Monday, July 4, 2016

Sergeant York

Year 8, Day 186 - 7/4/16 - Movie #2,387

BEFORE: Happy Fourth of July, America's 5th-favorite eating holiday (after Thanksgiving, Christmas, Super Bowl, and Halloween).  I try not to leave the house, because my neighborhood sounds like a battlefield.  (Why doesn't anyone get arrested for illegal fireworks any more?  How many people have to lose fingers before the laws start getting enforced?)

OK, I realize this is not a World War II film, it's set during World War I.  But I'll explain the connection below.  Both Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan carry over from "Meet John Doe".

THE PLOT:  A hillbilly sharpshooter drafted in WW1, despite his claim to be a pacifist, ends up becoming a war hero.

AFTER: I'm afraid that the last few films really set off my B.S. detector, and now it's sort of extra-sensitive.  Not to belittle the sacrifices made by America's veterans, but I have to question the timing of releasing a World War I picture in September 1941.  What better way to get American men ready for the possible upcoming draft than to put the story of a World War I hero up on the screen?  Who wouldn't want to sign up for the military and be like Alvin York?  Look, guys, you don't have to be smart or rich or cultured to kill the enemy and be a hero, just like him!  

(Films like "M*A*S*H" and "Catch-22" pulled the same sort of trick in reverse - while technically set during the Korean War and World War II, they were released during the Vietnam War, so really, their takes on the futility and nonsensical nature of war were really a condemnation of the current conflict.)

And the story of Sergeant York seems tailor-made to get people to sign up (and die) despite whatever reservations young soldiers might have.  Even though this is a true story, by focusing on York's humble upbringing, his reservations about killing and his internal conflict between duties to God and country were, I believe, designed to serve as an instruction manual for any potential soldiers debating the same issues.  As long as you can dig a trench, fire a rifle and wear a helmet, it's your duty to serve your country, and your God will just have to understand.  

I'm reminded of Muhammad Ali, who refused to serve in Vietnam, claiming that the Viet Cong had never done anything against him.  His status as a conscientious objector nearly cost him his career, but years later, didn't it seem like he had made the right call?  His story eventually got told because of his great boxing prowess, but I'll wager if Sgt. York had been excused, his story would never have been told.  Look, just go over to France, kill a few Germans, and we'll call it a day, OK?  

Much too much of this story is spent on York's attempts to buy some land and start a farm - a full hour of motion picture goes by before war is declared, and it's so boring I fell asleep several times waiting for the action.  Do I care that he takes a job lifting rocks out of another man's farm, for 50 cents a day?  Not in the least.  I get that the backstory gives insight on his character, but can we hurry this along, please?  

Anyway, there's a big NITPICK POINT when York is given 60 days to pay off his debt to own the land he wants.  We see him doing odd jobs, counting his money and crossing off the days on a calendar month - but isn't that just 30 days?  What happened to 60?  He says it himself, if he works around the clock, that's 60 days and 60 nights, so really, he's got four months.  So how does he let himself get royally screwed when he can't raise the money in half the time?  

And York's success at local marksmanship contests, particularly the turkey shoot, is some of the sloppiest, most obvious foreshadowing I've ever seen.  On top of everything else, I can't stand the takeaway message for this movie, which comes from Sgt. York finally getting the land he wanted, and the house too.  An average viewer might draw the conclusion that you can get whatever you want in America, as long as you're willing to compromise on your principles.  Is that really how we should define a hero? 

Tonight's reference to "It's a Wonderful Life" is actor Ward Bond, playing Ike Botkin, but he also played Bert the Cop in that Frank Capra film.  More like this tomorrow.

Also starring Joan Leslie (last seen in "Foreign Correspondent"), George Tobias (last seen in "Mildred Pierce"), Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly (last seen in "White Heat"), Ward Bond (last seen in "After the Thin Man"), Noah Beery Jr. (last seen in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"), June Lockhart (last seen in "The Big Picture"), Dickie Moore, Clem Bevans (last seen in "Go West"), David Bruce, Robert Porterfield, Erville Alderson, with cameos from Selmer Jackson (also carrying over from "Meet John Doe"), Frank Mayo (ditto), Ray Teal (last seen in "The Best Years of Our Lives").

RATING: 5 out of 10 endorsement deals

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