Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood legend Gary Cooper won two Best Actor Oscars: one for his performance in High Noon (1953) as a marshal facing a showdown on the day of his marriage to a Quaker pacifist, and the other for his portrayal of a real-life conscientious objector who became an American war hero in Sergeant York. And Cooper plays York with the same kind of aw-shucks naiveté as he gives Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, a film he would make the following year.

Based on Alvin C. York’s personal diary, this 1941 black-and-white biopic was made to inspire a nation near the start of America’s involvement in WWII. But it also helped to fund an interdenominational Bible school—the main reason a reluctant York finally agreed to let Hollywood dramatize his life story and WWI heroism for the big screen.

Typical of biopics from the period, Sergeant York is wholesome, folksy, sentimental, and moralistic. But with director Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo) behind the cameras, it’s also an example of compelling narrative storytelling.

Mostly set in an impoverished backwoods corner of rural Tennessee, Sergeant York spends four-fifths of its 134-minute run time showing how York, a hard-working mama’s boy, went from being a frequent hell-raising drinker to a born-again Christian opposed to killing. Like Daniel Boone, who recorded one of his exploits on a tree near the York homestead, York is a crack shot and crafty outdoorsman, and early in the film he disrupts a church service by shooting his initials into a tree.

A young but still raspy-voiced Walter Brennan plays the pastor, while Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is the love interest and British actress Margaret Wycherly plays the taciturn mother who stands by her boy no matter what he does. When the announcement comes that all young men are expected to go to Europe to fight and Alvin says, “Maw, what are they a’fightin’ for?” She replies, “I don’t rightly know. I don’t rightly know.” But she knows he has to go fight, no matter what his newfound religion tells him.

The film’s pacifist message is similar to the relatively recent Hacksaw Ridge (2016), even though the subject of that film, Desmond Doss, was a true pacifist who refused to carry a weapon. York was a conscientious objector who decided to fight to protect his friends, especially after a commanding officer reminds him of the biblical quote, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” While the hero does in fact shoot people, Sergeant York is still far more family friendly than the R-rated Hacksaw Ridge and its bloody war violence. People are shot and killed in Sergeant York, but it’s so far from graphic that it almost seems unbelievable . . . until you read up on York and discover that he really did single-handedly take out a German machine gun nest, shoot 25 enemy soldiers, and take 132 prisoners—for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. York became a national hero, and a group of Tennessee businessmen really did buy a farm for him that he was unable to raise the money for himself.

There are war scenes, but Sergeant York isn’t a war movie. It’s a straight biopic—one that covers the years from 1914-18 in the life of a man who was born in 1887 and died in 1964 at the age of 76. He was an American original and an American patriot who married the girl in the movie and had eight children with her, most of them named for famous Americans he admired, like Woodrow Wilson, Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Betsy Ross, and Thomas Jefferson. Despite a controversy after his return that raised the issue of whether he was getting all the credit and his fellow soldiers who survived none, York remains an American hero who was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp, honored with a statue on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol, and had a state park named for him.

Entire family: No (age 10 and older)
Run time: 134 min. (Black and White)
Studio/Distributor: Warner Bros
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: B (includes a classic cartoon and making-of featurette)
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for adult situations and war scenes)

Language: 0/10—Other than folksy euphemisms (“tarnation”) there isn’t anything here

Sex: 0/10—Nothing here either

Violence: 4/10—Men fight in a bar and men engage in trench warfare, with some hand-to-hand combat and shooting, though only one shot shows any blood to speak of

Adult situations: 4/10—In addition to those few war scenes there is drinking and drunkenness in the beginning scenes, though it’s a come-to-Jesus film and the prodigal son has to be shown sinning before he can return to the fold

Takeaway: Cooper really brought York to life in this film as he did Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees; both pics remain family-friendly and solid biopics even many years after they were made