Alvin C. York received in New York City and Tennessee.  Gary Cooper was terrific as Sgt. York.  Joan Leslie was cute and bubbly as Alvin's girlfriend Gracie.  There are a lot of good actors I recognized while watching the film which made the film even more enjoyable.  For instance, it seems I have seen George Tobias in so many films and here is in this one as the subway worker 'Pusher' Ross. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.  

 


Historical Background:

 

Sergeant Alvin C. York

1887 -- born in Pall Mall, Tennessee.

1914  --  Alvin’s best friend was killed in a bar brawl.  Disturbed by the loss, he became a member of the Church of Christ in Christian Union.  He even became a Sunday school teacher and a leader of the choir.  His church strongly opposed swimming, dancing, smoking, drinking and war.

1917  --  he asked Gracie Williams to marry him and she said yes.  Shortly afterwards, he received his draft notification.  The couple agreed to postpone the wedding until after he returned from the war.

1917 -- drafted into the army; he impresses everyone with his ability to use a gun (shooting accurately at ranges of 200, 300 and 500 yards). Given his religious beliefs, he was bothered by the idea of killing human beings, and even refused to shoot at targets in the shape of human silhouettes.

1918, fall -- at the battle of the Argonne Forest, as a member of the 82nd division, he kills 25 Germans, knocks out 35 machine guns, and captures 132 prisoners almost single-handedly. Receives the French Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre, the Italian Groce de Guerra and the American Medal of Honor. Comes home as an adored war hero.  New York City gives him a ticker-tape parade.  Once home he marries Gracie Williams.

1954  --  he suffered a stroke;  he was confined to his bed or a wheel chair for the last ten year of his life.

1964 -- dies in the Veterans' hospital at Nashville, Tennessee on September 2 following a cerebral hemorrhage.

 

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