24 August 2009

I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Sergeant York

Sergeant York tells the inspiring true story of a drunken hillbilly who discovers God and peace, but when World War I breaks out he realizes, "Hey, God don't mind me killin' folk sometimes," and murders himself a mess 'o' Germans to become the most decorated American soldier of the conflict. The AFI declared this to be a good enough reason to place the film 57th on its list of the 100 Most Inspirational American Movies We Decided to Compile So People Would Pay Attention to Us.

This drunken hillbilly.

Right off the bat, let me admit something: Sergeant York is not a bad film. I suspect if an average viewer caught it on TCM on a lazy weekend, they'd find themselves drawn into it and would have difficulty turning away. This is a testament to the superb direction of Howard Hawks and the equally superb editing of William Holmes (he does slip up by obviously repeating some combat shots, which no one seemed to notice enough in 1941 to stop him from winning the Oscar).

Despite these strengths, and despite the fact that it hews pretty closely to the historical record, (SPOILER ALERT! DURF!) Sergeant York is still something of a ludicrous film. What bugged me most is that the scenes set in Alvin York's rural Tennessee, which is to say, most of the film, comes off as Hollywood playing redneck.

Let me explain: Not too long ago, I watched a great documentary, Harlan County, USA, which is set in a similar rural area in nearby Kentucky. In that film, we watch the struggles of real life coal-minin' hillbillies in their strike against a vicious and greedy corporation. They are strong, defiant, and noble, but undeniably poor, and they certainly look it. The film is that much more affecting and inspiring because of it.

In Sergeant York, the main character, who, just to remind you, is a broke-ass hill person struggling to scratch out a living, is played by pretty boy Gary Cooper who, along with most of the supporting cast, looks too damn good to be believable as a hillbilly. Everybody is too clean, their teeth are too white, their makeup is too perfect. It also doesn't help that Gary Cooper was not a particularly good actor, lacking any aspects of what one might call charisma or charm. His Tennessee country accent here is passable, I suppose, but watching him onscreen is like watching robots fuck--it's just not natural. The prettiness of the people reaches some kind of insanity when Joan Leslie pops up as York's love interest. She is incredibly beautiful in this film, almost beautiful enough for me to let it slide on looks alone, but it was always there nagging at my conciousness: "Gee, for someone who's ostensibly led a tough life as a farm girl, she seems fresh and soft." Later on, I felt distinctly creepy for checking her out when the IMDb informed me that she was only 16 when the film was made.

Does that look 16 to you?....Okay, yeah, here she does. But not in the movie itself, I swear.

One of the actors whose performance I did buy was the always lovable Walter Brennan. The man was born to portray the salt of the earth. However, Sergeant York even fucks up the unfuck-upable Walter Brennan by slathering him with garish old age makeup. His obvious wig and thick fake eyebrows make him look like a morbid drag queen who doesn't quite have the right idea. Everytime he made an appearance, I couldn't stop the shivers running up and down my spine.

Kill it! KILL IT!

The first half of the film tells the tale of Alvin York engaging in drunken antics until he is eventually led to the Lord by a combination of a miracle lightning and wanting to get up Joan Leslie's skirt (guess which one was made up by the screenwriters!). To win her affections, he decides to buy himself a piece of "bottomland," which is where the best farming is, apparently, and he works and scrimps and saves, but is eventually foiled. He drowns himself in liquor and goes off for revenge, but the miracle lightning makes him realize the folly of his ways. He forgives those who wronged him, and sets about getting what he wants through more peaceable methods.

Then WWI rolls along, and he gets drafted despite trying to stay out as a conscientious objector. His marksmanship is so stellar, however, that the Army tries to convince him that the Lord actually does want him to kill, if'n' it means providing freedom to oppressed peoples the world over. They let Sergeant York take a furlough to go back home and contemplate their arguments, and he sits on a rock and thinks with his Bible.

Yep. The movie just shows him thinkin' up on a fake mountain, with a glorious backdrop of the sky behind him. Also, his dog is there to provide him company. When the wind randomly turns the Bible to the "Render unto Caesar..." passage, York takes it to mean that he's found a passable loophole, and can go off and fight for democracy. So he does, and thanks to his marksmanship and courage, kills and captures a bunch of Germans and saves the world so that there would be no more wars ever again.

The movie depicts him as, ultimately, a kind and simple man, and I have no doubts that the real life Alvin York was a good and decent man trying to do the right thing. Even when he entered combat, he still wasn't keen on murdering other people, but felt that taking those lives and destroying the German machine gun positions would actually save more lives in the end. What is a gray, messy situation in real life, though, is rendered simple and black and white in the film - killin' Germans is good, because that means God's America wins.

I always wondered how the Germans killed by Alvin York felt about that. Nobody ever makes a movie about one of the people randomly shot up by York, or Audie Murphy, or the Red Baron, or Vasily Zaytsev, or any other war "hero" who knocked off dozens (whether it was justified in some way or not).

Another aspect of history that the film manages to ignore: WWI was bullshit. Yes, yes, most wars are bullshit, but WWI in particular was probably mankind's worst moment of absolute bullshit. It was a bunch of assholes throwing armies at each other because they were assholes. No one had any good reasons for doing it. America told its boys that they were going into the war to preserve freedom and democracy, but that was more bullshit so they'd have warm bodies for the grinder. If it really had been about freedom and democracy, we wouldn't have screwed the pooch on the peace so badly, and then we maybe wouldn't have had to fight WWII, which might be the only really justifiable war in human history.

If the movie had been made at any other time, the filmmakers might have been able to capture that. But America was on the verge of entering WWII, and we needed some rah rah to motivate us to get in and get the job done. Sergeant York succeeded in doing that at the time, but today it's a bit tasteless in its moral equivocating.

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