Wednesday, August 25, 2010

DVD Review: SERGEANT YORK (Warner Bros., 1941)

Here's a comparison for you: Sergeant York and Patton. Not so much the movies themselves -- they have very different feels, even taking the differences between World War I and World War II into account -- as the fact that how you're "programmed" will probably determine how you react to the story being told. During the Vietnam era, a divided nation watched Patton and saw the general as either a no-guff, victory-minded patriot or a noxious jerk, depending upon individual political preferences. Sergeant York, which was universally praised during its initial run, earned Gary Cooper an Academy Award, and played no small part in drumming up support for the military during the run-up to Pearl Harbor, now seems to split opinions in a similar manner. The critical comments on IMDb bifurcate neatly into either uncomplicated admiration or snarky dismissal. Alvin York's choice between either obeying the dictates of his pacifist interpretation of Christianity and coming to his country's aid in time of war is either applauded as a "deep theme" to be considered at length or waved aside with a smirk as just another example of hypocrisy in an American "hero." The cosmetic aspects of the movie -- particularly the patently artificial feel of the "hillbilly" section describing Alvin's wild youth and his "getting religion" -- have dated badly, making one's personal commitment to the tale seem all the more significant. Quite frankly, how you view Sergeant York's dilemma probably says more about you than it does about the Sergeant.

In all honesty, I found the first half of the film rather tedious, save for Walter Brennan's great turn as the folksy, pulpit-pounding Pastor Pile. The obvious soundstage settings and the frequently labored attempts to do LI'L ABNER shtick are definite turnoffs; Cooper's careful pronunciation of such backwoodsisms as "hyar" and "air" is actually comical at times. York's "conversion by lightning bolt" flies in the face of the actual facts about the man and seems more suited for a Cecil B. DeMille costume epic. The second half makes up for all this, however. Director Howard Hawks is on familiar territory when he places the diffident, self-conscious York in a diverse company of doughboys, and the "guys training and bonding" material comes off well. York's soul-searching is presented in melodramatic fashion, complete with a wind-riffled Bible opening to just the right page to break York's mental deadlock, but the legitimate clash of basic moral values still rings true. The battle scene in which York earns his honors, while also confined to an artificial set and relatively bloodless, packs a surprising wallop for all that, especially when York makes up for the killing of a buddy by quickly dispatching the German prisoner who had done the surreptitious deed.

We only got one disc from Netflix, with only a handful of extras -- but interesting extras they are. There's a running critical commentary on the movie, as you might expect, but a couple of Warners shorts, including Porky's Preview, attempt to give the viewer the "feel" of a night at the local Warners theater in 1941. It would have been even more authentic had you been obliged to watch the shorts prior to the main feature, but I'm not complaining.

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