This is one of those movies where the star appears to have been born to play the role.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

In the 1930s, 1940s, and well into the 1950s, Gary Cooper was a staple of the Hollywood scene, an icon of masculine strength and rugged individualism. He was the all-American hero, yet with the kind of innocent wholesomeness we also think of in a Jimmy Stewart. At least until Stewart got older, Coop was like the grown-up version of Stewart's boy next door. The "Gary Cooper Signature Collection" brings together some of the star's better work, and no film more personifies his reputation than 1941's "Sergeant York." Appropriately, Warner Bros. have accorded it one of their Two-Disc Special Editions.

The real-life Alvin Cullum York (1887-1964) was one of the most-celebrated American heroes of World War I, having single-handedly taken out a series of German machine-gun nests and captured 132 enemy combatants. Among numerous other tributes, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was a pretty good accounting of himself for a guy whom the army had denied status as a conscientious objector. His story is almost too good to be true. If audiences in 1941 or today thought it was fiction, they would probably have laughed it off the screen as being too corny and far-fetched. The fact is, virtually everything we see actually happened.

But the film was not without controversy. At first, the real York didn't want a film made about him at all. It was only because producer Jesse Lasky personally visited him that he could persuade York to OK the picture. But then York insisted that only Gary Cooper, at the time one of the very biggest stars in Hollywood, play his part. It was inspired casting, no doubt, but Cooper was reluctant to portray a man who was still alive. Then, when Cooper finally agreed to do the part, York further insisted that his war exploits not be emphasized. He didn't want people be remember him for having killed so many men. Well, obviously, it was his war experience that interested Hollywood and the world, so the Warner Studios compromised, producing a film that takes us from about a year before York's conscription for military duty until his triumphal return from duty overseas. Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, and John Huston co-wrote a script based on York's own diary and famed moviemaker Howard Hawks ("Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday," "The Big Sleep," "Red River," "The Thing from Another World," "Rio Bravo," "El Dorado") directed.

Still, that was not the end of the controversy. It was 1941, and America had not yet entered the Second World War. The country was torn between those who wanted us to go to war with Germany and those who wanted us to stay as far away as possible from European entanglements. Anti-interventionists saw "Sergeant York" as a Hollywood propaganda film encouraging America's entrance into WWII. Anti-Semitic types even accused Hollywood of being run by Jews who were in league with the White House to force America into war. Ironically, the movie's preface states that the "day will come when man will live in peace on earth." In a way, the film's opponents were right: It was a wake-up call for America to go to war, and after Pearl Harbor, people looked at it in an entirely new light. It became the biggest box-office attraction of the year.

The story begins in the spring of 1916 in a small, rural community in the mountains of Tennessee. York is in his late twenties (Cooper was in late thirties at the time) and living with his mother (stage actress Margaret Wycherly in her film debut), his sister Rosie (June Lockhart), and his younger brother George (Dickie Moore). They're farmers (although the real York, I understand, was a blacksmith), eking out a humble living on the same land their parents and grandparents farmed before them.

At this time Alvin is unhappy with his lot in life. He's poor and unable to buy the more fertile land in the flats he really wants. As a result, he's become a hard-drinking hell-raiser and something of an embarrassment to his family.

The first half of the story tells about York's experiences the year prior to his joining the army: his rowdy ways, his prowess with a rifle, his spiritual rebirth and turn to religion, his attempts to buy a farm of his own, and his romance with a neighbor girl, Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie). The second half of the story tells about York's heroic experiences during the War and his triumphant return.

This is one of those movies where the star appears to have been born to play the role. Cooper is every bit the personification of the American Dream, the poor-but-honest fellow who not only makes good but makes the world a better place for it. What's more, the movie is chock-full of Warners' most-familiar character actors--Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, George Tobias, Noah Berry, Jr., Clem Bevans, Joe Sawyer. Not all the names may ring a bell, but I guarantee once you see them, you'll recognize them.

Audiences for decades have found "Sergeant York" filled with drama, excitement, romance, action, and homespun humor. Versatile director Howard Hawks lends his usual slyly casual, seemingly spontaneous style to the proceedings, never trying to create anything out of the ordinary yet doing so by being patient and realistic. And veteran WB cameraman Sol Polito produces a lovely display of light and shadow, especially in the indoor and studio shots. The film may be a tad too long for its own good and a little unfocused in trying to cover so much material, but the overall results are inspiring and entertaining to this day.

I don't think anyone will complain that Warner Bros. didn't do a frame-by-frame restoration of "Sergeant York" because what we have is already quite good. The video engineers did up the 1.33:1 ratio transfer at a reasonably high bit rate, with good black-and-white contrasts and fine object delineation. The print is clean, free of most age marks, dust, specks, or lines, and there is only a small amount of visible grain.

The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound is also good, particularly for its age: Very clean, very clear. Frequency extremes are limited, of course, and there is no surround, but dynamics are surprisingly strong, backgrounds are quiet, and midrange response is well projected.

Disc one of this two-disc set begins with an informative audio commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger. Among many other things, she tells us that the writers stuck as closely as possible to the facts and made only minor changes to enhance the visual storytelling to broaden the film's appeal. The real Alvin loved the film. Also on the first disc we find a nine-minute short subject from 1941, "Lions for Sale," about lion training a classic Looney Tunes cartoon from 1941, "Porky's Preview," in black-and-white and a Cooper trailer gallery containing trailers for six Gary Cooper movies, including "Sergeant York." There are thirty-three scene selections, but no chapter insert, English and French spoken languages, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Disc two contains a pair of lengthy documentaries. The first is newly made, "Sergeant York: Of God and Country," thirty-nine minutes, a complete account of the filmmaking from inception to Oscar night, with guest appearances by members of the original cast. The second documentary is a Turner Channel profile of the actor, made in 1989: "Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend," forty-six minutes long, divided into twelve chapters, and narrated by Clint Eastwood.

Parting Thoughts:
The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences nominated "Sergeant York" for eleven Oscars, but it won only two: Cooper for Best Actor and William Holmes for Best Film Editing. It might have won more awards had it not been tinged with the controversy of the times. Today, we can look at it more objectively, a touching film in its own right.

Prospective buyers may purchase "Sergeant York" separately or as a part of the "Gary Cooper Signature Collection," which also includes "The Fountainhead," "Dallas," "Springfield Rifle," and "The Wreck of the Mary Deare." Bought by itself, "Sergeant York" comes housed in a regular double, slim-line keep case purchased as a part of the set, it comes in an ultrathin, double, translucent case, which along with the other four movies in the box, takes up less room.


Film Value