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The film opens with the following written statement: "We are proud to present this picture and are grateful to the many heroic figures still living, who have generously consented to be portrayed in its story. To their faith and ours that a day will come when man will live in peace on earth, this picture is humbly dedicated."
During the battle of Argonne (8 October 1918) the real Alvin C. York (1887-1964) led a detachment in attack on a German machine gun nest and after the detachment was pinned down by enemy fire, he charged another machine gun nest and, though alone, captured ninety men. While marching with his prisoners, he captured forty-two more prisoners at a third machine gun nest. York explained his exploits by revealing that he used a strategy learned from shooting turkeys. In that strategy, he would shoot the last turkey first and thus was able to eliminate most of the turkeys before the ones in the front realized what was happening. (The film's Alvin York used the same technique.) York was promoted to sergeant and later was awarded the Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre. On his return to the United States, he received the gift of a farm in Tennessee and donated money to the York Foundation for support of an industrial school and a Bible school in Tennessee. Shortly before his death, York, whose only income was Social Security, disability and a small monthly stipend granted to Medal of Honor holders, was almost destitute and owed the U.S. government over $80,000 in taxes on the money he received for film rights. General John J. Pershing called York "the greatest civilian soldier of the war," and Marshal Ferdinand Foch said to him, "What you did was the greatest thing acomplished by any private soldier of all the armies of Europe."
The film's working title was The Amazing Life of Sergeant York. Hollywood Reporter news items add the following information about the production: A minimum budget of $2,000,000 was allotted for the film. William Keighley was scheduled to direct, but when the starting date was postponed, he went on to another film. According to memos in the Warner Bros. Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library, Jesse Lasky suggested Jane Russell for the part of "Gracie" and Helen Wood, Linda Hayes and Suzanne Carnahan tested for the role; Mary Nash tested for "Mother York," and Pat O'Brien and Ronald Reagan were tested for the role of "Sergeant York." Charles Root was also considered for a role in the film. According to the daily production reports included in the film's file at USC, Vincent Sherman directed some scenes while Howard Hawks went to a racetrack.
A press release adds the following information: Technical advisor Donoho Hall was an author and authority on the dialects and customs of the Southern mountaineers. Eugene P. Walters was head military technical director and William Yetter, former Sergeant Major of the Imperial German Army, advised the filmmakers on the German military. A revolving mountain set was built on Warner Bros.' largest sound stage. The set represented a section of the Tennessee Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf, where Alvin York was born. The mountain, which was covered by cedar, pine and oak trees, and which included a 200 ft. stream, was designed to present sixteen different basic camera angles. Some of the battle scenes were filmed in the Simi Hills, forty miles from Hollywood. Additional location footage was shot in the Santa Susana Mountains and at the Warner Bros. Ranch. A contemporary source states that some of the mountain scenes were filmed in back of York's house in Pall Mall, TN. Because of the 1941 draft, the filmmakers had difficulty finding enough young male actors to play the soldiers and were forced to hire students from local universities. York had been approached by producer Jesse Lasky several times, beginning in 1919, to allow a movie to be made of his life, but had refused, believing that "This uniform ain't for sale." Lasky convinced York that, with war threatening in Europe, it was his patriotic duty to allow the film to proceed. Gary Cooper was York's own choice for the role.
The New York Times review notes that the premiere at the Astor Theater was attended by delegates from Tennessee, government and army officials, as well as Gary Cooper and Alvin York. York was greeted by Colonel George Buxton, the wartime commander of the 82nd division of the United States Army. Later York said, "Millions of Americans like myself must be facing the same questions, the same uncertainties which we faced and I believe resolved for the right some twenty-four years ago." A Hollywood Reporter news item reports that in general release, the film showed at higher than usual admission prices that ranged from $.75 to $1.10.
This highly regarded film was chosen as one of the Film Daily Ten Best Pictures of the Year. It received numerous Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Sound Recording, Original Screenplay, Music, Black and White Art Direction, Interior Decoration and Black and White Cinematography. Walter Brennan and Margaret Wycherly were nominated as Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, and Howard Hawks was nominated for Best Director. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of Sergeant York, and William Holmes received an Academy Award for film editing. Cooper also was awarded the Veterans of Foreign Wars Distinguished Citizenship medal for his portrayal.
A February 18, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan recreated their roles on the Veterans of Foreign Wars tenth anniversary "Hello America" radio program on February 2, 1941 over the NBC Blue network. A press release dated July 2, 1941 states that Sergeant York was the first motion picture to be made into a stage play. The film was transcribed by Robert Porterfield, who made his debut in this film. No information about the play's production was found. The film was reissued in April 1949.