This is a case of a film not being captivating until the halfway mark. At over two hours long, “Sergeant York” did not entrance me until its main character, Alvin York (Gary Cooper), learns the error of his ways and begins to realize that there is more to the world than just himself.
Up until the point, however, the first hour is spent on York making selfish decisions, drinking, and getting into as many fights as he can. All while religion is force upon him, and us, and that he can only be saved by accepting God into his life. This goes on far longer than it should have, as we watch every instant of York getting into trouble from the time World War I is announced to the moment he lets God into his heart.
But once the film gets passed that point, Gary Cooper turns on the charm and becomes a man who sees himself as part of a loving community that is greater than himself, apologizing for all of his wrong-doings and is more than willing to make up for it.
And as enlistment comes, York initially rejects the offer, due to his new-found religious beliefs, but realizes that he can do a lot more good in Europe than he could at home.
Perhaps the reason “Sergeant York” has stuck around as long as it has is because of what York discovers while at war – That he did not need God to save him in the first place, but compassion and care for his fellow-man. The defining moment in the film comes when York sees a machine gun mowing down American troops, and uses his knowledge of hunting to outwit the Germans and save possibly thousands of people. At that point, he was no longer bound by religion or God, but a desire to see suffering and torment end.
We watch as this one man goes from a punk to a man obsessed with religion to a pacifist to a hero. As a result, “Sergeant York” has one of the greatest character transformations I can think of. It takes a while to get there, but the result does make the first hour worth sitting through.
Final Grade: B