It is a truism among clear-thinking students of America's Founding Fathers that Christian (or Judeo-Christian, as we say nowadays) morality and natural law form the bedrock of the free commonwealth that they fought for and ordained more than two centuries ago. When they proclaimed the right of the people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they were not invoking the subjective feelings of doing as one pleases (even when no harm is done to others), but, rather, the right of the people freely to live up to the virtues taught by Scripture and inherent in our nature. Everyone understood what those virtues were, and that they required that free individuals live as they ought, rather than as they please. Of course, in recent decades, that understanding of centuries and millennia has been reversed, with anarchic consequences for morality, society and culture that hardly need elaboration.
The popular entertainment enjoyed by our mass society reveals more vividly and concretely than anything else the revolutionary changes we have undergone since the 1960s, and continue to undergo with ever increasing force. In many pre-'60s movies in particular, the best of the Old America still shines bright; these movies demonstrate that, in important respects, the America of the World War II generation had more in common with the Founders' generation than with many (but by no means all) of today's younger generation.
No movie embodies this truth more than "Sergeant York" (1941). This magnificent film is such a compelling dramatization of timeless verities that it should be shown in every classroom in the country. We live in an age of "visual learning," also one which supposedly is rediscovering the merits of "character education." This film, by the very nature of its medium and the consummate artistry and professionalism of its production, reaches the spirits of its viewers with a vividness and power that cannot be matched by teaching tools derived from the social sciences.
"Sergeant York" is the story of the most renowned hero of the First World War, a Tennessee back-country boy named Alvin York. Based on his diary, the film recounts what we now call his "faith journey" from a hard-drinking, riotous brawler, whose aim with a rifle was second to none, to a devout, born-again Christian. Denied conscientious objector status in the war, he went on to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. In the words of his citation, on October 8, 1918, "after his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns." Twenty-five Germans were killed, with York responsible for about nine of them. Returning home as the nation's preeminent hero, he is feted by a New York ticker tape parade and receives commercial offers that would make him a wealthy man. But all he wants is to go home, marry his girl Gracie, and buy the bottom land he wanted to farm before the war intervened.
Gary Cooper, who for three decades embodied on film the quiet American hero, won the Academy Award as best actor in the role York himself demanded Cooper play. At the beginning, even Gracie (Joan Leslie), complains that folks say Alvin's "good for nothin' except fightin' and hell-raisin'." But he sobers up and works his tail off for monthssplitting rails, digging out stumps, plowing miles of fieldsso he can earn the money he needs to purchase the bottom land; this will give him the means to support a wife. Without it, he will not wed. Every night he marks the calendar in his poor mother's cabin with the amount (50 cents or so) he has earned that day. But when Alvin unexpectedly comes up with the full payment thanks to winning a turkey shoot, the seller, Mr. Tomkins, welshes on the deal, selling the land instead to Alvin's rival for Gracie's hand. This sends Alvin on a real binge. Drunk with liquor and rage, he sets off with his rifle in a pouring rain to do murder.
What follows is so over the top it may be hard for readers to swallow, but viewers who see the film will be grabbed by Howard Hawks's superb, understated direction. A lightning bolt strikes, toppling Alvin from his mule. On the ground, he comes to and looks upon the rifle, now bent and useless. Then in the distance, he hears singing and sees a faint light. It is a revival meeting led by his lay preacher, Pastor Pile (the great character actor Walter Brennan). Alvin approaches the meeting house. Stunned and rain drenched, he removes his hat and enters. Gratified to see his prize stray coming home, Pastor Pile directs the congregation, which is singing "In the sweet, bye and bye, we will meet on that beautiful shore," into an ecstatic rendition of "Gimme that Old Time Religion." Alvin walks slowly down the aisle and falls to his knees before the pastor, amidst the joyful believers and the raging thunder and lightning outside. He is now a believer. (Note once again how a great director dramatizes deep emotions without dialogue. Also, when is the last time a big movie hero fell to his knees in humble supplication?)
Before his conversion, and before his struggle to earn the money he needed to marry Gracie, Alvin had had a visit from Pastor Pile. In this scene, Alvin pauses from his plowing as the Pastor tells him a parable: Out before them stands a great oak, strong and sturdy. The reason it is so upright is that it has deep roots, which keep it firm against the wind. "Alvin, a man's gotta have roots in something outside o' his own self," the Pastor exclaims. Further invoking nature, the Pastor makes a comparison with the birds whose nature tells them where to fly come autumn and spring, and the bees who know how to make their honey. The memorable screenplay was written by Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel, John Huston (who that year also began his distinguished directorial career with "The Maltese Falcon") and Howard Koch (who the next year co-wrote "Casablanca"); it would have been beyond these men's wildest imagination that the homely virtues of Alvin York's life, dramatized by their screenplay, would become controversial and even despised decades letter.
One of these virtues is self-reliance. One night, as Alvin and his younger brother and sister (June Lockhart, later the mother in TV's "Lassie") sit down for dinner in their humble cabin, their mother (the great character actress Margaret Wycherly) says grace: "The Lord bless these vittles we done got and make us beholden to no one." (In a similar scene in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Pa Joad insists on paying 10 cents for a fraction of a loaf of bread he needs for Grandma, who can't chew anything else. This scene is preserved in the 1940 movie. Steinbeck of course was no conservative. Self-respect and reluctance to accept charity apparently were still an unquestioned part of the American ethos even through the Depression.)
Following the intense storm scene, Alvin's metanoia, or spiritual rebirth, is quickly dramatized when he visits Mr. Tomkins to buy back the property he had lost as his deposit. On sighting Alvin, Mr. Tomkins immediately reaches for a nearby monkey wrench in self-defense, before realizing Alvin has changed. He had heard Alvin had "got religion," but he didn't believe it. Now he does. Recognizing he too had been wrong, he sells the goods back to Alvin at a fraction of what he had paid, to try to even matters out. Now they are friends.
Alvin's spiritual journey continues at training camp after he has been drafted and denied conscientious objector status. He is made a shooting instructor because he is so accomplished. When his religious beliefs become known to his commanding officer, he is called in for an interview. Major Buxton (Stanley Ridges) praises his camp record and promotes Alvin to corporal, but Alvin declines. Respecting Alvin's principles, the major begins to talk to him about America's history. He just happens to have a history of the United States on his shelf and shows it to Alvin. Turning the pages, Alvin is delighted to see a picture of Daniel Boone, who, he says, was the first man to enter the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf, his home. The major asks what was Boone looking for in the wilderness? "To be free," he says, softly answering his own question. (Hawks's understated direction is telling here.) "That's quite a word, freedom." The history book, he continues, is the "story of a whole people's struggle for freedom. . . . How they all got together and set up a government whereby all men were pledged to defend the rights of each man, and each man to defend the rights of all men. We call it a government of the people, by the people, and for the people." The major gently goes on: "You're a religious man, York. . . .You're a farmer. You want to plow your fields as you see fit and raise your family according to your own lights. And that's your heritage. And mine." "But," he adds, "the cost of that heritage is high. Sometimes it takes all we have to preserve it. Even our lives."
Alvin's been given quite a lot to think about. So the major gives him 10 days furlough to go home and think things over. And when he returns, if he still doesn't want to fight, the major promises that he'll recommend conscientious objector status. (Hard to believe, but Major Buxton was a real person and this really did happen.)
Next comes the climax of the movienot the battle (the "action" scene), but York's moral struggle with his conscience. Back home, he walks past an old tree, which bears a knife-carved inscription: "Dan'l Boon killed a bar here in 1769." Accompanied by his faithful hound dog, York ascends a mountain, from the top of which he looks down on his peaceful valley. Then, holding his Bible, he sits down at his favorite spot to read and think. We hear voice-overs from Pastor Pile ("Thou shalt not kill") and Major Buxton ("But the cost of that heritage is high")first one, then the other, recited faster and faster, in fierce conflict. Whereupon, the providential Hollywood wind that was so well employed in Golden Age movies blows the pages of his Bible to the famous verse from Luke: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." This scenea man alone making his free moral judgment guided by Scriptureis a compelling image of the American ethos. Another comparable imageof personal responsibility and the dignity of workis the shot of Alvin plowing the fields (an upward, heroic camera angle) when he is working his hardest to earn the money to buy the bottom land of his dream.
York returns to camp, thanking Major Buxton for the loan of his book. He's still unsure about a lot of things. But he'll fight, saying: "I reckon I can just be trustin' in somethin' that's a heap bigger than I be."
Here it is interesting to note the emphasis is not just on individualism but on the good of all. Alvin York is looking at the war not just from his own perspective. And Major Buxton's formulation holds that under our system, "all men were pledged to defend the rights of each man, and each man to defend the rights of all men." Many in contemporary America, including faux conservatives, seem to see our country as an agglomeration of endlessly aggrieved minorities or atomized individuals; we are bombarded with demands for minority "rights," hearing little about majority rule or preserving the frayed threads that bind American society as a whole.
So York is shipped off to France and wins unparalleled fame. Returning first to New York, his public acclaim brings him offers of commercial endorsements, proposals to appear on the stage and in movies, and more. All this would ensure him a life of ease and plenty. But, he asks his chaperone, his congressman, Cordell Hull, "Are they offering that money because of what happened over there?" Mr. Hull nods yes. Alvin replies, "What we done in France was somethin' we had to do. Some fellas done it ain't a comin' back. So the way I figure, things like that aren't for buyin' and sellin'. . . . Tell 'em I'm a goin' home." Alvin's epic odyssey at an end, the film concludes with Alvin sheepishly greeting his beaming mother on the crowded station platform back home, "Well Ma, I'm back." And in the final shot, he and Gracie, holding hands, run across the bottom land that now is theirs, the gift of a grateful state. "The Lord sure does move in mysterious ways," are Alvin's final words.
Alvin York's true life refusal to cash in on his heroics stands out in our age of democratized morality and libertydoing as one pleases. Thus, Private Jessica Lynch sells her story to television and General Tommy Franks, quickly retired, collects up to $50,000 per speech for recounting the sacrifices of his soldiers. And, though they are hardly heroes, ex-presidents, breaking a tradition that lasted through Nixon and Ford, make money off their public service, millions for the last president. Few among the public think to question the practice. After all, what right has one to be judgmental?
What Alvin York did raise money for after the war was the Alvin C. York Institute, a school for poor Tennessee children. He declined movie offers for his story for the reason he gave Congressman Hull and because his church taught that movies were sinful. But in the late 1930s, he finally acceded to the pleas of the Warner Brothers studio, deciding his royalties would finance an interdenominational Bible school. After Pearl Harbor, he attempted to re-enlist in the infantry, but at age 54, he was of course too old. In 1951, the Internal Revenue Service accused him of tax evasion in connection with the donation of his film royalties to the Bible school. Virtually destitute, he fought the IRS for the next decade, until the IRS accepted a settlement with funds raised by House Speaker Sam Rayburn and after intervention by President Kennedy. York died on September 2, 1964 and was buried in his home town with full military honors.
Alvin York was a 20th century Daniel Boone: a man from the hinterland who wanted just to live his life by his own wits, but who found himself, like the Western heroes of myth, reluctantly compelled to wield his ability with a gun in defense of his people. His work done, he went back home. How many schoolchildren today are taught the story of Alvin York?
Readers who saw my review of "The Passion of the Christ" may be interested to know that another film I discussed, the 1961 "King of Kings," can be seen on Turner Classic Movies Easter Sunday, April 11th, at 11.30 a.m. The superb silent "King of Kings," directed by Cecil B. DeMille, is on TCM later that evening at midnight. The aesthetic of these movies is quite different from "The Passion."