Sunday, September 7, 2014

WWI in Classic Film: Sergeant York (1941)

It was on 8 October 1918 that Corporal Alvin C. York was part of an assault on a a German machine gun nest. Ultimately Corporal York and his fellow soldiers took out 32 machine guns, and killed 28 German soldiers and captured another 132 others. Not only was Corporal York almost immediately promoted to Sergeant, but he was also awarded the Medal of Honour for his role in the attack. A humble and even shy man by nature, Sgt. York refused to capitalise on the fame that he received as a result of his part in the war. Eventually, with Tom Skeyhill, he would publish Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary in 1928. As might be expected, he refused offers to make a film based on his life. After years of turning down film offers, Sgt. York eventually relented. The result was Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (1941), a film that would become the top grossing film of the year.

Among the most persistent of producers to make film offers to Sgt. Alvin York over the years, Jesse L. Lasky. Mr. Lasky was already something of a Hollywood legend at the time. He was one of the producers on The Squaw Man (1914), the first film to ever be filmed completely in Hollywood. Over the years he had produced such films as The Cheat (1915), The Great Gatsby (1926), It (1927), and Berkeley Square (1933). Despite Mr. Lasky's position as one of Hollywood's earliest producers, Sgt. York resisted his repeated offers to make a film based on his life over the years. Sgt. York finally relented only on the condition that the money he earned from the film went to finance an interdenominational bible school he had been planning.

Even once Jesse L. Lasky finally convinced Sgt. York to let him make a film based on his life he had some difficulties recruiting those he wanted for the film. Mr. Lasky wanted Howard Hawks to direct the film, but Mr. Hawks was not interested in directing any biographical movie. Before Howard Hawks would consent to directing the film, Jesse L. Lasky had to convince the director that the film would be less a retelling of the events of Sgt. Alvin C. York's life as it would be a character study of the man. He also had some trouble in convincing the star he wanted for the role of Sgt. York, Gary Cooper, to take the role. He eventually sent Mr. Cooper a telegram and signed Sgt. York's name to it in order to get the star to accept the part. Even once Mr. Cooper had consented to take the role, Jesse L. Lasky had to ask Samuel Goldwyn to loan the star to him for the movie. Samuel Goldwyn agreed to loan Mr. Lasky to make Sgt. York only on the condition that Warner Bros. loan him Bette Davis to make The Little Foxes (1941). To insure an accurate portrayal of Sgt. Alvin C. York, Jesse L. Lasky arranged a meeting between Sgt. York and Gary Cooper.

As the all important role of Sgt. York's wife to be, Gracie Williams, Sgt. Alvin C. York demanded the actress playing the role be someone who did not drink or smoke. For the role Jesse L. Lasky wanted Jane Russell, who was not yet a star. Ultimately Joan Leslie was cast in the part. Given the film would feature real people, Warner Bros. had to obtain releases for all those portrayed in the film who were still living. The studio had to track down every member of Sgt. York's squad, as well as many other people from Sgt. York's past. In the end the only person who did not consent to sign a release was Sgt. York's father in law. His character was simply written out of the film.

Sergeant York was released on 2 July 1941 and proved to be a runaway success at the box office. As mentioned earlier, it was the highest grossing film for the year. The film received largely positive reviews, although it was the subject of some controversy at the time. At the time of the film's release World War II had been unfolding for only a little less than two years. Having not yet entered the war, the United States found itself divided into two camps: the interventionists, who thought the U.S. should become involved in the war, and the isolationists, who thought the U.S.should keep to itself.  Warner Bros. head Jack Warner and his brothers, and hence the studio itself, favoured interventionism. As a result Sergeant York was to a degree made as a propaganda film urging American intervention in the ongoing war in Europe. This did not sit well with many isolationists, who by and large denounced the film.

Seen today it is still fairly obvious that Warner Bros. meant Sergeant York to serve as an argument for intervention in Europe. As portrayed by Gary Cooper, Alvin C. York in the film conforms to the American archetype of the pure, honest, rustic hero similar to Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and even President Abe Lincoln. Alvin C. York's transformation in the film, from a conscientious objector to a soldier who regards war as a necessary evil, seemed designed to sway those who might have second thoughts about the United States entering the ongoing war in Europe. While the settings of Sergeant York might have been 1910s Appalachia and  World War I Europe, the film was as much about World War II as it was Sgt. Alvin C. York.

That is not to say that Sergeant York is a simple, patriotic, pro-interventionist propaganda film, nor that it can only be appreciated as such. Sergeant York is actually a much more sophisticated film with a good number of nuances than many in 1941 were willing to give it credit for being. While the portrayal of life in Pall Mall, Tennessee in the film is somewhat idealised, it is still a much more positive and realistic portrayal of life in Appalachia than often appeared in the media at the time. The residents of Pall Mall are portrayed as honest, hard working individuals eking out a living on largely rough land and living in poverty. The film does a very good job of capturing how difficult making a living farming could be in what was essentially still a pre-Industrial region could be.

And while Alvin C. York is largely portrayed as an archetypal rustic hero not unlike Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, both the script and Gary Cooper's performance gives him enough dimension that he the viewer can imagine that was what the real life Sgt. York was like. Just as in real life, Alvin C. York is a man at a crossroads. He is a man of religious convictions who believes that killing is wrong and yet finds himself in the United States Army where he is expected to kill other human beings. Gary Cooper does a good job of portraying Alvin C. York's moral struggle as he grapples with his religious beliefs and his sense of duty to his country. Here I must point out that for a film that has been portrayed as purely interventionist propaganda, there is an undercurrent running through Sergeant York that war is abhorrent. As a conscientious objector in the earlier part of the film Alvin C. York makes it clear that he thinks war violates the Sixth Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill". Even once Corporal York becomes convinced he must do his duty to his country and fight, he still regards war as a necessary evil. Unlike many propaganda films of the time, Sergeant York does not glorify war and even treats it as something that is not noble or romantic. Here I must point out that one does not need to be Christian or even particularly religious to appreciate Sergeant York's moral struggles. Reconciling one's morality and what one is called upon to do is common enough that many, regardless of their beliefs, can identify with Alvin C. York and his moral crisis.

Of course, as with any historical film the question is, "How faithful is Sergeant York to the historical record?" Like many films over the years, Sergeant York does depart from history in some respects. Sgt. York's one major objection to the film was in the way his conversion to Christianity was portrayed. He did not convert to Christianity after being struck by lightning, but for very different reasons (part of which was to be able to court his future wife, Gracie Williams). Sgt. York's family is portrayed as being much smaller than it was in real life (in actuality Sgt. York's parents had eleven children in all). A scene in which Sgt. York's friend, . Michael T. "Pusher" Ross (played by George Tobias) is killed by a German prisoner never took place. Similarly, Corporal York never gobbled like a turkey at German machine gunners to get them to raise their heads. It must also be pointed out that following the war Sgt. York returned to a farm that was still heavily mortgaged and had to pay for it with his own hard work.

While the scene in which Pusher is killed by a German soldier never happened, it does demonstrate that an effort was made in Sergeant York to portray the horrors of World War I. Indeed, it is to the films credit that its battle scenes look realistic for the era in which it was made. If Sergeant York's presentation of World War I seems somewhat sanitised to modern eyes, it must be considered that the film was made when the Production Code was at its height and that Warner Bros. perhaps did not wish to make war too terrifying for fear of undermining the interventionist message that they wished the film to have.

Sergeant York proved to be a resounding success upon its release. The film made $16,361,885 at the box office, which would be about  $255,479,624 in 2013. It also fulfilled Warner Bros.'s goal of producing a propaganda film to encourage interventionism. Reportedly many young men enlisted in the military after watching the film. Today Sergeant York can be appreciated as more than a propaganda film. While Warner Bros. might have meant for it to be an argument for interventionism, Sergeant York holds up as a film about a young man's journey from being a backwoods hellraiser to a conscientious objector to a soldier who must do things he finds abhorrent in the service of his country. When looked upon as the story of the transformation of Alvin C. York, Sergeant York becomes a much more universal story, one with which most of us can probably identify. It is also one through which many young men in both World Wars went through.


Fritzi Kramer said...

Thank you so much for joining in! Mr. Lasky was nothing if not determined, no? I appreciate the background details of your splendid review.

History on Film said...

Great review. No denying that it was propaganda, but it was very well made propaganda. While it may not have been accurate, I liked the scene where York made the turkey gobble sound to attract the German soldiers' attention.

Judy said...

Very interesting to learn how this film was made and which bits were dictated by propaganda rather than the facts - you've done a great job here. I especially like the early part of the film where York is a hard-drinking tearaway - a different role for Gary Cooper and he is really good in it.

Silver Screenings said...

Excellent post! I was glad to read all the background research you provided. I've seen this film a few times, but I think I'll be seeing it with new eyes after reading your review. :)

Joe Thompson said...

I'm glad you wrote about Sergeant York, which has always been a favorite of mine. I was in a college classroom one day when someone came in and said she had seen the movie on television and it didn't make sense, that all those things could not have happened. I told her it was a true story, not perfectly accurate, but true. She said "How could a pacifist kill l all those people." I said "He changed his mind," which was not a good answer. I like the way you talk about how he had to reconcile his beliefs with what he felt had to be done. Thanks for sharing with us.