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Film / Sergeant York

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Gary Cooper, one-man army.

Sergeant York is a 1941 film Based on a True Story, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper in the title role.

It tells the mostly true story of Alvin C. York, a farmer from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee. York is a hard drinker and a hell-raiser, but he converts to Christianity, abandons his wild ways, and becomes a pacifist. When the United States enters World War I, York applies for conscientious objector status based on his religious beliefs. But his application is denied, and he gets drafted into the infantry – where he ultimately becomes a national hero, a Medal of Honor winner, and one of the most decorated US soldiers of the war for his actions in combat.

Sergeant York was a massive commercial and critical success, and a career highlight for both Hawks and Cooper. It was nominated for eleven Oscars and won two, including the first of Cooper's two Best Actor awards.


  • Artistic License – History: A few instances:
    • York's friend "Pusher" Ross is killed by a captured German soldier who managed to get hold of a grenade. York then shoots the German in revenge. Pusher is fictional, and although one German did refuse to surrender, threw a grenade and was shot by York in response, the grenade didn't kill any Americans.
    • The German troops are shown being commanded by a major. They were actually commanded by Paul Vollmer, who was only a lieutenant. The fictional major in the movie isn't named.
    • York is seen using a Luger he takes from a captured German after losing his US Army Colt M1911. In truth, he never took a gun from a prisoner to use, and kept hold of his Army Colt for the entire battle. This was changed because the Luger the armorers provided was the only blank-adapted handgun available on the set. He is also seen using an M1903 Springfield, as opposed to the M1917 Enfield he had in real life.
    • The battle occurs in a very open and frankly desert-like environment, as compared to the thickly-wooded hills of the actual ravine in France. It's possible the filmmakers wanted to give the battlefield a more harsh and desolate-looking appearance in order to add tension.
    • Unlike in the movie, the land and house given to Alvin was not waiting for him when he came home from France. In actuality it took roughly three years for the state to provide it. The land is now a state park that hosts WWI living history events.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Alvin and his CO have a little duel of sorts, as York quotes all the more pacifistic Bible verses, and the officer cites other passages in order to convince York that it's OK to fight.
  • Bar Brawl: Alvin leads a wild life before getting religion, one that includes getting into a fight at the local moonshine bar.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Hardly any blood anywhere in the movie, except for Blood from the Mouth from one American mowed down by German machine guns. Most prominent when Pusher gets blown up with a grenade—no blood (it was made in the 1940s, after all; no way The Hays Code would have allowed it).
  • Bullet Hole Spelling: Alvin York shows off his Improbable Aiming Skills by shooting his initials A and Y into a tree from as horseback all while under the influence.
  • Call-Back: York uses the "gobble, gobble" call to get a turkey to pop its head up so he can shoot it, and later explains to his fellow soldiers how to shoot a line of turkeys—start with the last one so the others don't know what's happening. Both of these are referenced later when he is taking out an entire line of Germans in a trench.
  • Comforting Comforter: In one scene Alvin's mum covers him when he falls asleep.
  • Conscription: What forces York to go to war.
  • Country Mouse: Alvin could not be more of a rube when the war drags him out of Appalachia. Not only has he never ridden a subway, he doesn't know what one is.
  • Down on the Farm: The whole first half of the film is York's life in the mountains, romancing his sweetheart Gracie (Joan Leslie) and trying to buy a better patch of land.
  • Draft Dodging: York at first simply refuses to register for the draft. After being told he must register, he appeals all the way up the chain before finally being forced to report for service.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Alvin shooting is name into the tree at the beginning while under the influence shows off his Improbable Aiming Skills.
  • Give Me a Sign: Alvin asks God to give him a sign but gets no response. The answer comes delayed when during a dark and stormy night a lightning strikes his gun but leaves him unharmed.
  • Good Angel, Bad Angel: When Alvin retreats to the top of a mountain cliff in order to ponder his dilemma if to join the war against Germany or not, the opposed voices of Major Buxton and Pastor Pile from earlier conversations echo in his head.
  • Gossip Evolution: The identity of York's prisoners change with each retelling until finally everyone thinks he captured the Kaiser.
  • Hard-Work Montage: The two months Alvin is trying to make $70 is depicted in key shots of him working hard at various jobs.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "That strikes me as mighty queer" (strange).
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: In the first scene of the movie, York manages to shoot his initials into a tree, on horseback, while drunk. His instructors at boot camp, expecting a pacifist to be no good with weapons, are mesmerized when York hits the bulls-eye at the shooting range every time. This comes in handy when York has to shoot Germans.
  • I Surrender, Suckers:
    • York's platoon forces the surrender of a German unit. The German commander, however, knows that there are a couple of machine gun nests at the top of the hill that the Americans didn't see. While holding his hands in surrender, he nods to the machine gunners atop the hill, who rake York's men with fire.
    • Another German soldier who has surrendered pulls a grenade and throws it, killing York's pal.
  • Kidnapped from Behind: A lethal variant is discussed when York is telling the other troops that when you're hunting turkeys when they're in flocks, you always shoot the ones at the back of the flock, and then work your way forward.
  • Left the Background Music On: When a fight breaks out at a bar, someone stumbles into the automatic piano, which gets bumped to "Fast" speed as the fight continues.
  • Martial Pacifist: Sgt. Alvin C. York. Pacifist, conscientious objector. Killed 20 Germans, captured two machine gun nests, captured 132 German soldiers all by himself. He later explains that he had to do it, to stop the Germans from killing his comrades.
  • Overalls and Gingham: Alvin is seen wearing a bib overalls in most of his scenes in first act, establishing him as a Farm Boy.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The scene where Alvin becomes converted because of the bolt of lightning was an invention of the screenwriters. In reality Alvin C. York was converted from his hard-drinking, roustabout ways to a Sunday-school teacher by his wife, and it was a longer and less dramatic process, unsuitable for a film depiction.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: York, a devout Christian, left the ravaged French countryside as the most decorated American soldier of World War I.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Alvin is surprised to see Gracie all grown up.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: A British soldier with the Americans calmly instructs them on when they need to duck the German artillery shells that are falling all around them.
  • Tickertape Parade: Alvin gets one when returning to New York as a war hero.
  • Violence Really Is the Answer: York remains a pacifist at heart and believes the Lord's will is to save lives, not take them; but he also ends up believing that there are times when one has to take someone's life for the ultimate goal of saving even more lives.
  • White Flag: The Germans hoist a white flag when surrendering to Alvin's attack.