I hate to make this comparison, but you know that film within Inglorious Basterds, Nation’s Pride? Today, this seems like the friendlier, American version, only instead of two hours of just patriotic shooting, we get the true story of a young man from rural Tennessee reformed by hard work and religion. Then it turns to the shooting and glory of being a war hero.
The film starts with Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper) being a wild young man who rides his horse up to the state line to get his fill of liquor and rides back to drunkenly shoot his initials in a tree outside the little church with the whole town inside. Even when he is about to fall off his horse, he shoots well enough for that A and Y to be straight and legible on the tree. Poor old Mother York (Margaret Wycherly) is tired of being ashamed of her oldest son and sends her younger son George (Dickie Moore) to bring him home. After a long ride to sober up and a meal with the folks, Alvin starts straightening out, but still has no belief in God.
While hunting with George one day, Alvin runs across Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), “all growed up” and looking pretty. Gracie has more than Alvin checking her out, but she doesn’t approve of fighting, so Alvin decides he needs some land to prove his worth to Gracie. He sets his sights on a fertile piece of farmland and starts marking on a calendar how much he has saved up every day. Alvin works hard, but when someone buys the land just to screw Alvin over, it sends him to the border on another binge. On his way home, in a drunken rage, something miraculous happens that makes Alvin believe in God. Next thing we know, he’s leading a Sunday school class and quoting the bible at every turn.
When WWI starts up, Alvin wants to be exempt from fighting because of his new-found religious beliefs. Unfortunately, the draft board does not recognize his little church in the Tennessee valley and he is recruited against his will. Training is a big experience for Alvin, he meets new people like Pusher (George Tobias) from New York who teaches him about thing he has never even heard about, like the subway. When Alvin is discovered to be a terrific shooter and a man who refuses to fight, his officers give him a book on the history of the United States to help him reconsider. Based on the movie poster and his decorated history, you already know Alvin’s decision.
I don’t want to belittle Alvin C. York, the most decorated WWI veteran, but this film would not go over as well with most audiences today. While I enjoy the story of his redemption and renewed work ethic, by the end of the film it can seem like a two hour recruitment poster for the most isolated people in the bible belt. At points in the film, Alvin is even compared to Daniel Boone. You mix all those messages with a story of Alvin turn his life around in attempts to get a pretty girl and soon you have throngs of choir boys signing up for war, gun in one hand, bible in the other.
Despite my distaste for the pro-war message aimed at the south, Gary Cooper pulls off an Oscar winning performance as Alvin. Simply put, we like him, just like I hope we would like the real Alvin. He’s just an aw-shucks Tennessee country boy who is trying to please his mother and work hard to earn the affections of prettiest girl in town. He pulls off that earnest southern drawl and phrases like “I ain’t a-goin’ to war. War’s killin’, and the book’s agin’ killin! So war is agin’ the book!” with enough conviction that I could take it more serious than what it looks like written out. Cooper makes Alvin perfectly humble and sweet, he just so happens to be a hell of a shooter. Though I applaud his Oscar win for best actor here, my heart always feels a little pain knowing how I’ve wanted that to go to Orson Welles for Citizen Kane.