Sergeant York (1941)

sergeant york old movieA troublemaker finds God, becomes a World War I hero, and eventually gets himself a nice piece of “bottom land.”


This movie was the highest grossing film of 1941, and if you adjust for inflation I’d venture to guess it falls somewhere among other classics such as Avatar, Gone with the Wind, and Kazaam—that cinematic masterpiece where Shaquille O’Neal plays a rapping genie who emerges from a magic boombox.

alvin york sergeant york

The real Sergeant York

When Hollywood producers approached the real Sergeant Alvin York about making a film about his life, York initially refused, but with World War II raging in Europe, he became convinced it was his patriotic duty to allow the film to be made (even though the U.S. hadn’t technically joined the war at this point).

York supposedly had three conditions, though: 1) His share of the profits would be contributed to a Bible school; 2) No cigarette-smoking actress could play his wife; and 3) The only man that could possibly play him would be Gary Cooper. (Though if Shaquille O’Neal were around back then, I’m sure Coop would’ve been the No. 2 choice.)

At first Cooper wasn’t going to do the movie, but he eventually agreed. He later said, “Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”

Joan Leslie ended up being the perfect choice to play York’s wife because the actress didn’t drink, smoke, or swear. The only other movie I’ve seen her in is Yankee Doodle Dandy.

In real life, York’s wife had quite the influence on his spirituality. It was she who helped him turn his life around little by little. I guess that wasn’t exciting enough for the filmmakers, so in the movie York is dramatically converted following a confrontation with a bolt of lightning. (Just like that—Kazaam!)

OH, SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW: I once knew a bus driver with a fair share of bottom land.

The movie opens with the following dedication:

sergeant york caesar gary cooper“We are proud to present this picture and are grateful to the many heroic figures, still living, who have generously consented to be portrayed in its story. To their faith and ours that a day will come when man will live in peace on earth, this picture is humbly dedicated.”

There are some who refuse to honor the men and women of the armed forces because they reject the idea of war in general or perhaps the purpose of a particular war. But regardless of our political ideologies, should we not at least pay our respects to those who live and die fighting on our behalf? Surely they deserve that.

No halfway decent person ever wants war, but it takes an extraordinarily decent person to go to war to ensure the protection of their family, friends, and complete strangers.

My grandfather was that kind of person. He was the epitome of unselfishness, and I hope to be half the man he was someday. It would have been his 90th birthday on Memorial Day.

world war II veteran

My grandfather

He was a staff sergeant during World War II but he was not defined by war. He was a peaceful, God-fearing man who loved other people.

So how do such peaceful, unselfish men and women reconcile the idea of war with their desire (and God’s commandment) not to kill? This is a heavy topic that Sergeant York tackles in a very simple and beautiful way.

There comes a point in the film when Alvin York, a Christian who strongly opposes killing, must reconcile his religious beliefs with his call to fight for his country.

As he sits atop a hill most of the day in solemn seclusion, he struggles to resolve this conflict between God and country. Eventually York receives a revelation from the Almighty that steers him the direction he was meant to go. I imagine all of us could benefit by contemplating this same scripture as we celebrate Memorial Day:

“Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which be Cæsar’s, and unto God the things which be Gods.” — Luke 20:25


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