Sergeant York, based on the diary of Alvin York
Considering the competition faced by Sergeant York in 1942, it is quite an achievement for Gary Cooper to have won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading role, especially ahead of Orson Welles
This was the year of Citizen Kane, which is for many scholars the best motion picture ever, How Green Was My Valley, which has won Best Picture in 1942, Suspicion and The Maltese Falcon, two of the best movies ever made.
As the magnificent William Goldman, winner of two Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men, author of the quintessential Adventures in the Screen Trade writes, these were years when outstanding, memorable, archetypal features did not even make it to the short list of the Oscars, given that so creative, brilliant, and masterful those filmmakers were.
Having said that, it must be said that there could be some aspects of the hero that one could reject, from his hillbilly manner of speaking to aspects of his early behavior and the rather unintelligent style he has at times.
However, Alvin C. York aka Gary Cooper is the ultimate role model, Ubermensch at the end of the film, who demonstrates that ha has almost all the Character Strengths in the book, with Wisdom, after the initial foolishness, Courage, Humanity, Transcendence and Temperance in full display with their elements:
Bravery, Integrity, Vitality, Persistence, Love, Kindness, Social Intelligence, Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence, Hope, Gratitude, Humor, Spirituality, Pity and Forgiveness, Prudence, Humility and modesty, Self- regulation, Creativity, Love of learning, Curiosity, Open- mindedness and Perspective.
Alvin York has not started with such a rainbow of qualities, some of which need development anyway, considering that the protagonist is far from being an erudite, well read, educated man and as a young man he used to drink a lot, shoot trees and write his initials with bullet holes, causing the religious service to stop with his uproar.
He wakes up from what seems a continuous hangover, has a revelation when he runs after a fox and sees his now grown up neighbor, Gracie Williams and falls in love with the girl and beats an opponent to eliminate competition.
Alvin plans to marry, but he wants to buy more land, to be able to provide for a family, enters an arrangement with a man who takes an advance for the plot, establishes a deadline, then agrees to move it to allow the hard working hero to get all the debt together at a cruel turkey shoot, where the birds seem sitting ducks, but then that was another époque, with different standards, only to change his mind.
When the Promised Land is given to someone else, the protagonist is ready to beat the liar into the ground, the other men present stop him and he later buries his misery into bottles of alcohol and drunkenness, after one such night he has trouble riding home in a storm in which he is struck by a thunder.
Halleluiah, this another epiphany, so to say, after falling in love with Gracie, Alvin finds god, goes to the man who forfeited their understanding and instead of getting violent, as the liar feared, the hero is kind and accommodating, interested in buying his wagon back, adopting a new, Christian attitude to things.
Indeed, as he is drafted to join World War I, the protagonist becomes a conscientious objector, only to have his application rejected and therefore he is sent to a training camp, where he astonishes commanding officers with his incredible shooting, which gains him a promotion and encouragement from a major.
However, Alvin York is still against killing and he has to enjoy a few days off, reading The History of the United States to determine him to accept the new status as corporal and eventually teach others how to shoot.
The zenith of this man’s participation in the war effort comes in the thick of battle, during a difficult maneuver that has the Americans falling at the back of the German troops, only to be decimated by machine gun fire, which someone has to try to stop, if it would only be possible for a man.
Alvin York takes the initiative and almost single handedly takes about one hundred and fifty prisoners, including officers and shooting more than twenty, applying the technique he had previously explained, of shooting a group of turkeys, starting with the last in the pecking order and not the alpha male.
Alas, his friend is killed when a couple of prisoners throw a grenade and the former objector does not hesitate for a second to kill the soldier responsible and he is indeed asked by the major what happened to the qualms the hero had, which the latter explains that he still has, but when his comrades were massacred all around, he had to go to the first hill, shoot the first group manning a machine gun, then the next, after that a series of other enemies, without apparent end to this prodigious sniper activity.
This heroic act is rewarded and first the French command, then the British, followed by the American military leaders confer their most prestigious medals to the incredibly brave Corporal, advanced to Sergeant now.
Back in America, Alvin York is celebrated as a star and he is offered contracts that would bring him about half a million dollars, which could be half a billion today, for endorsing various breakfast meals, participating in movies and other endeavors, all of which make the protagonist reflect.
On the one hand there would be so much land that this rather (too?) simple, uneducated, error prone, but affable farmer could buy with that fortune, but on the other hand, he states that he only did his duty in Europe, therefore he should not profit from acts that he had to commit for his country.
Sergeant York is on the New York Times’ Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made list: