Friday, June 15, 2012

145. Sergeant York (1941)

Running Time: 134 minutes
Directed By: Howard Hawks
Written By: Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel
Main Cast: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Margaret Wycherly
Click here to view the trailer


The last big event of this 100, "Hawks Week", kicks off with a bang, as I take in my first Howard Hawks directed film in nearly two years (the last one being "His Girl Friday", back on July 23, 2010), "Sergeant York".

The film is mainly set in Pall Mall, Tennessee in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf, where Alvin York (Cooper) spends his days becoming infamous as the town drunk. The rest of his family and most of the town, for that matter, are God fearing folks, the type of folks you'll find crowded into a church during services, singing hymns and stamping their feet. One day, Mama York (Wycherly) calls Alvin home so that he can tend to the family farm. Alvin spends his days plowing the field, hunting game and doing his usual chores. Later, Alvin meets Gracie Williams (Leslie), the town beauty, whom he falls head over heels for. Alvin sets his sights on a piece of bottom land and works for sixty days, trying to earn enough money to buy the land so that he can ask Gracie to marry him and build a home there. Alvin isn't able to scrounge up the money in time to buy the land, but undergoes a spiritual awakening when he is struck by lightning during a violent rainstorm. Alvin makes his way to the church and from that point on considers himself a man of God, following the gospel religiously, along with the guidance of Pastor Pile (Brennan). At somewhere about the halfway mark of the movie, the United States throws it's hat into the ring of World War I and Alvin, despite trying to get out of it on a conscientious objector exemption, is sent to Europe to fight for his country. Of course, basic training comes first, where Alvin turns heads with his exceptional marksman skills, citing that he's a self taught sharpshooter.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Howard Hawks was the early half of the century's equivalent to Steven Spielberg.  He made the films that the general public would slap down their money for and usually drew big box office numbers. "Sergeant York" was no exception to this, becoming the highest grossing film of 1941, beating out classics like "Citizen Kane" and "The Maltese Falcon". This picture is pure, classic Hollywood and films like this always make me wonder where Hollywood went wrong. In 1941, it was quality film making like this that was heralded by it's Hollywood makers and today, in 2012, it's big budget films like "The Avengers" or "Twilight" that make Hollywood brag. At what point did Hollywood go from selling quality films, like "York", to selling teen fronted movies, that lack any sort of real quality film making? Perhaps, it's the audience that's changed. Perhaps we've become less cultivated and thus, we're sold on films that offer glitz and glamour, rather than films that offer a good story and a little bit of inspiration, which is exactly what "York" offers.

I can't necessarily pinpoint why I liked "Sergeant York", I can only say that I really enjoyed it. It was a story that drew me in and didn't let go until Alvin York was coming home to mama. I actually dreaded it going in, because I assumed it was going to be just another classic Hollywood war story and that it wasn't going to be up my alley. Instead, we spend about an hour and fifteen minutes before we even go to war, establishing the character of Alvin York and then sending him into the trenches. This way, we're familiar with the character who is going to fight and it's not just another guy in camouflage marching to war. The whole story flowed along just beautifully for a nearly two and a half hour picture. It's cast turned in fine performances, with Gary Cooper finally proving why he always gets mentioned among Hollywood's most famous of the classic leading men. I can't say I was ever to blown away by him in anything else of his that I've watched, but Cooper did a magnificent job here. I also really enjoyed Walter Brennan as the pastor. Hawks seems to have a way of turning all of his stories into interesting ones, even if the story he's telling you isn't your kind of story. I don't like war films or films about war heroes, yet I loved "Sergeant York". I couldn't care less about pilots and aviation, yet "Only Angels Have Wings" was a good movie. Hell, it was Howard Hawks who finally showed me a stellar Cary Grant film, in "Bringing Up Baby". After watching "Sergeant York" and witnessing it's greatness, I am genuinely excited for the next six Howard Hawks films that will make up "Hawks Week".

RATING: 9/10  It got a little bit too Hollywood in certain parts and certain pieces of dialogue were just WAY too corny ("This is where we change cars, Alvin. The end of the line"), but otherwise it was pretty flawless. Next up: "To Have and Have Not".


June 15, 2012  2:12am

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