[1941] Sergeant York

sergeant-york-belgian-movie-posterHyperreal violence plays a role in postmodern American culture. It continues to be the defining moment in each day chronicled and it is glorified in stone in film and television. Fast, clear, and present danger is always under the next shag rug; the grass will kill you; and we better be ready for the imminent, always imminent, rise of the autonomy of things. First our cars will drive us, and then they will drive us off a cliff.

But ocean red, the hue that resonates the blood-shot reflection of a dead solider, will always be the cornerstone of American fascination with War. The Patriotic film demonstrates the hellish torment of battle, with corporeal guts and bones the ultimate sacrifice. This message is simple and meaningful and, when overdone, can be visually stunning and worthwhile as a statement, or just a way for a production studio to run the world a little dryer of #ff0000. But before color ubiquity in media, directors needed to dig a little deeper to represent the horrifics of war and death. Before it becomes unfashionable, the ultimate sacrifice is and was for of Our Lord the Christian God. Gary Cooper as Alvin York, in the titular Sergeant York, answers the call to demonstrate the harsh brutality of what it means to die in the arms of the ethereal.

On this abstract level, director Howard Hawks asks his audience to equate sacrificing for God and sacrificing for country, a sentiment probably shared by a majority of Americans in Progressive Era Tennessee (1917). Alvin York, as a metaphor for spiritual succession, supposedly sought redemption for rambunctiousness, and faced a moral dilemma in the  crossroads of his life. Sergeant York, released in 1941, is a stand-in for a gigantic reckoning for the soul of America, while the country was setting itself up for foray into its first post-modern conflict, World War II. The meaning of progressive realigned, too, without telling anyone. Soon Red would change its meaning, too.

Sergeant York serves as an excellent signpost for general sentiment of World War I from the eyes of World War II, the way Zero Dark Thirty will serve as a beacon for World War III. The blood was less than in contemporary film, but the sublime of sacrifice, for whatever reason remains resonant. We can hate the military for dogwhistling violence, order, and hegemony, but we can be thankful for everyone who serves for whatever reason, that in the age of the Crimson King, with blood shining from sea to shining sea, the world is moving almost too fast to notice. Sergeant York is bled dry.

How Green Was My Valley won for Best Picture in 1941 and will forever be included in trivia programs whose questions include: which film defeated Citizen Kane in 1941 to win Best Picture? Widely regarded (probably incorrectly) as the best film ever made, Citizen Kane came in at least second in 1941, a year that included The Little FoxesThe Maltese Falcon, and Sergeant York, and winner How Green Was My Valley. It will continue to be a challenge to say which message was clearer: individual sacrifice or family strife when it comes to defining human experience on film. If the former is true, then Citizen Kane deserved this prize, even over Sergeant York, which will live on through its spiritual and bloody successor, Hacksaw Ridge, released 74 years later in 2016.

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