“Sergeant York” (1946) is a remarkable biographical film about the life of Sergeant Alvin C. York, a man who was drafted in World War I as a soldier of great reluctance due to his religious principles. But by the end of his military service, he inspired a nation with his heroism. Fortunately, his story was put to film in order to inspire and immortalize his legacy for future generations.
At first, York rejected the idea of his life being committed to celluloid. He agreed once Warner Bros. Studio convinced York that the film would help boost the country’s morale in a time of uncertainty with another war reaching America. However, York had his conditions. He wanted Gary Cooper to be cast in his role. Cooper initially turned down the part but it was York’s personal letter, asking Cooper to play him, that Cooper accepted. Another condition was that an established actress could not play his wife. A relative unknown, Joan Leslie, was cast as “Gracie Williams.” Leslie, who was sixteen at the time of the film’s production, is mature in her looks and portrayal of “Gracie.” Although Leslie was twenty-four years younger than her co-star Cooper, toether they created great chemistry.
“Sergeant York” starts York’s story before the war when York was known as the town hoodlum, a heavy drinker and a quick-tempered man. Although he was raised in a religious family, York did not have a religion of his own. The film chose one of several theories how York had converted to his Christian faith – as York is struck by lightning while riding his mule one night, he seeks shelter in the town’s church. He is converted that very night. Many other real-life instances are connected in the film. The movie builds York’s background as a brilliant marksman due to his back-wood upbringing of hunting foxes and turkeys. York’s application for Conscientious Objector status and its denial is also depicted in the film. While in the U.S. Army, when he has the choice of succeeding to rank of corporal or being exempted from service. York takes leave to read and reflect, back home, and he goes to the mountain to think, where he inspired with an answer to return to service, just as it had happened to real York. At the second part of the film, York’s bravest act is shown when he marches into the crossfire in Meuse/Argonne Offensive of France and takes down 17 German officers and gunmen. With it, the rest of his platoon take 132 German soldiers prisoner. “Sergeant York” did a justifiable effort of depicting almost every aspect of York’s life as accurately as possible, only allowing a few minor details to slide for dramatic effect.
Out of the eight Academy Award nominations which “Sergeant York” was given, it won two, one of them going to Cooper as the “Best Male in a Leading Role”. When Cooper reflected on his career, he expressed that “Sergeant York” was his favorite film: “I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”