Friday, May 7, 2010

Sergeant York (so I'm late shut up!)

Warning entire plot summarized

Alvin York was a down-and-out hillbilly from Tennessee who would rather get drunk out of his mind and shoot stuff than go to church. He claims that "A man can't find religion, it has to come to him." Then one day he was struck by lightning (according to the movie) and he thought it was a sign from God to stop being a prick.

God's alternative to spanking

He took this sign very seriously and started to go to church again. He also became a pacifist (remember this) and worked as the neighborhood handyman. Then with great irony WW1 breaks out and he gets drafted less than a week later. Even after he refuses to fight, it turns out that he's @#$%ing crack shot and winds up taking half of Germany prisoner. He becomes a war hero and lives happily ever after. The End.
The reason I wrote this summary is that when "Sergeant York" (1941) premiered, everybody knew who Alvin York was. See before Twitter destroyed the English language, people told stories about heros that make Rambo look like a #%$@&. And since Alvin York is a badass' badass, no one forgot about him. Then, when WW2 broke out, people needed inspiration. So it makes perfect sense to make a gun-hoe movie about York. But there is more to it than just making an inspiring flick.
When it comes to making movies out of stories like "Sergeant York", the common fear is that it will become preachy. If it is preachy, at best it's overbearing, self-righteous junk that uses the word "family" like a comma, or at worst it's "The Blindside". This is especially difficult for "Sergeant York" because the main themes are patriotism, guns and the Bible. Thankfully the director, Howard Hawks did not allow these themes to embrace each other, but rather have them oppose each other as long as possible. York is in a dilemma with his morals and the Army; his choices were to not fight and commit treason or fight and become a murdering sinner. It's separation of church and state, 40's style. Sure, the argument is resolved with a "having your cake and eat it too" statement but it's quick forgotten as soon as York starts kicking ass on the battlefield.
Alvin York is played by Gary Cooper who is known for playing heroic roles in such films like "High Noon" and "Pride of the Yankees". But before he did "Sergeant York" his best work was playing romantic comedies with Frank Capra and Jean Arthur. These days Hollywood would freak out about Adam Sandler playing a funny person let alone a war hero, so in this context it makes Gary's performance even more interesting because it work's. His experience in comedies helps bring out a lighthearted oafishness to York especially when his shows off his shooting skills. Instead playing up his awesomeness, he plays it down to he's almost apologizes to everyone who can't handle it.

"Oh... sorry that I blew yer mind there fella. I'll help you clean up"-York

It also helps that it was directed by Howard Hawks and written by John Huston. Why didn't they work together more often? Both prefer to not use overcooked melodrama and settle on actually telling the story. Huston wrote simple and broken dialogue that sounds very Southern and authentic. Hawks works behind the camera making sure nothing unnecessary is filmed and everything else is filmed with remarkable precision. It is professional filmmaking of a higher order, I could ramble on and on about but it would just make this review sound even more sloppy. 5 outta 5

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