The year was 1941, and two films came out that year that changed film forever; ‘Citizen Kane’, and ‘Sergeant York’. Both films are considered to be not only “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” by the American Film Institute (AFI, for short), but were also Oscar nominees running in nearly every one of the same category (Except ‘Supporting Actor and Actress’, which the latter was nominated for). Sadly, both films lost the ‘Best Picture’ Oscar to a lesser-known film called ‘How Green Was My Valley’. (I am still interested in viewing the film for that reason alone.) Despite both films being important to the film industry, only one received more box-office attention than the other. That film was ‘Sergeant York’. While ‘Citizen Kane’ went on to be shown in film schools (and high school classes) in later years as a tool for how to make a great film, ‘Sergeant York’ became the BIGGER deal. Not only was it a major Oscar nominee (winning only two for Gary Cooper’s performance as the real-life Alvin C. York, but for William Holmes’ editing as well.), it also became the highest-grossing film of that year. (Which, if adjusted for inflation, is still one of the highest grossing movies of all time)
I had never seen (or maybe even heard of) ‘Sergeant York’, until my church marketed the movie as a free evening showing. Knowing that this was my chance to see more quality films, I decided to go. When I went to this “screening”, I should say, the church made a mini snack bar as a way to transport me (and the willing audience who came to see a wholesome film with elements of Christianity laced throughout) back in time to the 1940’s when the economy was cheap, and you could get your snacks for 10¢ (Man, times seemed so easy back then!). However, going in the auditorium was something special. Yes, we were watching a DVD on a small projection screen, but as soon as the lights turned off (or “dimmed”, I should say.), I felt like I was at the movies again; only this time, I was seeing a re-release of a movie that has faded away with time. ‘Sergeant York’ was shot in black-and-white, making my experience ever more refreshing. (It has been a while since I’ve seen a black-and-white motion picture.)
The picture began and I was instantly transported to a small church singing Christian hymns with Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan, who received the “Supporting Actor” nomination.) getting comically interrupted by each noisy inconvenience; (the squeaking shoes of a late church goer walking in; the sound of soldiers causing a ruckus.) showing us the frustrations one church leader might go through while preaching the Gospel. However, the film took a good 15-20 minutes for me to get instantly immersed into its world, and even outstanding film-making. I can tell just by the effort director Howard Hawks and his crew put into ‘Sergeant York’ that it is, indeed, a film of high quality and excellence. This film would not have been possible without the real Alvin C. York, who would only support Warner Bros.’ production of the film on three conditions: 1.) York’s money to be donated as a fundraiser for a bible school he wanted built. (York was a Christian.) 2.) Only a wholesome female actress who didn’t smoke cigarettes could only be chosen to play Gracie Williams, his real life wife. (which got at-the-time 16-year-old Joan Leslie the part) 3.) Gary Cooper could only play him on-screen. All those things turned out in favor for York, and Warner Bros., which distributed the film. However, upon release, many stories have been reported of young men who signed up for the war immediately after viewing the movie.
As cool as that seemed at the time, ‘Sergeant York’ is more than a war movie. It instead is a celebration of the most decorated soldier of World War I; a biopic of a man who started off as rough and raucous and found his faith in his roughest time, only to end up fighting for what he believed was right according to his beliefs. I believe that the real Alvin C. York was proud for what he saw and his contribution to the picture, and I am proud to have seen a quality film such as this.