Sergeant York (Warner). Twenty-three years ago a good-natured, redheaded, gangling young hillbilly from Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains joined the Big Parade and headed for Europe with the 82nd Division of the A.E.F. His name was Alvin Cullum York, and the way he could handle a Springfield was a caution. Originally a conscientious objector, he had overcome his religious scruples against killing to go abroad and put a stop to it.
On Oct. 8, 1918, at the height of the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Corporal York, his sergeant and 15 men were ordered to wipe out a hillful of German machine-gun nests. Maneuvering to outflank the enemy, they stumbled on a field headquarters and captured 20 German officers and men. A burst of machine-gun fire cut down half of York's companions. The corporal thereupon, singlehanded, picked off 20 machine-gunnersenough to persuade the entire 35-gun salient to surrender. York and seven survivors marched 132 prisoners to the rear.
Lionized, publicized, feted, decorated, when he got back from France modest Sergeant York just went home to his family farm in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. On the way the No. 1 U.S. war hero quietly passed up a fortune in commercial publicity ventures. One of them was an offer from Jesse L. Lasky to make a picture. The hero's flat refusal stuck hard in Producer Lasky's craw. In the spring of 1940, he finally persuaded the Hero York that it had become a patriotic duty to film his life.
Alvin York, now 53, weighing 275 but still looking mighty fit, made three stipulations before surrendering to Holly wood: 1) that Gary Cooper impersonate him; 2) that no oomphy (or any other kind of grunt) girl portray his wife; 3) that the picture be an honest account. Result: one of the cinema's most memorable screen biographies.
Sergeant York is not a picture of trench warfare, but a story of an American country boy and how he came to fight for his country. So much of the film is given to the painstaking development of his character that his heroic feat, when it comes, is merely an extension of the everyday heroism of a dignified, impoverished mountain people.
Gary Cooper, the cinema's epitome of a natural American, plays Alvin York to perfection. He has admirable assistance: Mother York (Margaret Wycherly), Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan), York's sweetheart Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) and a first-rate supporting cast. The picture also manages to produce an almost documentary description of the meager, resourceful life of the South's mountain folk.
Alvin York is an irreverent young buck who punctuates his grinding labors on a rocky farm with spells of boozy hell-raising and gunplay. Love of Gracie sets him hankering for a farm of his own. His painful efforts to earn enough money to buy the land end in his being diddled out of both land and money.
On his way to kill the man who gypped him, York is struck by lightning and gets religion. When war comes, he is teaching a Sunday school class. His conscientious objections ("War's ag'in the Book") are overcome by his superior officer and a history of the U.S. York decides that there are times when a man has no choice but to fight for his country.