20 February 2006 | bkoganbing
"Alvin, you've got the using kind of religion."
Alvin Cullom York (1887-1964), a modest American and Christian hero of World War I, is the subject of this biographical picture which goes beyond the mere telling of the tale how he won all the medals he did for bravery during the Meuse Argonne Offensive. It's the inner struggle of a man whose pacifist Christian beliefs came into conflict with his patriotism. It's the heart and soul of this film, beautifully crafted by director Howard Hawks.
The real Sergeant York eschewed all money making ventures that would have capitalized on his heroics in World War I and had resisted giving the rights to his story to Hollywood. He relented because in 1941 he became concerned with the danger fascism posed for the world and advocated preparedness. Part of what brought him out was the speechmaking of that other American hero Charles A. Lindbergh who was an appeasement advocate.
York even called the shots on who was to play him. So Jack Warner made a call to Adolph Zukor over at Paramount and probably paid one hefty sum for Gary Cooper's services. It was worth every penny of it as Cooper got his first Oscar for Best Actor.
Alvin York is a poor farmer supporting a widowed mother and a brother and sister. And he likes to cut loose every so often with a jug and a rifle. But he gets converted and gets involved in Walter Brennan's church which is a strict fundamentalist sort with pacifist tenets. When America gets into World War I, his very soul is tormented by the tenets of his church and the volunteer tradition of his state. Tennessee is known as the Volunteer State and that nickname is no lie. It bothers him more than other men because as Pastor Walter Brennan tells him he's "got the using kind of religion."
These people may be fundamentalists and somewhat backward, but they're not phonies. No high hog living preachers here, just simple people trying to get through life the best they can. Howard Hawks did a masterful job in casting this film with some actors very used to playing rustics. Ward Bond, Noah Beery, Jr. Howard DaSilva, Clem Bevans and most of all Walter Brennan as Pastor Rosier Pyle, tripling as preacher, postmaster, and owner of the general store. Brennan got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but since he'd already won three of them, the Academy voters gave Donald Crisp a break that year for How Green Was My Valley.
The York family is played by Margaret Wycherly, June Lockhart and Dickie Moore as mother, brother, and sister. Wycherly is one you'll remember also. Hard to believe this is the same woman who is also James Cagney's Ma in White Heat. Come to think of it, maybe not, Ma York and Ma Jarrett are both tough survivors.
As for the action that won him decorations from all the Allied powers including the Congressional Medal of Honor, you'll just have to see the film for that. But while some liberties are taken with York's pre-war story, what happened in the Argonne is actually what happened.
We could use a whole lot more Sergeant Yorks, those with the using kind of religion.