Sunday, October 11, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Sergeant York (1941) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Gary Cooper stars in his Oscar-winning role as SERGEANT YORK (1941), now available in a restored Blu-ray print from the Warner Archive.

Cooper plays Alvin York, the Tennessee backwoods farmer who struggles with religious faith and wartime service, ultimately becoming one of the most highly decorated American soldiers in World War I.  

Alvin starts out a bit wild as a young man, but he matures into a hardworking man of sincere Christian faith thanks to the combination of meeting the love of his life, Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), and surviving a lightning strike which led him back to church. 

Alvin's sincere faith originally led him to apply for status as a conscientious objector, but he became convinced that serving in the army was not incompatible with his beliefs.  During action in 1918 York took out a German machine gun nest; he and the seven surviving men of his unit captured 132 prisoners.  York received numerous honors for his gallantry in action, including the Medal of Honor.

I vividly recall watching this film as a child, when the war sequences made a big impression on me, but I'm not completely certain I've seen it since then; if I have, it was a long time ago.  I was somewhat unprepared for the movie's impact; I'd definitely forgotten just how good it is.  I found it a captivating, emotional viewing experience.

I shared that I was watching SERGEANT YORK on Twitter and noted there in a couple of Tweets: "I was struck by its moving depiction of the importance of faith, worship, and church community at a time many deem same 'nonessential'...and mental health issues/suicides rise.  Part of the beauty of art such as this is how it reaches across decades and still has something valuable to say to the modern viewer.  It affected me deeply seeing it for the first time in many years, as though it was meant for me to see at this moment in time."

I also especially liked the way Cooper's training camp scenes were done.  There's some light kidding about Alvin being unfamiliar with things like a subway, but the movie shies away from hackneyed jokes about the rube in the "citified" soldiers' midst; instead, they recognize his unique knowledge and appreciatively absorb his wisdom on target shooting.

Similarly, the scenes where Alvin discusses fighting and the Bible with his commanding officers (Stanley Ridges and Harvey Stephens) were extremely well done, with the senior soldiers refreshingly respectful of both Alvin's views and his relative lack of education, while at the same time the scenes avoid treacle.  It's just a good, surprisingly deep conversation about how to reconcile various passages of the Bible with the job of a soldier.  Ultimately Alvin decided to "render unto Caesar" what was Caesar's and obey his call to service, and during action he recognized that in killing the men mowing down his unit he would save lives.

This is one of Cooper's best performances; he's wonderful throughout, but it was his wordless reaction to seeing the house in the final scene that had me dissolved in tears.  Simply beautiful.

I'd note that Cooper was close to two dozen years older than Leslie -- who at 16 was only five months older than June Lockhart, playing his little sister -- but he plays enough younger and she enough older that they somehow meet in the middle and it works.  Leslie glows throughout the film in a charming performance.

Among the large cast I was particularly moved by the performance of Dickie Moore (OUT OF THE PAST) as Alvin's reliable younger brother George.  George doesn't have much to say, but Moore's charismatic performance as a boy with no "quit" in him registered strongly. 

Supporting casts just don't come any better, starting with Walter Brennan as the town parson and storekeeper; the familiar faces also include Margaret Wycherly as Alvin's mother plus Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr., Howard Da Silva, Clem Bevans, George Tobias, Sammy McKim, and Joe Sawyer.

The film was directed by Howard Hawks from a screenplay with several contributors including John Huston and Howard W. Koch, based on York's own diary.  The film runs a long 134 minutes but is well-paced and doesn't overstay its welcome.

Max Steiner composed the score.  The fine black and white cinematography by Sol Polito is shown off to great effect on the new Blu-ray.  I'd add that while the film mixes soundstage exteriors with location shots, the "look" is better blended than in most films and I didn't find the "interior exteriors" distracting.

The Warner Archive has made a restoration demo available showing off the print improvement for the Blu-ray, scanned from a fine grain nitrate negative.

Extras on the Blu-ray which were carried over from the previous DVD release include a documentary, SERGEANT YORK: OF GOD AND COUNTRY; the cartoon PORKY'S PREVIEW (1941); a short, LIONS FOR SALE (1941); the re-release trailer; and a commentary track by Jeanine Basinger.


Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Irene said...

Thanks to your comment over on Twitter the other day I looked for this DVD in the library system and it is now in my queue! I was thinking last night as I saw the crowds celebrating the Lakers win down at Staples totally ignoring any Covid restrictions - that here we sit with no theme parks open and most importantly, no churches. So your comment about church being essential in this time struck a cord with me.

8:56 AM  
Blogger john k said...

A wonderful review Laura and I cannot wait to own this Blu Ray. Such a shame that Warner Bros are the only major studio to re-present their classic movies with such love and attention.Joan Leslie of course is another attraction,love her early Warners work and her later films that she made for Republic.There are quiet a lot of other classic Warner movies that have yet to appear on Blu Ray I hope the original elements are in good shape as they seem to be with SERGEANT YORK.My "fantasy" Warners release would be a triple Blu Ray set of HIGH SIERRA,COLORADO TERRITORY and I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES the same tale told three times and none available so far on Blu Ray.
Off topic but I saw this today and as we are both Hayley Atwell fans I was delighted to see today that she is currently filming in Rome with Tom Cruise on the next Mission Impossible movie those two should make quiet a team!

9:11 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm so glad to know my review inspired you to look for the movie, Irene, and I would love to know what you think when you see it. (We're in strange times, indeed.)

Thank you, John! I'd love to know what you think of the Blu-ray when you see it. I'm with you, Joan Leslie is absolutely wonderful and added so much to quite a variety of titles. I love your idea for a "triple Blu-ray" set!

That's very exciting news about Hayley being in the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie, especially as I've started watching that series. (Have seen two, need to watch the rest!) That should be a lot of fun. Thanks!

Best wishes,

9:46 AM  

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