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Howard Hawks
Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly, Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr., June Lockhart
Writing Credits:
Alvin C. York (diary), Tom Skeyhill (diary editor), Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston

America's Greatest Modern Hero! Timelier today than ever ... thrilling and inspiring story of the kind of men that America is made of!

Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of real-life soldier Sergeant Alvin York, a war hero who astonished the world with his bravery and modesty. Although an unruly lad while growing up in rural Tennessee, he later reformed to pacifist ideals, but was called to serve in World War I where his valor on the battlefield earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. The film is directed by Howard Hawks and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards.

Box Office:
$1.4 million.
Domestic Gross
$4.0 million.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural

Runtime: 135 min.
Price: $26.99
Release Date: 11/7/2006

Disc One
• Audio Commentary with Biographer Jeannine Basinger
• “Porky’s Preview” Classic Cartoon
• “Lions for Sale” Vintage Short
•Gary Cooper Trailer Gallery
Disc Two
• “Sergeant York: Of God and Country” Documentary
• “Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend” Documentary


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Sergeant York: Special Edition (1941)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 6, 2006)

While 1939 gets all the attention for its huge crop of classics, 1941 offered an awful lot of hits as well. In fact, the Oscar Best Picture winner from that year - How Green Was My Valley - pales in comparison to some of the year’s other releases. Citizen Kane remains the popular choice as the flick that should’ve won Best Picture, and the terrific Maltese Falcon also hit the screens that year.

For another of the Best Picture nominees, we visit Sergeant York. (The Academy still picked 10 nominees back in 1941.) Set in a remote Tennessee valley circa 1916, we meet Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a rowdy, booze-swilling country boy. In an attempt to tame Alvin, his mother (Margaret Wycherly) sends the local preacher (Walter Brennan) to talk to him. Though the pastor tries to put the fear of God in Alvin, he doesn’t seem too affected by the chat.

In the meantime, Alvin falls in love with local girl Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie). When she resists his charms, he believes it’s because of his economically challenged farming circumstances. Because of that, Alvin sets out to buy himself a piece of “bottomland”. Although he works himself half to death, a disingenuous land seller leaves Alvin high and dry. In a drunken fury, Alvin plans to kill the man, but apparent divine intervention stops him and he ends up in church.

This leads to a religious awakening in Alvin, and he becomes a quiet, peaceable man. When the US goes to war and the draft accompanies it, Alvin tries to stay out of the military due to his pacifism. However, the government rejects his appeals and he gets inducted into the Army.

There Alvin rises through the ranks due to his excellent shooting skills. He deals with his moral conundrum along the way. The movie follows his military activities and how he tries to remain true to himself while he serves his country.

York seems interesting mainly due to the era in which it appeared. With Europe in flames and the US on the brink of war, any form of military movie took on added impact. The story of a pacifist who distinguishes himself in combat seems fraught with meaning within a nation reluctant to involve itself overseas.

Since I wasn’t alive in 1941, I can’t say if York swayed any isolationists and made them more willing to fight, but it sure feels like that was one of its goals. Any attempt to tell a character story seem incidental when compared to that overall mission. I won’t call York a propaganda piece, but it teeters on the verge of turning into one.

I must admit York doesn’t do a lot for me. I think it presents an inherently interesting true story but it fails to exploit the material in a particularly memorable way. Part of the problem stems from the pacing. With a title like Sergeant York, we know that Alvin will end up in the military, but it takes the movie forever to get there. Yes, the preliminary moments help set up the character, but I think they’re moderately unnecessary, or at least the film draws them out too long. A little could have gone a long way, but the flick keeps us in Tennessee well past the point of impatience.

I like Cooper as an icon and he served movies well when he didn’t need to do much more than establish a stoic, manly presence. However, when Cooper was required to actually act, matters didn’t work as well. Some may lambaste me for this thought, but I really see Cooper as the Keanu Reeves of his day: an attractive image with some charisma but not a whole lot of acting breadth or depth.

And that causes definite problems in York. Cooper doesn’t handle the country boy thing very well. He really terrible southern accent and plays Alvin in a broad way that doesn’t work. Cooper also seems awfully old for the role. He was 40 at the time, or about 12 years older than the real Alvin at the time of the film’s start in 1916. Sure, actors often play much younger than themselves; heck, one of the performers in Strangers with Candy is a 30-year-old pretending to be 14! However, she pulls it off, whereas Cooper looked every one of his 40 years at the time. I probably wouldn’t mind this if I bought into Cooper’s performance, but since he seems unconvincing, the age problems become more prominent.

Ultimately Sergeant York ends up as a strangely disaffecting picture. It abounds with opportunities to spark emotions but fails to adequately exploit any of them. In the end it delivers a message timely for its era and little else.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B+

Sergeant York appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the transfer wasn’t stellar, it usually looked good.

Sharpness was pretty solid. Occasional shots came across as a bit soft and indistinct, but those instances didn’t present frequent problems. Instead, the movie offered reasonably well-defined elements. Jagged edges and shimmering created no concerns, and only a little edge enhancement appeared.

Print flaws caused periodic distractions. I noticed examples of specks, blotches, marks, nicks and lines. These didn’t mar much of the movie, though, as the majority of the flick appeared acceptably clean. Blacks were nice and deep, while shadows were fairly clear. A few low-light shots seemed a little murky, but most came across with good definition. Overall, the film presented an attractive image.

Once I factored in the flick’s age, I noticed no significant issues with the monaural soundtrack of Sergeant York. Speech showed a little edginess at times, but I didn’t think the lines were problematic. Dialogue seemed easily intelligible and without concerns.

Music appeared clear, though it lacked heft. Effects were clean and concise. They also failed to demonstrate much range, but they were acceptably accurate and lacked distortion. A few military scenes boasted pretty nice bass within explosions, though. No problems with source flaws marred the presentation. Again, the track wasn’t special, but it was fine for a product of its era.

As we move to the extras for this two-disc special edition, we open with an audio commentary from film historian Jeannine Basinger. She offers a running, screen-specific discussion. Basinger offers a solid overview of necessary issues. She chats about the era in which York was made and historical elements in the film, realism and research, cast and crew, various filmmaking nuts and bolts, challenges related to the biographical side of things, the project’s development, and some story interpretation.

Across the board, Basinger provides a terrific chat. She provides a rich discussion of the movie’s production and the historical elements, and she manages to mesh these elements together well. Basinger manages to give us a very useful commentary that consistently informs and entertains.

Also on DVD One, we find a couple of vintage shorts. These include Porky’s Preview (5:55) and Lions for Sale (9:00). The first is a Porky Pig cartoon during which he runs his own animated feature. It’s amusing in its intentional crudeness. Sale spotlights the beasts at a California “lion farm”. It attempts comedy via its commentary but doesn’t succeed. At least it offers an interesting glimpse of lion training, though I feel bad for the critters since they spend so much time in tiny cages.

Finally, DVD One includes a Gary Cooper Trailer Gallery. This includes promos for York, The Fountainhead, Springfield Rifle, Friendly Persuasion, Love in the Afternoon and The Wreck of the Mary Deare.

Over on Disc Two, we find two components. Narrated by Liam Neeson, Sergeant York: Of God and Country runs 38 minutes and 55 seconds as it mixes movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from authors Michael Birdwell and MZ Ribalow, actors June Lockhart and Joan Leslie, Gary Cooper’s daughter Maria, and film historian Robert Osborne.

The show offers a quick biography of Alvin York but quickly gets into all the complications related to attempts to bring his story to the screen; we hear lots about York’s restrictions and requirements. From there we go through casting, war-related issues of the era and script development, performances, characters and realism, shooting topics and production problems. After that we learn about Alvin York’s anti-Nazi campaign and its impact, other political controversies, the movie’s themes and storytelling elements, and post-release reactions to the film.

“Country” gets a little goopy in its middle portions as it ladles praise on folks involved. However, it manages to create a fairly provocative and informative piece nonetheless. It repeats some info from Basinger's commentary but not much, as it throws in plenty of new notes. We find a nice overview of the production with a good emphasis on connected controversies in this solid little program.

For the second documentary, we get the 46-minute and 10-second Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend. Hosted by Clint Eastwood, it covers Cooper’s career. We learn of the actor’s youth and upbringing, how he moved into acting, his career and personal life, some of his most prominent roles, and other aspects of his life.

This overview makes “Legend” sound like a good biography of Cooper, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. In truth, details are few and far between, as the program emphasizes movie clips over everything else. As a montage of Cooper’s work, “Legend” becomes useful, especially since we see some interesting TV snippets from later in his life. As a biography, though, “Legend” comes up short and doesn’t give us much depth.

At least that makes the documentary on a par with Sergeant York. The film takes an interesting story and character but fails to move them to the screen with much heart or flair. Marred by an awkward performance from Gary Cooper, the flick never manages to turn into anything particularly memorable. The DVD presents adequate to good picture and audio along with extras highlighted by an excellent audio commentary. This turns into a pretty nice package for a less than stellar movie.

Pursestrings footnote: Sergeant York can be purchased in its own or as part of a five-movie “Gary Cooper Signature Collection”. The latter also includes The Fountainhead, Dallas, Springfield Rifle, and The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Since this set’s $49.98 retail price is only $23 more than York on its own, this is a great deal for Cooper fans.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4285 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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