#13 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
It’s hard to create well-drawn and purely good characters in fiction because it’s so easy to write them poorly. It can be really easy to create a character so moral that he ceases to feel real, no longer a character but an extension of an idea from the screenwriter’s head which ends up making them boring. The titular character in Spartacus has this problem, I think, but this representation of Alvin York largely sidesteps that issue by portraying his earlier wayward youth clearly, giving him a believable conversion, and then showing him conflicted as he tries to apply his belief system to a real-world situation. On top of that, Howard Hawks manages an incredibly professional and believable production that ranges from the mountains of Tennessee to the battlefields of France in World War I.
Alvin York is a rabblerousing young man who skips church meetings to drink heavily with his two friends and shoot guns recklessly, sometimes directly into a tree to perfectly print out his initials. He owns a plot of land at the top of the valley, scraping a living from the rocks on the strip his daddy had owned before him. His drinking is a reaction to his hard life living high up where he, ironically, gets looked down upon because of the quality of the land. He has dreams of owning a parcel of land lower in the valley where the soil is richer, but he spends so much time going with his friends up north to the Kentucky border to drink and fight that he can’t dedicate any time to his dreams. That is until he makes the acquaintance of Gracie Williams, a pretty young woman dedicated to the Bible whom he becomes desperate to win over by raising his station in life.
So, he takes out an option on a newly available patch of lower land and takes sixty days to earn the seventy dollars he needs to finish his payment. He works endlessly for those two months, taking every little odd job he can, often earning less than a dollar a day for a full day’s hard labor, but he’s about twenty dollars short on the day before. Pleading with the man who he’s bargained with to wait just a few more days, Alvin sets out to win a whole steer in a shooting competition which he wins completely, earning the final bits of money. However, the man had sold the land to Alvin’s romantic rival, Zeke, not having believed Alvin could pull it off and not having an agreement in writing for the extra days. Despondent, Alvin grabs his rifle in the rain, ready to find Zeke and exact his revenge when a lightning strike knocks him from his horse and sends him to the church where he joins in singing “Old-Time Religion”, feeling a sudden burst of piety and zeal.
Now, here is where a movie like this usually goes wrong. The religious turn can often feel fake, and this is where the casting of Gary Cooper as Alvin York became such a strong advantage for the film. When the real Alvin York finally agreed to sell his story to Hollywood, he had a handful of conditions, and one of them was that Gary Cooper had to play him. Cooper often looks too old for the part, being in his forties and playing a man in his twenties, but Cooper is, despite his advanced age, able to imbue York with such believable humility and grace in the film’s second half after the religious conversion (a fictionalized version of York’s real conversion that recalls Saul’s encounter on the way to Damascus) to counter the drunken and almost innocent rabblerousing of the first. The way he approaches Zeke and the man who cheated York out of the option for the land turns the interactions from tense to gentle as York willingly accepts his own bad part in his life and looks to simply make good. Swearing off liquor and violence, York becomes a hard-working, God-fearing man through the help of Gracie and the local reverend, Pastor Pile, agreeing to be a sharecropped under Zeke to earn the land from him.
Then America enters World War I, and the movie doesn’t quite know how to tell the internal struggle of Alvin York, peaceful man of the earth, agreeing to enter military service and fight. This film was obviously made at a point in time where delicate concerns outside of the film had to be considered. First and foremost was the fact that Alvin York was still alive. York had a complicated relationship with his exploits in The Great War, and he hated the fact that he had taken lives, once breaking down in tears when a crewman on the production asked him during one of his visits to the set how many Jerries he had killed. Could Howard Hawks and his writers make the effort to delve deeply into such a good man who was alive and helping them? Perhaps not. The other concern was that this was filmed in the earliest days of the Second World War before America got involved, and there were pressures to push this film into propaganda to convince the young men watching in the audience to want to join up and fight. I think both of these undermine two main aspects of this film’s second half.
York refuses to sign up and is eventually drafted. The Draft Board rejects all of his pleas to conscientiously object and sends him into basic training. York does as he’s told, much to the surprise of his sergeant who expects more resistance from a conscientious objector. However, York proves that he’s a more than capable marksman getting half a dozen bullseyes in a row in his first target practice with the M1 Garand. When he’s presented with an opportunity for promotion, the reality of what he’s facing comes to him, and the movie kind of fudges a bit here. Given ten days leave and borrowing a book on American military history, York goes home to look over the valley of his birth and consider. When he returns, he agrees to the promotion, and the reasoning is fudgy. It seems as though he’s agreed because other men have died for the great cause of America, and he feels like it’s his duty to die as well, though this completely sidesteps his objections to killing.
In France, he and his regiment head towards the front lines and amidst some small action beats as they head into the enemy’s trenches that may involve York attacking Germans or it may not (the editing is very unclear). Then we get to the famous scene where York takes out twenty Germans single-handedly, leading his remaining eight men to capture over 130 German soldiers. This is all wonderfully well filmed, clear in action and movement, as you would expect from a talented hand such as Howard Hawks. In the heat of battle, York is a man of action, and act he does. Whether any of this is against his morals is beside the point for this piece of the action, and it’s exceptionally well done as he does what he needs to do in order to save the lives of his friends and win for his country. Interspersed with Hawks’ brand of small moments of humor, York leading the large section of German prisoners through to the American lines is a great sequence.
And then the movie doesn’t want to look at York’s actions fully afterwards. He reviews the action with his superiors on the spot of his brave deeds, recounting them in his folksy charming way, and he’s briefly asked about how he could do what he did despite his beliefs. He gives a good, but very quick explanation about how the guns were killing hundreds and would kill hundreds more so he had to do something, and that’s about it.
Now, I’m complaining a lot, but you may have noticed the rating I’ve given this movie and wondered why I’m spending so much time dithering away about this part. This movie is overall very good, but I feel like it could have been great. It didn’t need to turn the movie’s final thirty minutes into a weep-fest of York crying about the men he killed, but I feel like it barely acknowledges the tension between his deeply held beliefs and his actions. It doesn’t want to dwell on it at all, so it gives us about three lines of dialogue and moves on. This is the most interesting thing about this story, to me, and it feels really underdone. Essentially, I wanted a good three to five minutes of York grappling with this himself. Would anyone write that scene with York still alive, helping the production, and showing up to the premiere? Probably not. I may be asking too much of the movie, but it feels like it’s a question that the movie itself brings up and just never quite answers.
Anyway, enough of that. The movie really is a joy aside from that relatively small mole hill of a problem I have with it. Cooper, as I’ve said, is absolutely wonderful as York, but the rest of the cast is great as well. Walter Brennan gives real pathos to Pastor Pile. Margaret Wycherly is great as the long suffering Mother York. Joan Leslie is open and innocent and firm as Gracie Williams. Stanley Ridges is fatherly and warm as Major Buxton.
Hawks was a well-practiced directorial hand by 1941, and he brings a quiet professionalism to every aspect of the production. He had an innate understanding of how to frame a shot, when to use wide, medium, and close up shots to enhance emotional delivery, never using close ups inappropriately. He was also very good with his actors, pulling great performances from everyone. The look of the war is cleaner than his previous forays into tales of The Great War like The Dawn Patrol, Today We Live, and The Road to Glory, but that probably has to do with the fact that Sergeant York is telling a distinctly different kind of war story than his previous efforts. He’s making a brighter one that asks no tough questions about the greatest waste of life in human history up to that point, instead focusing on a good man who did a great thing while a new threat was rolling over the same ground less than thirty years later.