Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Too-Good-to-Be-True Good Guy

"I ain't a–goin' to war. War's killin', and the book's agin' killin'! So war is agin' the book!"

Sgt. York (Gary Cooper)

I've never been a big fan of war movies.

There are some war movies that I like, but they almost always involve more than shooting and explosions. I've never been much for splashy special effects. For me, a war movie has to tell a good story, preferably with some kind of redeeming quality to counterbalance the violence. It helps if the story being told happens to be true.

Howard Hawks' "Sergeant York," which was at the theaters 75 years ago today, was such a movie. In fact, I would hesitate to call it a war movie. It was about a man who had sincere religious beliefs that came into conflict with the laws and requirements of the country in which he lived. War was merely the subtext of the larger issues that Alvin York's story raised.

Really, though, it would have been hard to go wrong. It was a biography of a hero whose story really seemed too good to be true. The American Film Institute ranked the film character the 35th–most heroic character in movie history; AFI also ranked the actor who portrayed him, Gary Cooper, as the 11th–greatest actor of all time.

Given the fact that York was one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, a conflict that had been fought in the lifetimes of most American adults in 1941, it should be no surprise that his story would draw huge audiences, and it did. It easily cleared more than $16 million at the box office, more than four times the earnings of the runnerup, "Honky Tonk," starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

My mother was quite taken with the movie and frequently quoted her favorite dialogue from it. York's sister, played by 16–year–old June Lockhart, and mother (in an Oscar–nominated performance by Margaret Wycherly) waved to Alvin as he left to report for duty. "What are they a–fighting for, Ma?" York's sister asked. "I don't rightly know, child," her mother replied.

(I've known that dialogue most of my life, I guess. Mom repeated it so many times. She was like that about her favorite lines from movies. Sometimes she used funny pronunciations of words as part of her regular conversation. One of her favorites was using words spoken by Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies — but that's a topic for another time.)

When the story began, Alvin York was a hillbilly from rural Tennessee who liked to drink and carouse. He needed motivation to walk the straight and narrow — and he found it in the form of a beautiful young girl (Joan Leslie). York set out to raise the money for payment on a prize piece of farm land, which he figured would seal the deal with this girl. But the land was sold to someone else so he went back to his old ways.

But he found religion, and it changed his life. His pastor was played by Walter Brennan, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (but lost to Donald Crisp in "How Green Was My Valley.")

Because of his conversion, York was an unlikely war hero. He even tried to get out of serving by claiming conscientious objector status, but he was drafted anyway. During his training it was discovered that he was a superior marksman — a skill he had picked up hunting in the hills — and he was promoted to corporal.

York put his marksmanship skills to good use during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918 when enemy machine gun fire pinned down his unit. With only a handful of men — and doing most of the work himself, picking off enemy soldiers from a sniper position — York captured more than 130 Germans.

He was a national hero and received the Medal of Honor — even though he always said his motivation was to save the lives of his men.

As I say, the movie was a big hit at the box office. The story was heroic, but it was also helped by the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, which happened while "Sergeant York" was in theaters. I have heard that some young men went directly from watching the movie to local recruitment offices to sign up, so inspired were they by Cooper's performance.

Cooper won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of York.