Monday, January 5, 2009
Sergeant York is truly a film from another time, infused with values and ideas that seem today entirely alien, at least as portrayed unironically in a modern movie: earnest religious conviction, equally sincere and unapologetic patriotism, the forgiveness of those who do one wrong. The real-life Alvin York, as played by Gary Cooper, embodies all of these attributes, as he transforms himself from a dirt-poor rural farmer and drunken rabble-rouser into a reformed Christian, and later a decorated World War I hero. Surprisingly, the film version of York's unusual life, made under the able guidance of director Howard Hawks, does not focus on his wartime exploits, instead developing at a leisurely pace with the emphasis on his time in rural Tennessee before he is drafted for the army.
In this sense, the film's title is misleading: York does not attain his titular rank until the very end of the film, and indeed the combat adventure promised by the title is a long time in coming. In its place, the film offers a religiously tinged drama of abjection and redemption. York is a rough, hard-living man, working a barren farm with rocky soil, getting as much of a crop as he possibly can out of this unforgiving land, providing for his mother and two siblings. As a result, he's also apt to strike out, going on periodic drinking binges with a pair of equally downtrodden friends, taking out his angst in bar fights and drunken revelry. When he falls in love with childhood neighbor Gracie (Joan Leslie), now all grown up, she gives him the drive to better his position in life, causing him to work harder than ever in his attempts to earn a piece of land with better soil. Meanwhile, the local preacher Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) works to save York's soul, convincing him of the virtues of faith and forgiveness to such a degree that York even forgives and humbly acquiesces to the men who cheated and deceived him out of his one opportunity to get his own land. York transitions from a rowdy, temperamental drunk — he's introduced in a hilarious scene where his gunshots and hollers continually interrupt the pastor's sermon — into a near-saint, so humble and self-effacing that he'll turn his cheek at almost anything.
Only Gary Cooper could sell this radical transformation so convincingly. Cooper seems essentially decent even when he's playing a drunk and a habitual brawler who's been in and out of the local jails, and his basic goodness shines through the layers of slow-witted stubbornness and bitterness etched on his face. Cooper's portrayal even manages to overcome the inherent sappiness of the script, which attempts to smother the central performance with leaden Biblical references and sentimentalized stagings. York's conversion is symbolized by a scene that obviously references, in a stunning bit of presumption, the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus: York is struck down off his horse by a bolt of lightning, powerful enough to bend his rifle (which he intended to use for vengeance) into a horseshoe-shaped loop. It's a heavy-handed contrivance, but Hawks' touch is felt in the following scene, which expresses the nature of York's conversion in a way that fits much more comfortably into the Hawksian universe. Following his solitary experience in the woods, York wanders into the nearby church, where Pastor Pile is leading the congregation in enthusiastic singing. As the singing intensifies — "give me that old-time religion," the worshipers chant — York wanders, as though dazed, into the crowd, which begins to gather around him. Hawks cuts between shots of the parishioners singing in tight clusters, and York's slow assimilation into their midst. The sequence culminates with a high-angle shot from behind the altar, as the pastor reaches down towards York, who is now kneeling in the center of the gathered throng. This is a distinctively Hawksian moment, one that has often recurred throughout his work, albeit not often in such a religious milieu: the people gathered in song, the music infused with emotional subtexts, as a lone individual is accepted into the group. Surely this is a vision of religious experience that would have made more sense to Hawks than York's lightning-bolt revelation on the road, which is staged in a much more saccharine, conventional manner, with hazy lensing and angelic choirs on the soundtrack.
Hawks continually makes his touch felt in this way, putting his own slant on material that is in many ways not a natural fit for his talents. He does have a strong feel for the folksy rhythms of everyday life in York's small rural community, and the early stretches of the film are packed with subtle down-home humor. The scenes of York carousing with his friends in the local bar — positioned right on the Tennessee/Kentucky border to take advantage of differing liquor laws — are a case in point, as Hawks nudges his camera in close to the three men. He sets up triangular compositions with Cooper in the middle and the two other men flanking him on each side, with the camera maintaining a conspiratorial closeness, as though it was huddled in to whisper and joke with the three drunken friends. Hawks also clearly has a lot of fun with a rough-and-tumble bar brawl, which manages to mix bawdy humor with rugged physicality. And one of the bar rats delivers an amazing running commentary on the largeness and impressiveness of a nearby dancing woman, showcasing the kind of irreverent sexual wordplay that feels much more attuned to Hawks' sensibility than anything else in the film.
Even the underwritten romance between York and Gracie — which proceeds almost entirely through the chemistry of the actors in a few key scenes, with little help from the screenplay — provides Hawks with an opportunity for some masterfully executed banter. York shows up at Gracie's house one evening to find her sitting on the porch with his rival, Zeb Andrews (Robert Porterfield). Once again, Hawks films it as a triangular composition, with York forming the pivot of the triangle in the center of the frame, bisecting the line between Gracie and Zeb. This composition becomes the basis for a great scene in which the two rivals trade barbs while jockeying for Gracie's attention, before York finally sends the other man packing. None of the romantic material is very fully developed here, but Hawks' graceful touch, coupled with the performances from Cooper and Leslie, manage to sell what otherwise would've been an wholly unconvincing screen romance.
The film remains interesting in its final stretch, the forty-five minutes dedicated to York's reluctant induction into the army. The recently devout York is convinced that fighting and killing are wrong, and tries to get an exemption as a conscientious objector on this basis. But when the army doesn't buy it, York goes off to war anyway, conflicted over whether he should actually fight or not. The result is predictable, particularly considering the film's timing: it was released in 1941 with an obvious eye towards inspiring American soldiers and potential soldiers. Still, the film's propagandist slant is unusual, dealing as it does with the potential conflict between religion and nationalism. What seems most extraordinary in today's context is that such a baldly patriotic film should posit that there even could be such a disjunction between God and country, that the tenets of religion might pose an obstruction to the orders of one's government, or vice versa. There is no hint of the suggestion, so familiar from modern wars and their accompanying propaganda, that God is on our side. York's moral dilemma is melodramatically staged, with lots of stirring shots of him sitting with his dog on a mountaintop, reading about the history of the United States, but it is no less genuine for all the corn piled on top of it. This is a moral quandry that centers around differing interpretations of Biblical texts, and conflicts between different forms of duty and ideals. If the film resolves York's choice with a pat reference to a single Biblical verse — "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's..." — it nevertheless retains the moral integrity that it earned by asking these tough questions in the first place.
Ultimately, Sergeant York is a film at war with itself, or at least with its director. When Hawks is able to suppress or ignore the sentimental tripe of the story — as he does for most of the taut, excitingly filmed wartime action sequences towards the end — he crafts some typically fun, engaging drama. If the film occasionally threatens to sink under the weight of its own overbearing corniness and melodrama, Hawks is frequently able to buoy it back up with scenes of grace, intelligence, and economic emotional storytelling.