Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sergeant York: A War Story, An American Story, a Faith Story

Recently, having a film conversation with my pastor and his wife, they mentioned their interest in the film Sergeant York. I asked why they liked it and they said "we like the film because it's a compelling film. It's a large scale Hollywood film, it's an entertaining, well told story, and shares the gospel message of Christ in the film, very clearly."

Because I've been catching up on my cinema from the 1930s and 1940s, the recommendation put this film instantly on my radar.

This film is directed by Howard Hawks and tells the real life Sergeant Alvin York, America's most decorated WWI veteran.

Beyond the element of faith, what I found most interesting about this film was that the film is marketed, even it's name as a war story with taglines about fighting, tanks, and guns. Most pictures from the film are stills like the one above with Gary Cooper either in battle or decorated as a war hero.

But while the climactic battle seasons with Cooper as Sergeant Alvin York are one of the turning points in York's story (on the screen and in real life), this image of York is "What He Did" while the true image of York (the "Who He Is") is a struggling Tennessee farmer with a powerful conversion from a violent drunk troublemaker to a man who wanted to do right by his family, his fiancee, and the Lord.

A more appropriate image for this film would be one like the one here, that shows Cooper as a simple man in Tennessee trying to find someway to change his caste in life by earning enough money to buy up a piece of bottom land and win the heart of the girl he loved (Gracie Williams, played by Joan Leslie).
But billed as a war story, it's okay too - because it's that type of story as well, yet I don't think as an audience you watch cheering for for York to win the war, I think you cheer for him hoping he can get himself a piece of bottom-land in the valley.

In my assessment, more than a war story, this is actually an American story. A story of American freedom, what that means in the scope of time and history. When it comes to war the aspect of war, war is a piece of that story, not the entirety of the story.

In terms of the faith aspect of the story, is that faith is not used as a marketing strategy in this film, but instead as a historical film about a real person, the reality of York's faith is a dramatic part of his story and a continuous thread in his life. His conversion experience isn't the climax, but rather the catalyst for the changes in his life that help make York who he is supposed to be.

This not only makes for powerful story telling, but also a powerful story. And it seems that the most compelling films about faith are the true stories, where film makers tell the story of someone the way that they are and faith is a part of their character. In fictionalized stories it seems like authors tend to ignore the aspect of faith in the creation of characters, unless it is to create a certain type of stereotypical supporting character. Yet, in real stories, like the stories of Alvin York the peaks and valleys of his own experience with God are as much a valid part of who he is, as where he lived and what family he came from.

In this regard, York's real story plays out in a powerful way that I'm sure spoke out to audiences in 1941, particularly as another great war was beginning in Europe, but I think there is room for this film to challenge contemporary film watchers 70 years after it's initial release.

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