There are movies that you can barely remember hours after watching them, and there are movies you can't forget even years later. Sergeant York is the later. The movie remains etched in my mind and heart.
It is a story clearly told, yet not oversimplified, with characters boldly drawn, yet not caricatured, at least not the main ones. It would be a great story even if it were not true, but it is true, at least in the main. York's conversion by a lightning bolt striking his rifle is fiction, though his heavy drinking, fighting and ultimate conversion are not. So the lightning is cinematic device to shorten the process, and a brilliant one.
Those who talk about it as a war story (and who complain the first part is boring) miss why this film is so great. It is also a love story and a story of family. Joan Leslie is heartbreakingly sweet and lovely as Gracie Williams. We can feel the chemistry, and see that she is a force for good in Alvin's life, who was 30 when he was drafted.
Leslie's portrayal of Gracie is so full of life and youth and charm. Compare that with Margaret Wycherly's portrayal of Mother York, who is old, tired, dessicated of emotion. Yet she is full of wisdom, of understanding Alvin's passion for Gracie. In her eyes, you can see her thinking back to when she was once Gracie, in her long ago youth. It is a silent, motionless look, plumbing the depths of memory -- a master actress's use of silence.
I think most viewers take Wycherly's performance for granted, perhaps assuming we are seeing the real Wycherly. Yet she was born in London in 1881 to a father who was a doctor -- far from the poverty of Pall Mall, Tennessee -- and had been mainly a British stage and film actress. Nevertheless, those who knew the real Mother York say Wycherly's portrayal was spot on. Now that is real acting.
It is curious that this is the role that earned Gary Cooper his first Oscar. We, the modern viewer, have seen that Aw Shucks persona many times. But apparently it fit the real Alvin York, who insisted on Cooper playing him on screen, and was present for the movie's premiere. You can read about Alvin York online, on Wikipedia and on Gutenberg.org, which has a 1920s biography online. In the quotes of the actual Alvin York, you can easily hear Gary Cooper's voice.
Henry Fonda was considered for the role, and matched York's looks more closely. But he was only a few years younger than Cooper, so it wouldn't have helped much with the Gracie-York match up. I think he could have done the role, but Cooper's fit was right and almost magical. Modesty was the hallmark of York, and Cooper had it down, far more than Fonda. Frankly, I don't notice the age thing when I watch it; it's a movie and you need to be prepared to suspend disbelief up to a point. Besides, people who work hard outside tend to look older, especially if they don't have much to eat.
The scene where the family sits down to dinner and Mother York proudly presents the bag of salt is so beautiful. She reminds me of a stray mother cat who will do anything to protect and feed her children, even to the point of starvation or death, herself. And when I buy salt, I sometimes think about this, and how lucky I am.
As to the portrayal of "hillbillies," we must remember that this was an extremely rural mountain area with no road coming in -- the real Alvin pushed the state to build one after the war -- and it was nearly a century ago. People were different. There was little schooling, too, and the real Alvin later raised funds to build a school. While we see Alvin drinking and fighting, we also see hard working, intelligent, gentle people with nice homes, so I don't see any stereotyping here.
As to the war, yes, the story is true. You can read about it yourself. And it provides a great lesson we should continue to remember today and in the future: The only justification for killing people in war (aside from self defense) is to end the killing and end war.
That is what was in York's mind, and he says so, to stop the killing. York was a pacifist at heart. Killing the enemy out of anger, hatred, retaliation or revenge was not in his mind, and should not be in the mind of any soldier. When this happens, it corrodes the soul of the soldier, so that he can no longer feel like a normal human being.
It was also probably what was on the minds of thousands of Americans who enlisted after seeing this movie, which was released months before America actually entered the war following Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. By then, the war had already been raging for two years, and America's entry was consistent with York's hope of helping to bring the fighting to an end.
York didn't lose his feeling for his fellow man. I found this item from the IMDb trivia section interesting:
"Alvin York himself was on the set for a few days during filming. When one of the crew members tactlessly asked him how many "Jerries" he had killed, York started sobbing so vehemently he threw up. The crew member was nearly fired, but the next day, York demanded that he keep his job."
While the attack he lead killed 28 German soldiers, he also captured 132, saving their lives.