Sergeant York: A Story of God, Country, and Hope
I grew up watching countless war movies. I remember always admiring the classics like The Great Escape, Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, Von Ryan’s Express, Patton, The Guns of Navarone, Run Silent Run Deep, Bridge over Remagen, and of course Saving Private Ryan. The movies I listed all have a ton of differences in how they depict war, and they are all about World War Two, and most of their plots could be summarized pretty simply. They all cover a soldier, or group of soldiers, and tell a heroic tale that would either result in glorious victories, or certain failure. They all had focus, they all focused on a single character or group’s story, they all focused on telling a single message about war, and they all used the audiences desire to see the heroes succeed as a tool to create tension. Sergeant York is a movie that predates any of the movies that I have listed thus far, it is a two hour long biography of one of the most highly decorated soldiers to come out of World War One. I recall the film being very controversial, people I’ve met either get disgusted by this movie, or find its optimistic and hopeful message to be inspiring and necessary. Perhaps this goes to show that when analyzing a war film it is important to think beyond themes and messages, and to also analyze what exactly the film accomplishes.
When analyzing the structure of Sergeant York, I earnestly believe that it’s important to establish what makes the film so different from War films seen today. One of the latest war films I’ve seen is the 2017 war film Dunkirk, which was a war film that covered a famous battle in World War 2. Dunkirk is a film that confronts multiple perspectives and tells multiple stories, ultimately four important ones. Specifically, Dunkirk tells the story of a soldier who is trying to flee the war, the story of a heroic civilian who risks not only his own life but the lives of his two sons to help save the lives of others, the story of a sea Admiral who has to make difficult decisions in order to make sure evacuations run smoothly, and finally a heroic Royal Air Force pilot who’s every decision impacts the lives of hundreds of soldiers. What I’m getting at, is that Dunkirk is a film that focuses on many, many different sides of a very complicated war in an attempt to give the most accurate depiction of the war as possible. However, this comes at a price for Dunkirk, because in the end the film doesn’t give a very consistent message. In some ways it glorifies the war, or at least tells the story of how England’s pride and nationalism helped save it from certain destruction from a relentless German onslaught. In other ways Dunkirk shows the dirty sides of the war, showing the cruel nature U-Boats, and how they almost effortlessly slay the lives of thousands of people including civilians, brutally drowning people who are confined to hospital beds in a Red Cross boat. In the end: the message of Dunkirk is simply inconsistent, and is not as impactful as it could be. This problem is not existent in Sergeant York, because Sergeant York has a very clear message that it is trying to convey. Sergeant York is a film that has far more focus, as it is autobiographical about a singular person and his experiences. This is the structure that makes classic war films like Sergeant York so effective, and seem much more meaningful than modern war films like Dunkirk that treat their topics more delicately.
When digging into the morals and messages that Sergeant York spreads, it’s pretty safe to say that every opinion it expresses was contrary to what was the literary norm at the time. Many novels during this time had a generally graphic and negative look at the war, and many focused on the gore and the horrors of the war. While there is certainly violence in Sergeant York, extreme gore is hardly replicated in any sort of extreme detail, at least any that could be in any way shape or form compared to that seen in modernist pieces at the time. Many of these war novels also included a common theme of a crisis of religion: men who are attached to god losing their faith through the hellish experience of war. Sergeant York works the exact opposite, as Alvin York’s faith is strengthened as the story goes forward.
Alvin York starts out as troublemaking man who has little to no faith in god, as a consequence of living in a nowhere town in a nowhere country in a nowhere world, Alvin York’s existence at first seems to lack meaning outside of being a hooligan who just knows how to shoot really well, and he evolves into a person who’s existence is fulfilled and becomes more and more morally conscious through his experience with the military and his experience with the war. The complete uselessness and purposelessness of Alvin’s life is encapsulated in the first hour of the film. He tries to find purpose through marrying a girl he likes named Gracie, but his tendencies of getting into fights and doing other rapscallion activities make him a joke of a lover. It’s only through what seems like dumb luck that he actually lands a relationship with Gracie. Alvin York’s individuality is established in this first hour, and while he’s humble and doesn’t have a lot of self-respect, things aren’t too bad for him. A few minor setbacks seem to hit Alvin hard during this phase, and at first it seems like he’s going to solve his problems through his usual method of drinking alcohol and being stubborn, that is until he gets hit by a bolt of lightning during a thunderstorm. Angelic music seems to portray this moment in Alvin’s life as some sort of God-like miracle: as if God is trying to give some sort of message about his rifle, but in any case, this scene only further reinforces Alvin York’s individuality: it gives him a backstory so unbelievable and so unique that it only further establishes that Alvin is no ordinary human being, he is a human being with a destined purpose. Immediately after being struck by lightning Alvin York enters the chapel and he seems to immediately find God, joining in with the church goers. This scene, and it’s position at the near exact midway point of the film, symbolizes a change in Alvin’s character: God had seen Alvin’s lack of purpose and God gave him purpose.
The second hour of Sergeant York focuses on his Alvin’s experience in boot camp, and then the war. This is where Alvin’s individuality really begins to shine: his newly acquired religious beliefs make him question the war, and question the morality of killing someone. This is the sort of thinking that the Alvin at the beginning of the film wouldn’t have bothered with, so it’s pretty clear that Alvin’s attachment to God turned him into a more morally conscious human being. Alvin’s experience in shooting translates right into the firing range, to the point that his expertise arguably surpasses that of the drill sergeant trying to teach him. Alvin’s humble beliefs play into this part of the story as well, when he initially turns down a promotion of Corporal when he’s approached by Major Buxton. Buxton retorts by showing Alvin a book on the history of the United States, bringing up how the United States is a country that was founded, governed, and inhabited by men who would lay anything on the line to protect their freedoms. Buxton gives Alvin the choice to be exempt from the war, but the history book causes Alvin to debate within his head whether his heritage or his God is more important. Suddenly in another act of divine intervention in Alvin’s life, a wind turns to a page that says “render to caesar what is caesar’s and unto god what is god’s”. He decides to stay in the army after reading this, citing his pastor and says, “I reckon I can just be trustin in something that is a heap bigger than I am.” It is at this point that Alvin York puts aside his individuality to support something that he believes to be a cause for an ultimate greater good, and he promises to take care of the men that he is put in charge of. Shortly after this, the actual front line infantry part of the film starts. The depiction of the action is dark at first, with some traditional morbid trench warfare scenes at first, but this quickly changes in tone after York captures an incredible amount of German soldiers, personally killing quite a few Germans in the process of doing so. The story of this quickly travels all across the war zone, and York quickly becomes famous among the other soldiers, even though they needlessly exaggerate the story more and more in a bit of comic relief. When Major Baxton confronts Alvin again and asks him about what changed his mind about killing, Alvin explains that he only killed the Germans because he witnessed the cruelty of the German machine gun nests and wanted to stop them from killing people like sheep, ultimately, York only killed because he wanted to save lives. Word of this spreads and York is quickly a public acclaimed “American Hero”, and he is rewarded with an excessive amount of rewards, all of which he accepts. After he returns home, the pastor, with absolutely no subtlety at all, says “You’re the greatest hero around here since Daniel Boone”, a throwback to the history book that Alvin read earlier. In the end, Alvin is rewarded with an estate, given to him by the state of Tennessee, and he and Gracie get to live happily ever after, Alvin York closes the film simply saying “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
In the end, the film is pretty heavy with the Christian rhetoric, and it definitely puts York on a pedestal that is incredibly unrealistic to expect the average soldier to fulfill: but that doesn’t necessarily make the film propaganda. The film tackles issues that one wouldn’t expect it to, and even more unexpected, it approaches those issues with an optimistic message. Probably the best example is the optimistic message that God helps those who believe in God, or at the very least those who believe in God can achieve an inspiration that can lead to great success. The film teaches that American men should honor their heritage by helping their country in any way they can, and try to do more with their life than shoot guns, mess around with girls, and drink booze. Alvin York, at his core, has good morals, is humble, and does everything he can to help the lives of those around him. As I said at the very beginning of this review, this structure, this optimistic idea of a war hero, someone who goes into the Hell of war to save souls from it, putting everything he has accomplished up until this point on the line, is the fundamental building blocks of the majority of war films to follow this one. The audience wants to see the “Alvin York” character make it out of the war and make it back to his family: and some war films, such as The Great Escape, use the creative twist of not letting the main character’s story end well. This is the tension, the struggle, the stakes that classic war cinema has. That is what makes it especially appealing to those who are actively involved in the military: the struggle is relatable. In the end, Sergeant York is a film that is designed to give people hope, and hope is not a bad thing, especially during a time when the world seemed so hopeless.
Pictured: York, after being struck by lightning, is depicted converting to Christianity, this occurs almost exactly at the halfway point in the film.