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On the eve of American involvement in WWII, final scenes were being filmed at the Warner Brothers studio lot for one of the greatest war film biographies ever made. It took many years and the passion of one producer to bring to life one of America's most famous and honored war heroes, but the pursuit resulted in a career defining performance for its star and a celebrated film which would bolster an American public faced with the brink of worldwide change.
The making of Sergeant York (1941) was a case of determination and persuasion. The dedicated producer, Jesse Lasky, was adamant about bringing the man's life to the silver screen. In conjunction with legendary Warner Brothers producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, 1942), Lasky unsuccessfully pursued Alvin C. York for the rights to his life story for several years, with the shy Tennessee man, happily living as a local farmer, resisting every time. With WWII approaching, Lasky made the case that York's story was more important than ever. After numerous requests and persistence, York finally agreed - but only on three conditions. First, York's share of the profits would be contributed to a Bible School York wanted constructed. Second, no cigarette smoking actress could be chosen to play his wife. Third, that Gary Cooper, and only Gary Cooper, could recreate his life on screen. Cooper at first turned down the role, but when York himself contacted the star with a personal plea, Cooper agreed to do the picture.
Finding a director for Cooper turned out to be an arduous task for Lasky and Wallis. Warner Brothers and Lasky had spent considerable time and money prying Cooper away from his commitments at Goldwyn (they succeeded only after swapping Cooper for Bette Davis, who would appear in Goldwyn's The Little Foxes, 1941). Cooper decided on previous collaborator Howard Hawks, an unusual choice at the time for a dramatic biopic. In the end, it was an inspired choice - Hawks' combination of gritty action and fluid camera movement gave the WWI scenes of York a vivid immediacy. But the director achieved equal success directing Cooper in the dramatic tale of York's humble Tennessee origins and pacifist beliefs; beliefs the director surely could not have shared.
The life of Alvin C. York, a genuine war hero for both his reported war exploits and his humble American roots, was still very much a well-known American figure. And Sergeant York resonated well with US audiences and American overseas troops at a time when the possibility of another war was very real. Cooper, unable to participate in WWII due to his age and an old injury to his hip, felt strongly that Sergeant York was his way of contributing to the cause. Cooper later said "Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains - Tennessee for him, Montana for me - and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that's not why it's my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character."
Critical acclaim for the film was unanimous, especially Cooper's performance, with Variety calling the film "a star-spangled attraction of unlimited box-office value - film biography at its best," As to the question of the film's propaganda themes, some New York critics were dismayed. Bosley Crowther for the New York Times noted "The suggestion of deliberate propaganda is readily detected here; the performance of Gary Cooper in the title role holds the picture together magnificently and even the most unfavorable touches are made palatable because of him." Variety went on to say, "In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater."
The film was a tremendous wartime success and the top-selling film of 1941. It was nominated for a whopping eleven Academy Awards, but only garnered two - one for Cooper as Best Actor and one for William Holmes for editing. Cooper also won the New York Film Critics award for his performance. Walter Brennan, having already received a record three Academy Awards in the Best Supporting Actor category (for the films The Westerner (1940), Come and Get It (1936), and Kentucky, 1938), was nominated for his role as the pastor Rosier Pile (he lost to Donald Crisp for his performance in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley). Cooper's acceptance speech typified so many of the actor's performances when he said "It was Sergeant Alvin York who won this award; Shucks, I've been in this business sixteen years and sometimes dreamed I might get one of these things. That's all I can say! Funny, when I was dreaming, I always made a good speech." As he and Stewart left the stage, the Oscar stayed behind on the podium.
Director/Producer: Howard Hawks
Producer: Jesse Lasky, Hal B. Wallis
Screenwriter: Harry Chandler, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Howard Koch
Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson, Sol Polito
Composer: Max Steiner
Editor: William Holmes
Art Director: John Hughes
Cast: Gary Cooper (Sgt. Alvin C. York), Walter Brennan (Pastor Rosier Pile), Joan Leslie (Gracie Williams), Ward Bond (Ike Botkin), Stanley Ridges (Maj. Buxton), Margaret Wycherly (Mother York)
BW-135m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Richard Steiner
To learn more about World War I, visit The National World War One Museum.