Celebrating a hero: “Sergeant York” – Warner Archive Collection
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Gary Cooper won an Academy Award as Sergeant Alvin York, the most decorated United States Army hero of World War I. York serviced in Company G, 328th Infantry, 82nd Division.
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“SERGEANT YORK” – WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION
Blu-ray; 1941; Not Rated
Best extra: Making-of featurette, “Sergeant York: Of God and Country,” narrated by Liam Neeson
GARY COOPER won his first Best Actor Academy Award for the role of Alvin York, the most decorated hero of World War I. “Sergeant York” also won for Best Film Editing (William Holmes), and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Howard Hawks), Best Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan), Best Cinematography (Sol Polito), and Best Music, Scoring, (Max Steiner) among others.
It’s based on the life of Alvin York, “who fought valiantly during the First World War despite the fact that his religious beliefs should have prevented him from doing so,” author Jeanine Basinger, “The World War II Combat Film, Anatomy of a Genre,” says in the commentary on Warner Archive’s outstanding new 1080p release. It was the highest-grossing film of 1941, and holds up well today.
The first half of the 134-minute film focuses on York’s early life. There’s only about 15 minutes of military action according to Basinger, but it is remarkable. True story – sharpshooter York single-handedly takes out 20 Germans to rescue his fellow soldiers, then captured 132 prisoners. His biggest problem? Trying to find someone to take them off his hands.
Based on the “Diary of Sergeant York” edited by Tom Skeyhill, York didn’t begin life as a genuine Christian believer. Born in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf in Cumberland Mountains, Tennessee, he was a hell-raiser, much like his late, alcoholic father. That’s obvious from an early scene where he shoots his initials into a tree outside a church service led by Pastor Rosier Pile (Brennan).
“Appears to me the devil be a-knocking at the door of a house of worship,” Pastor Pile says. “If there’s any of you want to go get him, you’d be free to go ‘cause this meetin’s over.”
(1) Director Harold Hawks (“His Girl Friday,” “Big Sleep,” “Red River”) was considered one of Hollywood’s best and helmed the production that premiered in New York City on July 2, 1941. (2-4) Walter Brennan was nominated for an Oscar as Pastor Rosier Pile, the shepherd of a small Tennessee church in the Cumberland Mountains. The women including Alvin’s mother (Margaret Wycherly), center, and sister Rosie (June Lockhart) left, seat on one side of the church, and the men on the opposite side.
York’s mother, played by Margaret Wycherly, a Broadway actress making her film debut, isn’t embarrassed by her son’s misdeeds. “Mighty good shooting for a man in his liquor, ain’t it?”
The moment establishes York’s skill as a marksman, a crucial talent during the war. Mother York supports her son in public, but privately tries to guide him onto a more stable path. Even so, York doesn’t change until a series of ups and downs, and a run-in with a lightning bolt that should have killed him makes an undeniable impression. He also meets his wife to be, Gracie Williams, played by Joan Leslie, who also earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role. York feels he must change his ways in order to court her.
Later drafted into the army, York’s status as a conscientious objector doesn’t win him any favors in basic training. It’s his forthright honesty, personality and shooting that earns friends and engenders respect. Much effort was made to dodge stereotypes in York’s Tennessee home and time in the army. Look for plenty of fine character actors throughout including Noah Berry Jr., Ward Bond, a young June Lockhart, Howard Da Silva, George Tobias, and Elisha Cook Jr. as a piano player. Look quick!
(1) Alvin’s young brother George (Dickie Moore), center, tries to fetch Alvin from a bar on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, after several days of heavy drinking. (2&3) Alvin plows the steep hillside, as love interest Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) makes a visit.
Warner Archive Collection brings viewers an excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from a remastered 4K (1.37:1 aspect ratio) using the best available negatives. It provides exceptional contrast and detail in the 80-year-old film. Deep blacks, bright whites are bright, and graduated gray tones showcase cinematographer Sol Polito’s work. Polito also filmed “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland in 1938, and the delightful “Arsenic and Old Lace,” 1944, with Cary Grant and a cast of stars.
Scenes set in York’s hometown, on training and battlefields show keen attention to detail. Atmosphere is entirely accurate. “A great deal of research went into building the sets,” Basinger says. Film locations included Tennessee; Burro Flats and Warner Ranch in California; and Stage 16, 24, 6, and 9 at Warner Brothers Burbank Studios.
York turned down several pleas to film his story; he didn’t like the fact that he had become famous for taking lives. But Warner producer Jesse Lasky continued to pursue him – for years. At the beginning of World War II, York was a devoted isolationist, while Cooper – York’s chosen actor – disagreed. He was against showcasing a conscientious objector at the time when many felt America should be preparing for World War II. Frustrated, Warner Brothers actually filmed a screen test with Ronald Reagan as York.
Eventually, York determined war with Germany was inevitable and agreed to script changes.
(1) Alvin makes the calendar with the money he’s saved to buy a plot of land in the valley. (2&3) Alvin takes aim to win the annual turkey shoot and then sell the winning cow to buy the land from left, Nate Tompkins (Erville Alderson). Tompkins tells Alvin he’s just sold the property to Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield), center, his rival for Gracie’s hand.
“We should clear the Atlantic right away … I’m for all out aid.” — Alvin York
When Cooper and York finally met, they hit it off and remained friends until Cooper’s death in 1961. “There were things about Cooper that York admired. They both liked hunting, they both liked fishing, they both liked the outdoors. They had similar values … their politics were fairly similar,” says Michael Birdwell, author of “Celluloid Soldier: The Warner Bros. Campaign against Nazism.”
There was one difference – York was a talker, where Cooper was more close-mouthed. It was said York could talk the ears off a field of corn, Birdwell recalls.
“So the movie ‘Sergeant York’ goes from being a film about education and progressive reforms in Tennessee to be, in my opinion, the most potent call for action prior to the American Declaration of war.” — Michael Birdwell, history professor, Tennessee Tech University
(1&2) Alvin was nearly killed by a bolt of lightning and he realizes God has spared his life. He comes forward during the church service and become a believer. (3) Gracie shows her emotions as Alvin heads to the U.S. Army basic training.
“Sergeant York” delivers a clean and clear DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio track, with well-balanced dialogue, effects, and Oscar-nominated score by Austrian composer Max Steiner. Steiner also wrote music for “Casablanca,” “Gone with the Wind” (1939), and the 1933 “King Kong,” his breakthrough score. He wrote hundreds of other films and TV series throughout his life.
SDH subtitles are readily available.
All bonus features, such as Basinger’s commentary and the making-of featurette, are carried over from earlier releases. A vintage short, “Lions for Sale,” documents the training and taming of lions from cubs to adulthood. There’s also a vintage Looney Tunes cartoon, “Porky’s Preview.”
After the war, York refused to make money off his heroism, declining product endorsements and to appear on stage or film. Whether celebrating Veterans Day, Memorial Day, or any other patriotic remembrance, “Sergeant York” remains a rare and captivating look at an American hero.
— Kay Reynolds
(1) Alvin marksmanship is nearly perfect during basic training. (2&3) Alvin goes on a soul searching furlough to determine if he should resend his position as a conscientious objector and go overseas and fight during WWI. (4) Pastor Pile reads a letter from Alvin.
(1) Allied commanders plan an attack on German forces during the Argonne offensive of 1918. (2&3) Alvin and other soldiers prepare for the attack and then storm the battlefield. (4-6) Alvin single-handedly kills 20 Germans and convinces 132 more to surrender.
(1) Alvin is awarded the French War Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. (2) Gracie, Alvin’s mother, brother, and sister welcome him home.