Sergeant York (film)

Sergeant York

Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced by Howard Hawks
Jesse L. Lasky
Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay by Harry Chandlee
Abem Finkel
John Huston
Howard Koch
Sam Cowan
Based on Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary
1928 novel
by Tom Skeyhill
Alvin C. York
Starring Gary Cooper
Walter Brennan
Joan Leslie
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited by William Holmes
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Release dates
  • July 2, 1941 (1941-07-02) (US)
Running time
134 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1.4 million[1]
Box office $16,361,885[1]

Sergeant York is a 1941 biographical film about the life of Alvin York, one of the most-decorated American soldiers of World War I. It was directed by Howard Hawks and was the highest-grossing film of the year.[2]

The film was based on the diary of Sergeant Alvin York, as edited by Tom Skeyhill,[3] and adapted by Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Howard Koch, and Sam Cowan (uncredited). York refused, several times, to authorize a film version of his life story, but finally yielded to persistent efforts in order to finance the creation of an interdenominational Bible school. The story that York insisted on Gary Cooper for the title role derives from the fact that producer Jesse L. Lasky recruited Cooper by writing a plea that he accept the role and then signed York's name to the telegram.[4]

Cooper went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. The film also won for Best Film Editing and was nominated in nine other categories, including Best Picture, Director (Hawks), Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan), and Supporting Actress (Margaret Wycherly). The American Film Institute ranked the film 57th in the its 100 most inspirational American movies. It also rated Alvin York 35th in its list of the top 50 heroes in American cinema.

In 2008, Sergeant York was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a poor young Tennessee hillbilly, is an exceptional marksman, but a ne'er-do-well prone to drinking and fighting, which does not make things any easier for his patient mother (Margaret Wycherly). He changes when he meets winsome Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), and works night and day at strenuous odd jobs to accumulate the payment for a certain good farm so she'll marry him. On the very day payment is due, he wins the final needed amount at a target-shooting contest, but on being told that the farm has just been sold to his romantic rival, he returns to his dissolute ways.

Late that night, he is struck by lightning during a rainstorm while en route to attack the man who had cheated him. Finding himself outside the meeting house where a revival is going, he goes in and undergoes a religious awakening and vows never to get angry at anyone ever again. He makes amends with the men who cheated him out of the land, and tries to with Gracie.

When the U.S. declares war in World War I, York tries to avoid induction into the Army as a conscientious objector because of his religious beliefs, but is drafted nonetheless. His status as a conscientious objector is rejected since his church has no official standing, and he reluctantly reports to Camp Gordon for basic training. His superiors discover that he is a phenomenal marksman and decide to promote him to corporal.

York still wants nothing to do with the Army and killing. Major Buxton (Stanley Ridges), his sympathetic commanding officer, tries to change York's mind, citing sacrifices made by others all throughout the history of the United States. He gives York a leave to go home and think it over. He promises York a recommendation for his exemption as a conscientious objector if York remains unconvinced.

While York is fasting and pondering, the wind blows his Bible open to the verse "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." York reports back for duty and tells his superiors that he can serve his country, despite not having everything figured out to his satisfaction, leaving the matter in God's hands. York is still ridiculed by some superiors for his beliefs, until he demonstrates his skill in firing his rifle to the surprise of all.

His unit is shipped out to Europe and participates in an attack during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on October 8, 1918. Pinned down by deadly machine gun fire, the lieutenant orders Sergeant Early (Joe Sawyer) to take some men and try to attack the machine gun nests from behind. York suddenly finds himself the last remaining unwounded non-commissioned officer in the detachment, and is placed in command by Early.

Seeing his comrades being shot down all around him, his self-doubt disappears. He works his way to a position flanking the main enemy trench and, as a sniper, fires individual rifle shots with such devastating effect that the Germans surrender. Then, York forces a captured officer (Charles Esmond) at gunpoint to order the Germans still fighting in another section of the line to also surrender. He and the handful of other survivors end up with 132 prisoners. York becomes a national hero and is awarded the Medal of Honor. When Major Buxton asks him why he did what he did, York explains that he was trying to save the lives of his men.

Arriving in New York City, York receives a ticker tape parade and a key to the city. He is impressed with the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and its indoor electricity. Congressman Cordell Hull guides him through the city and informs him that he has been offered opportunities to commercialize on his fame. York rejects the offers, saying that he was not proud of what he did in the war, but it had to be done. He tells Hull he wants to go home. He returns to Tennessee. The people of his home state have purchased for him the bottomland farm he wanted and paid for a house to be built on the land.


Uncredited Cast

June Lockhart is the last surviving primary cast member.


Sergeant York was a spectacular success at the box office and became the highest-grossing film of 1941. It remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation.[5] It benefited from the attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred while the film played in theaters. The film's patriotic theme helped recruit soldiers; young men sometimes went directly from the movie theater to military enlistment offices.[6]:156–157 After its initial release, the film was frequently re-shown at theaters all over America during the war as a quick replacement for box office flops and as a theme program for bond sales and scrap drives.

At the 14th Academy Awards, the film won two Oscars:[7]

It was also nominated for:[8]


  1. 1 2 Box Office Information for Sergeant York. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
  2. FILM MONEY-MAKERS SELECTED BY VARIETY: ' Sergeant York' Top Picture, Gary Cooper Leading Star New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 31 Dec 1941: 21.
  3. "Sergeant York Review". Allmovie. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
  4. David D. Lee, Sergeant York: An American Hero (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 105ff.
  5. All Time Box Office Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
  6. Kennett, Lee (1985). For the duration... : the United States goes to war, Pearl Harbor-1942. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-18239-4.
  7. "NY Times: Sergeant York". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-14.
  8. "The 14th Academy Awards (1942) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-13.

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