This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The series opened on Tuesday, June 19th with Sergeant York by Howard Hawks. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes, first about the series as a whole and then about Sergeant York. This is what I said:
What I’ve tried to do in putting the series together is to illustrate the decline of heroes and heroism in American culture. This decline is closely bound up with the decline of honor that I wrote about in my book, Honor, A History, which has just come out in paperback. I don’t want to rehearse that argument here, but I do want show what we have lost in the long downhill slide from what I call the virtuous hero, like Sergeant York, to the cool hero and finally to that final insult to real heroism, the cartoon hero. The virtuous hero will be the theme of the first four films, though each of the four heroes — two played by Gary Cooper and two by John Wayne — may seem progressively less virtuous (as that term is usually understood) with the passage of the weeks. Then we will back up and show what is usually called a noir film from 1946, Hawks’s The Big Sleep.
The point of that film will be to illustrate the origins of what I am calling the cool hero, who is self-sufficient, often amoral and without any cause larger than himself, but who shows by a single act of generosity or nobility that he is on the side of the angels. Perhaps the better film to show in illustration of the early cool hero would have been Casablanca, but I decided on the later Bogart film instead for two reasons. One is that I assume everyone already knows Casablanca pretty well. If this is not the case, I apologize — and I urge you to go out and rent it as soon as you get home tonight. The other reason is that Casablanca is clearly a one-off, deriving its meanings from the special and very temporary circumstances of the Vichy French administration in Morocco and American neutrality. Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep shows us more of the rough edge, the moral ambiguity of the cool hero than his urbane Rick in Casablanca, and so more naturally looks ahead to our other two cool heroes, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen.
Now to Gary Cooper’s Sergeant Alvin York, the most virtuous of the four virtuous heroes we’ll be discussing over the next four weeks. You should be aware of the special circumstances surrounding the production of this film which, like Casablanca, cannot be understood without some knowledge of what America was like during the two years and a quarter between the beginning of the war in Europe in September of 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Our country was deeply divided between the interventionists, who wanted to join the war on the side of Britain and France and, later, the Soviet Union, and those called isolationists or America Firsters who vehemently opposed America’s involvement in what they saw as a strictly European struggle. The motives on both sides were often not of the purest. The isolationists included many Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites, while the interventionists included, after the German invasion of Soviet Russia in June of 1941, many Communists and Communist-sympathizers who had been among the isolationists during the period of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact.
Sergeant York which came out in the summer of 1941, was unashamedly pro-interventionist. Though it told the story of America’s greatest hero of World War One — when there had been similar divisions between isolationists and interventionists — its relevance to the current conflict was evident to all. Isolationists denounced the film as interventionist propaganda and there were inquiries in Congress as to whether it had actually violated the Neutrality Acts. Because of such political pressures, it was later withdrawn by Warner Brothers, but not before it had become the top grossing film of the year. Interestingly, it almost didn’t get made because its real-life subject, Sergeant Alvin C. York, was himself an isolationist. Moreover, he had long refused permission to anyone in Hollywood to make a film of his exploits in the war on the grounds that it would be against his religious convictions to profit from killing. But he was visited on his remote Tennessee farm by two Jews from Warner Brothers, the producer Jesse Lasky and Harry Warner himself, who so impressed him with their own piety that they overcame his suspicions of Jewish motives and made him into a born-again interventionist.
I find this a particularly piquant detail because the film itself is all about a conversion — in fact, a triple conversion — that frankly appealed not only to the born again but to the more general American love-affair with second, third and fourth chances. As played by Gary Cooper, Alvin York is first a hell-raising ne’er-do-well, converted to sobriety and hard work and responsibility by his love for 16-year-old Gracie Williams, played by Joan Leslie who was herself only 16 years old at the time and hired for the role in part because the real-life York had insisted on an actress who did not smoke, drink or swear. It probably didn’t occur to him that there could have been any need to insist on her being a virgin as well. But Alvin is disappointed in his heroic efforts to get the piece of bottom-land that he thinks he needs in order to get married, and then he undergoes a second conversion, to a strict sort of evangelical Christianity when literally struck by lightning on his way to kill the double-crossing Nate Tomkins. This, by the way, didn’t happen to the real-life York, but is a typical Hollywood touch. It also saves time.
The Christian forgiveness that Alvin henceforth practises is presented straightforwardly and without irony as putting him on the right road. He’s already a hero long before he sees a battlefield, but a virtuous and a Christian hero and one who is explicitly dissociated from the revenge motive traditionally associated with honor-seeking heroes. All the same, when America enters the war, a third conversion becomes necessary. His Bible-based Christian principles will not allow him to register for the draft and even Pastor Pile, marvelously played by the great Walter Brennan, finds Alvin’s syllogism air-tight. "War is killin’," says Alvin."The Book is agin’ killin’." Therefore, "The Book is agin’ war."
"I reckon you’re plumb right, Alvin," says Pastor Pile, who appears not to have thought of the matter before.
Alvin’s third conversion, to Americanism, is also inspired by a book: the book of American history that Major Buxton (Stanley Ridges), his commanding officer at Fort Gordon, lends him so that he may familiarize himself with the secular faith on which the film sees the American republic as being founded. Interestingly, there’s not much talk of these secular principles, which are reduced to a few familiar phrases like "government of the people, by the people and for the people." You’d think that the officer who thus characterizes what they are fighting for would have wanted to be more careful about quoting Lincoln to a Southerner, but what wins Alvin around in the end isn’t the secular faith but another Bible verse in which Jesus tells his followers to "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s."
I think that this is part of the film’s effort to make us see that the third conversion doesn’t cancel out the other two. That’s also at work when Alvin, having been denied conscientious objector status, threatens to resist the government’s efforts to make him go to war — until he realizes that if defending his own principles could involve him in killin’, maybe defending his country’s principles could too. This realization is not made explicit but depends almost entirely on the visual cues in a series of close-ups during a conversation between Alvin and Pastor Pile. The camera is looking over Alvin’s shoulder at the Pastor when the former tells him that those in the government who might come after him "will be a-wishin’ they hadn’t." We see Brennan look down and away as if he has been struck, and then we cut to Cooper’s face, stricken with remorse. He swiftly apologizes for his "sinful words."
Yet something very close to that understated threat to those who would cross him, that they "will be a-wishin’ they hadn’t," is later repeated on the battlefield to the German major during York’s famous exploit — which only takes up about an eighth of the film — in personally killing 28 Germans and taking 132 prisoners on the battlefield in 1918. With real menace, he says that if there are any more tricks, "You and a lot more are a-goin’ to be mighty sorry." But now the "sinful words" have been sanitized because he’s fighting for something bigger than himself. The Christian and the secular principles come together when Alvin explains his actions by saying that he thought he had to kill in order to save lives — the lives of his men — and Buxton, now a Colonel acts as if this is the damndest thing he’s ever heard in his life. "The Lord sure do move in mysterious ways," as the film has Alvin say on two different occasions.
Though he is naturally modest about his own heroism — as all American movie heroes are — Alvin’s modesty is seen as arising out of the Christian humility that subordinates the individual to the larger divine plan. "I was just a-trustin’ to something that’s a heap bigger than I be," he says. And, "This life is somethin’ the Lord done give us, and we got to be livin’ it the best we can." This echoes the Bible verse intoned off-camera by the old man in the rocking chair on Gracie Williams’s porch when Alvin first comes a-courting: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." I think this is how the film sees the war — not, that is, as an excuse for moral posturing by any individual but as, simply, the work that needs to be done. The hero is, accordingly, the man who does it with his might. It’s a compelling vision, particularly for a country on the brink of war and badly in need of inspiration for its would-be heroes. It’s also just about the last time that Hollywood presents us with such a virtuous and straightforwardly heroic hero. Let’s enjoy him while we can.