Sergeant York came out in 1941 (the same year as Citizen Kane) and it was a huge smash hit. It made the equivalent of more than $400 million in today’s dollars and it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, among a host of other Academy Awards. Gary Cooper took home the Best Actor award, beating Orson Welles in his most famous role as Charles Foster Kane. What is Sergeant York? I had never heard of it until a few years ago and so I decided to check it out, and I was rewarded immensely for doing so. I would like to introduce you to it now.
The Amazing Story of Alvin York
I don’t usually do this, but I want to go through the plot of Sergeant York because there is so much nuance and beauty to this story that it wouldn’t do at all to just share a portion of it.
Alvin York was a simple young man who grew up in the backwoods of Tennessee, just as his father and grandfather had. This film tells the story of just a few years of his life starting in 1916. He starts the film as a wild troublemaker who wants to live out his days in idle drunkenness. But a higher power has a much different plan for him. York spurns religion, despite his minister’s continual words of encouragement, and he only decides to start sobering up and working hard because he wants to earn the respect and affection of the woman he loves. He puts his heart and soul into a desperate attempt to buy a farm in a more fertile part of the land than the one his family has owned for generations. He does all kinds of odd jobs, working from dusk to dawn for two whole months trying to scrape together enough money to pay a local man named Mr. Thompkins who owns that farm. He manages to get the money after winning a sharpshooting competition, but he’s a few days too late and Mr. Thompkins reneges on their verbal agreement to extend the deadline. Crushed, York drinks his sorrows away that night at the local bar during a terrible thunderstorm, and he drunkenly decides to kill Mr. Thompkins to take the land he believes he was cheated out of.
This is the low point in the film. We’re nearly an hour into the film’s two-hour runtime, and so far York has come across as entirely self-centered and brutish. But this proves to be his turning point.
As York is clutching his rifle and riding his horse through the blinding rain, a bolt of lightning suddenly strikes and knocks him to the ground. In a daze, he picks himself up and realizes that he and his animal are unharmed, and the only thing that’s damaged is his rifle. Its barrel is completely destroyed. York looks up to heaven and he gets the message. He heads right to the church where his minister is holding a rousing choir session, and York joins in the singing.
From this point on, York is a changed man. Gone are his uncouth mannerisms. He is as humble and gentle as a lamb. He asks Mr. Thompkins to forgive him for being angry with him. He learns that the man who bought the farm he had wanted only bought it to spite York. But York expresses nothing but love for that man, and he accepts the fact that it will take years of backbreaking work to buy that property from him and he may never own it all. It makes me tear up just thinking about it. He tries to tell the woman he loves that he doesn’t deserve her, but she’s not having any of it. She loves him so passionately that it drives her to bitter anger at the suggestion that she wouldn’t marry him when he has proved himself worthy of her in such a spectacular fashion.
But their wedding will have to wait because World War I breaks out, and York gets drafted into the U.S. Army. He begs to be exempted from the draft because of his newfound religious conviction, but his request is denied. He struggles mightily with the decision of whether or not to engage in armed conflict where he will most likely be forced to kill other combatants, but he finally decides that he must do his duty to God and his country. He shows such superlative skill as a marksman that he is quickly promoted in rank and is asked to lead several men into battle. He reluctantly does so, and during his first battle on the frontlines in France he is put to the test. He and his men charge across No Man’s Land and just a few dozen of them make it to the other side and force some Germans to surrender. However, a German machine gun kills most of the Americans until only about a half-dozen are left. York sneaks around the enemy line and starts picking off the machine gun operators until finally more than 50 German soldiers surrender to him. He then uses a clever strategy to bluff a bunch of other German soldiers to surrender without firing a single shot at them. In the end, he and his small band of men march more than 100 enemy soldiers to the American side to find a place to safely deposit them.
York is heralded as a hero, and he receives all sorts of honors for his miraculous victory. He comes home and is given the key to New York City. He’s offered numerous opportunities to endorse products and be a corporate spokesman. He could easily pocket a quarter of a million dollars if he just says yes. But he realizes that he is only being honored because people believe he did something great on the battlefield. He is not proud that he had to kill men. He just wanted to save the lives of his men and prevent more carnage from taking place. So he turns down every offer and politely asks to simply return home to Tennessee. His adoring fiancée is waiting for him, along with his minister and family. They lovingly welcome him home, and he is resigned to returning to his obscure life. But they have a surprise for him. Because of his selfless sacrifices on behalf of his state and his country, his fellow Tennessee citizens donated enough money to buy him the farm he had wanted. In the end, he gets everything he ever desired: the woman he loves, the best piece of land in town, and the admiration of everyone he knows.
The Hand of God
The hand of God can clearly be seen in the life of Alvin York. He was prepared from an early age to do one specific job: save many lives during World War I. He was blessed with natural talent with a rifle that was tempered by a healthy respect for life and liberty. He was ready to curse God when it seemed like he had been treated so unfairly. He worked so hard to get that land that would benefit his family for many generations, but it had slipped through his fingers. Have you ever had an experience like that where you did everything right, but you still lost out on something you thought you had rightfully earned? This film offers hope for times like that.
If he hadn’t been double-crossed, he wouldn’t have seen God directly intervene in his life to change his course. Instead of taking the life of another man, he saved his own soul by turning to God. He became exactly the man he needed to be at the right moment. And in the end, it wasn’t that God was denying him or punishing him for working hard toward his goal. He was just saying, “Not yet.” We don’t always see the direction our lives will take. But if we take York’s path and try to be humble and kind to others, we will end up happy. He earned everything he received. He just needed to be patient and wait a little while to receive what he deserved.
I am inspired by Alvin York. He was a good man who had no desire to hurt anyone. He didn’t even care to have all sorts of fame and honor for his great deeds on the battlefield. I love that this story is so small. York didn’t singlehandedly win World War I or gain some decisive victory. He wasn’t in charge of strategy or holding some high rank in the army. He just did his small part in a way that no one else could have. I imagine there are thousands of such stories in every war. Good men are prepared by God to do specific jobs, and they are blessed for living up to their potential. That’s the kind of man I want to be.
America was built and maintained by men like York – men who wanted to do good. We should study their lives and not just look at their results, but also their causes. If this movie had started at the point where York arrives at the battlefield and it only showed him making that heroic charge, think of everything that would be missing from the story. We would only see his superficial qualities of courage. But what inspired his courage and his desire to save lives? It was his faith in God that drove him forward. We see what inspired him to be the man that he was, and it can inspire us to be better people ourselves.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
If you enjoyed the movie I strongly encourage you to find his autobiography. It is unedited so you are reading his true words, with all the grammatical calamities of a young man growing up in Appalachian America.
York’s legacy, not to down play his Medal of Honor, is his donations that created the York Institute that is still providing educational opportunities to young men and women in what is still rural Appalachia.
As usual in real life the story is better than the movie.
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Awesome! Thank you very much for letting me know about that. What an amazing man. You’re right, there’s definitely more to his story than can be contained in one movie.
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