Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Sergeant York’: A Rousing Biopic About a Real American Hero

February 26, 2021 Updated: February 26, 2021

Not Rated| 2h 14min | Biography, Drama, History | 27 September 1941 (USA)

There are many heroes who initially don’t seem destined for greatness. This certainly is the case with Alvin York, a real-life American hero who went above and beyond the call of duty during World War I.

York’s heroics are retold in director Howard Hawks’s fascinating “Sergeant York,” a 1941 patriotic war movie. The film opens in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf, nestled in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. The local pastor, Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan), is leading his parish in a powerful Christian hymn titled “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”

When the hymn concludes, the pastor begins his sermon, which is interrupted by gunfire that erupts from somewhere outside of the church. York (Gary Cooper) and his fellow booze-swilling cohorts are riding around town and shooting their pistols off in a belligerent bout of drunkenness.

Even while drunk and disorderly, York manages to shoot his initials into a tree right outside of the church, “A V.” If there’s one thing that good ol’ country boy York does well, it’s to hit a target with unnatural accuracy.

York’s mother (Margaret Wycherly) goes to the settlement’s general store (which is coincidently owned by Pastor Pile) to make amends for her son’s transgressions, and it is here that we learn the widow’s family is destitute. The only thing the Yorks own is a small patch of land.

old man and old woman in a country store
Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan), also the proprietor of the local general store, talks with his parishioner Mrs. York (Margaret Wycherly), in “Sergeant York.” (Warner Bros.)

While there, Mrs. York suggests, in a beautiful Southern drawl, that the pastor have a talk with her older son, Alvin, to tell him that “A little religion wouldn’t do him no hurt.”

Meanwhile, York and his buddies take to swilling even more booze at the local bar and get so soused that they get into some fisticuffs with other drunken ne’er-do-wells. His younger brother, George (Dickie Moore), marches into the place and tells him that his mother wants him to come home. York returns home with his tail tucked between his legs and makes amends with his stern but fair mother, who greets him at the door with a bucket of cold water in an effort to sober him up.

Trying to make amends, York begins tilling his family’s fields. Pastor Pile then travels to the York property and does try to persuade the youth to become a man of faith. But York is stubborn and shrugs off the pastor’s endeavors.

older man chat with younger one plowing
Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan, L) chats with Alvin York (Gary Cooper), in “Sergeant York.” (Warner Bros.)

Later, while out hunting for foxes with his younger brother and some friends, York falls under the spell of local country girl Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie). Although she is also attracted to him (in a shy manner), she figures that he isn’t quite marriage material because of his family’s circumstances.

This motivates York to ditch the booze and set his sights on a larger patch of property called the “bottomland.” Unfortunately, while working his tail off to obtain the land, he gets hoodwinked by a conniving wheeler-dealer, Nate Tomkins (Erville Alderson). This causes York to return to the bottle, and in a fit of drunken fury, he sets off to kill Tomkins.

Gary Cooper and Joan Leslie in Sergeant York
Alvin York (Gary Cooper) is smitten with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), in “Sergeant York.” (Warner Bros.)

Perhaps through divine intervention, a bolt of lightning strikes him, bending his rifle’s barrel and thus rendering it useless. York views this as a wake-up call and he begins attending Pastor Pile’s services, much to the solace of his family, who are regular attendees.

York undergoes a total Christian conversion, which compels him to be a better man. He makes amends with local folks, including Tomkins.

However, World War I intrudes and all of the local men must register for the draft. Because of his religious conversion, York has become a pacifist. But Pastor Pile advises York to register anyway, and he reluctantly obliges.

When York is selected for Army service, a conundrum arises: Can he serve his country and go to war, while being against killing his fellow man?

Focus on the Hero

While the first two acts of the film paint a beautiful tapestry of York’s upbringing in the backwoods of Tennessee, the final act showcases his extraordinary honor and courage in the face of adversity on the battlefields and in the trenches of the Great War.

For a film set in 1941, “Sergeant York” has an exceptional level of character development that enables it to transcend mere propaganda. Through Hawks’s more-than-capable guidance, Cooper is set free to deliver one of his finest, most compelling performances, buttressed further by Wycherly as his stalwart, ever-supportive mother. The excellent supporting cast carry their own weight without being too obtrusive.

“Sergeant York” is a deeply moving film that should inspire even the most ardent of pessimists out there. Its sincere dedication to unusual heroism, patriotism, and selflessness is something that should be witnessed. Be warned: Bring a handkerchief or box of tissues to wipe away all of those tears.

‘Sergeant York’
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Margaret Wycherly, Joan Leslie
Not Rated
Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 27, 1941 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane.