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Sergeant York (1941)


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No thread on A&F for Sergeant York yet? No thread on A&F for Sergeant York yet. Come on now. I know it might be a cliche for Christians to like this one. I know it might even be easy to make fun of. But there's still something warm and wholesome about it ... in fact, in my opinion, it's pretty darn special.

Not only that, but I don't know if there are any films out there whose release could be said to be providential. But if you were to ever argue that there was one, this would be it. Sergeant York opened in the United States on July 2, 1941. Six months later, Pearl Harbor would be attacked and the United States would enter World War II. How many young men sat in the movie theaters and watched this film who would be fighting a war less than a year later? How many of them would be inspired by or take comfort from the themes from Sergeant York in the next years? Even today I know a number of other Christians who are whole-heartedly and sincerely pacifists. And I respect and even love them for it. But, without the motivations and philosophy/theology behind the Sergeant York film, you'd lose all the guys like Major Dick Winters from WWII.

And heck, if I hadn't seen and grown to love this film (and the character of Alvin York) as boy, who knows if I would have even ever joined the Army and gone to war myself?

Can you legitimately criticize parts of this film? Yes. Does it oversimplify a few things? Probably. But it's still a great film (inspired by a great story) and I love it.

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I love this film too, and watched it a good deal when I was a boy. Any time I would shoot at targets, I'd put some spit on the iron sights to reduce glare (and make my dad chuckle).

The movie still holds up well now, and — yes, despite some of the flaws you mentioned — really works as a good meat-and-potatoes movie from classic Hollywood.

And, as a Protestant in an all-Catholic family, I still chuckle at the fact that my dad thinks all Protestants are like Gracie's father, muttering biblical genealogy off every time we read the Bible.

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Jason Panella wrote:

: And, as a Protestant in an all-Catholic family, I still chuckle at the fact that my dad thinks all Protestants are like Gracie's father, muttering biblical genealogy off every time we read the Bible.

Dude, I used to memorize biblical geneaologies during boring sermons at church, and I can still rattle some of 'em off pretty well. (Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Arphaxad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Perez, Hezron... And yes, I just wrote all that without looking 'em up.)

As for Sergeant York itself, I'm not sure how "providential" I'd call it. The war had already been raging for almost two years by the time the film came out (longer, if you date it from Japan's invasion of China rather than Germany's invasion of Poland), and I don't think anyone expected America to stay out of it entirely. Movies like Sergeant York were clearly made as part of an effort to PREPARE Americans for war -- and they marked a change of attitude since, say, The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which Robin Hood criticizes King Richard for getting mixed up in foreign affairs. That film (which was produced by the same studio as Sergeant York) came out in 1938, one year before the European war began, and at a time when America was more isolationist; three years later, however, things had changed.

One of the interesting things about Sergeant York is that it lingers in our memory as a "World War II movie" simply because it was released during World War II and played a part in encouraging people to fight in that war. But it's not really about that war at all; the movie takes place during World War *I*, which has always been understood -- always -- as a bewildering, indefensible, horrific waste of human life without any of the justifications that can plausibly attach themselves to the winning side in World War II. So if we're going to look at the film as a justification of violence as a form of "rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's", then we need to take that World War I context into account, I think.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 years later...

This was how I spent my Friday night -- crossing off a long-existing entry in my "need to see that someday" file by watching this film with my wife, who'd seen it when much younger but couldn't remember much about it.

Directed by ... Howard Hawks! That's another filmmaker in my similarly named "need to see more by that guy someday" file. (I've seen some Hawks; just not nearly enough.)

Cooper is magnificent in this film, but I'm guessing I'll think of the movie in the future almost as much as a Walter Brennan movie (!!) as I will a Gary Cooper, or Howard Hawks, film.

I was very taken this year with the overt Christian themes and language of Les Miserables. Films from the Sgt. York era shouldn't surprise me as much when they drop religious lingo, but I admit to being bowled over by how faith-driven this story is, and how full of Christian terminology and concepts its script is.

Were I a pacifist, I suppose the film would irritate me as an apology for war, but I'm not and I think the film handled that tension well. There's a second, supplemental disc with my DVD filled with documentaries about the man behind the movie, etc. It'll be interesting to see how historically accurate -- or not -- the movie is.

Oh, and also like Les Mis, I was much more taken with the first half of this film than I was with the second, but didn't have any grave concerns about the second half. I just found it more standard fare, even though it depicts York's battlefield heroism.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Back in the '90s -- back in the VHS days -- I used to give lectures at places like Regent College on religion and film, and I would play a portion of the clip above to demonstrate how "golden age" Hollywood fused religion and politics. Note how the music around the 9-minute mark segues from 'That Old Time Religion' to one of the American national anthems.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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