Sergeant York (1941)

Sergeant York (1941)

“I figured them guns was killin’ hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothin’ anybody could do, but to stop them guns.”

With support from his preacher (Walter Brennan), his mother (Margaret Wycherly), and his sweetheart (Joan Leslie), a hard-drinking backwoods farmer becomes a devoutly faithful pacifist, refusing to join World War I until he has no other choice — but once he enters the military, he begins to understand the value of his sharpshooting skills at protecting his compatriots from harm.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Biopics
  • Character Arc
  • Gary Cooper Films
  • Howard Hawks Films
  • Joan Leslie Films
  • Walter Brennan Films
  • Ward Bond Films
  • World War I

Gary Cooper won a Best Actor Oscar for his leading role in this biopic about one of the greatest — and perhaps most unusual — war heroes in American history. Cooper actually starred in two other major films that year — Meet John Doe (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941) — and in Alternate Oscars, Peary gives Cooper the award for the latter instead, stating that he believes he “gave a much better performance” (his personal favorite of Cooper’s career) playing bookish Professor Potts. As humble Alvin York, however, Cooper also seems perfectly cast (if perhaps typecast); it was interesting learning that Cooper had to be persuaded (by York himself, who wanted no one else to portray him!) to take the role. He convincingly holds his dialect while playing both a farmer:

… and a soldier:

Unfortunately, the film is overlong at 2 1/4 hours, and the first half+ — with its focus on saintly Brennan’s influence:

… Cooper’s intention to purchase land and marry Leslie:

… and his mother’s firm guidance (Wycherly — best known as “Ma” in White Heat — was certainly a distinctive character actor!):

… is much less compelling than the second half, when we see York’s casual yet calculated brilliance in action:

With that said, film fanatics will likely be interested to see this movie given its historical significance as a film York agreed to finally see made simply to help out the efforts of WWII; as DVD Savant describes the film:

“Howard Hawks’ advocacy movie is an outgrowth of the 30s Warners tradition of taking hard liberal attitudes toward social problems. It’s an unusually complicated example of filmmaking, restating history to make a statement about pressing contemporary problems. It’s beautifully filmed, emotionally honest and exactly right for 1941.”

Check out this podcast episode for a comparison of the movie with real life events; they’re remarkably close, actually. And this bit of trivia (courtesy of IMDb) was moving to read:

Alvin C. York himself was on the set for a few days during filming. When one of the crew members tactlessly asked him how many “Jerries” he had killed, York started sobbing so vehemently he threw up. The crew member was nearly fired, but the next day, York demanded that he keep his job.

Talk about living your beliefs.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine direction and cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical significance and Cooper’s Oscar win. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Historically Relevant
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Sergeant York (1941)

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    Simple, straightforward storytelling; a solid piece of Americana – seemingly approached with an immense amount of respect for Alvin York.

    FFs should see this film more or less in tandem with ‘White Heat’ – just to be fully aware of the stunning achievement Wycherly pulled off with polar opposite roles.

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