Sergeant York (film)

Sergeant York is a 1941 American biographical film about the life of Alvin York, one of the most-decorated American soldiers of World War I. It was directed by Howard Hawks and was the highest-grossing film of the year.[2]

Sergeant York
Directed byHoward Hawks
Produced byHoward Hawks
Jesse L. Lasky
Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay byHarry Chandlee
Abem Finkel
John Huston
Howard E. Koch
Sam Cowan
Based onSergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary
1928 novel
by Tom Skeyhill
Alvin York
StarringGary Cooper
Walter Brennan
Joan Leslie
Music byMax Steiner
CinematographySol Polito
Edited byWilliam Holmes
Distributed byWarner Brothers
Release date
  • July 2, 1941 (1941-07-02) (US)
Running time
134 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$8,259,000[1]

The film was based on the diary of Sergeant Alvin York, as edited by Tom Skeyhill,[3] and adapted by Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Howard E. Koch, and Sam Cowan (uncredited). York refused, several times, to authorize a film version of his life story, but finally yielded to persistent efforts in order to finance the creation of an interdenominational Bible school. The story that York insisted on Gary Cooper for the title role derives from the fact that producer Jesse L. Lasky recruited Cooper by writing a plea that he accept the role and then signed York's name to the telegram.[4]

Cooper went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. The film also won for Best Film Editing and was nominated in nine other categories, including Best Picture, Director (Hawks), Supporting Actor (Walter Brennan), and Supporting Actress (Margaret Wycherly). The American Film Institute ranked the film 57th in the its 100 most inspirational American movies. It also rated Alvin York 35th in its list of the top 50 heroes in American cinema.

In 2008, Sergeant York was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


The film begins in the summer of 1916. Alvin York, a poor young farmer from the rural area near Pall Mall, Tennessee, lives a hardscrabble existence in a community whose poverty and isolation leave them with a lifestyle hardly different from people of a century earlier. He is an exceptional marksman, but a ne'er-do-well prone to drinking and fighting, which does not make things any easier for his long-suffering, widowed mother.

Alvin's farm is on rocky land high in the mountains, which barely supports him and his siblings. He meets a sweet-natured local girl, Gracie Williams, and works night and day at strenuous odd jobs to accumulate the payment for a fertile "bottomland" farm so she'll marry him. The owner, Tomkins, gives Alvin sixty days to raise the purchase price. On the day the last payment is due, Alvin wins the final needed amount at a target-shooting contest, but discovers Tomkins has reneged and sold the farm to Alvin's romantic rival, Zeb Andrews, keeping all of the partial payments Alvin had made. Alvin drinks heavily and swears revenge.

That night, en route to attack Tomkins and Andrews, the rifle Alvin is holding is struck by lightning, splitting the barrel in two and knocking him off his mule. Similar to the biblical conversion of Paul, York survives the lightning strike and undergoes a religious awakening when he joins a revival meeting at the nearby church, vowing never to get drunk or angry again. He makes amends with the men who cheated him out of the land, while Gracie points out that her love is tied to him and not the bottomland.

When the U.S. enters World War I and York is drafted into the army, he tries to avoid induction into the Army as a conscientious objector, but is denied since his church has no official standing. He reluctantly reports to Camp Gordon for basic training, where he is harassed because of his objector status, but his superiors eventually discover that he is a phenomenal marksman and decide to promote him to corporal.

York still wants nothing to do with the Army and killing. Major Buxton, his sympathetic commanding officer, tries to change York's mind, citing sacrifices made by others throughout the history of the United States. He gives York a leave to go home and think it over. He promises York a recommendation for his exemption as a conscientious objector if York remains unconvinced.

While York is fasting and pondering, the wind blows his Bible open to the verse in Matthew 22:21: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's". York reports back for duty and tells his superiors that he can serve his country, despite not having everything figured out to his satisfaction, leaving the matter in God's hands.

His unit is shipped out to Europe and participates in an attack during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on October 8, 1918. Pinned down by deadly machine gun fire, the lieutenant orders Sergeant Early to take some men and try to attack the machine gun nests from behind. York suddenly finds himself the last remaining unwounded non-commissioned officer in the detachment, and is placed in command by Early.

Seeing his comrades being shot down all around him, his self-doubt disappears. He works his way to a position flanking the main enemy trench and, as a sniper, fires individual rifle shots with such devastating effect that the Germans surrender. Then, York forces a captured officer at gunpoint to order the Germans still fighting in another section of the line to also surrender. He and the handful of other survivors end up with 132 prisoners. York becomes a national hero and is awarded the Medal of Honor. When Major Buxton asks him why he did what he did, York explains that he was trying to save the lives of his men.

Arriving in New York City in early 1919, York receives a ticker tape parade and a key to the city. He is impressed with the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and its indoor electricity. Congressman Cordell Hull guides him through the city and informs him that he has been offered opportunities to commercialize on his fame, all totaling around $250,000 (for context, $3.6 million today). York mentions the bottomland he wanted and Hull responds he could buy it with the money. York rejects the offers, however, saying that he was not proud of what he did in the war, but it had to be done, and he will not profit from his fame. He tells Hull he wants to go home. He returns to Tennessee greeted by Gracie and his family. To his surprise, the people of his home state have bought him the bottomland farm he wanted and built him a house on the land.





Sergeant York was a spectacular success at the box office and became the highest-grossing film of 1941. It remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation.[5] It benefited from the attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred while the film played in theaters. The film's patriotic theme helped recruit soldiers; young men sometimes went directly from the movie theater to military enlistment offices.[6]:156–157 After its initial release, the film was frequently re-shown at theaters all over America during the war as a quick replacement for box office flops and as a theme program for bond sales and scrap drives.

According to Warner Bros records the film earned $6,075,000 domestically and $2,184,000 foreign.[1]


At the 14th Academy Awards, the film won two Oscars:[7]

It was also nominated for:[8]


  1. Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 22 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  2. FILM MONEY-MAKERS SELECTED BY VARIETY: ' Sergeant York' Top Picture, Gary Cooper Leading Star, New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 31 Dec 1941: 21.
  3. "Sergeant York Review". Allmovie. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
  4. David D. Lee, Sergeant York: An American Hero (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 105ff.
  5. All Time Box Office Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
  6. Kennett, Lee (1985). For the duration... : the United States goes to war, Pearl Harbor-1942. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-18239-4.
  7. "NY Times: Sergeant York". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-14.
  8. "The 14th Academy Awards (1942) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-13.

Further reading

  • Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign against Nazism (NY: New York University Press, 1999)
  • McCarthy, Todd, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood (NY: Grove Press, 1997), ch. 22: "Sergeant York"
  • Robert Brent Toplin, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996)
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