Nov 4, 2016

Alternative to What: "Sergeant York" (1941)

Gary Cooper
Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

Sergeant York (1941)
- Alternative To -
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

It is difficult to make a war movie these days without making it controversial. This was clearly seen a few years back with American Sniper. In this week's new releases is another war movie that is sure to raise some eyebrows, if just because it's the return of director Mel Gibson. He hasn't been seen since Apocalypto, and sure hasn't gained back much good will since his infamous breakdown. What Hacksaw Ridge embodies is a sense of atonement through a case study of religion in the time of war. With reports stating that it's going to be a very bloody and messy film (just like Gibson's entire filmography), it only seems right that this week's Alternative to What explores one specific trend that seems to not get respect anymore: war heroes.
War heroes are cinema's version of an Average Joe becoming a superhero. He is a man who fights in the face of danger to overcome daunting tasks. Unlike action films, war heroes are those that exist in the real world and are often fictionalized accounts of real people. That is the case with Hacksaw Ridge, and it's the case with another pacifist war hero in Sergeant York: a Howard Hawks film that also paints the conflicting nature of war and religion. Like the best of Hawks' films, it is a riveting journey with an excellent Gary Cooper performance at the center of everything. While it's far from the most graphic film, it's one of the few that captures the patriotism that should come with American war heroes. 
For the most part, Sergeant York is a case study in the man himself. The war is a present factor in the third act, but the first half is largely about coming to the realization that he needs to fight for country. We see him go about learning how to shoot a gun and dealing with church. It may have the predictable noble man finale, but its streamlined tale manages to paint something grandiose and connecting to the audience. This war hero is nothing more than a man with the familiar passions of anyone who is forced to go to war. While it may have played into the ongoing events of World War II, the patriotism of Sergeant York more than elevates its material to a specifically American atmosphere.
It also helps that Cooper was one of the great masculine heroes in cinema. He was able to be convincing as a strong and brave man. He was also able to be sympathetic and introverted when he needed to be. His tale goes against the general notion that war is the answer. He faces the struggles to get his message across. It is quite compelling to watch him win over his crew and eventually lead them to victory. The scene in question is an astounding piece of cinema, and one that most war movies strive for. It is clear cut and uses strategy visually to bring forth a cathartic conclusion. Most of all, Sergeant York may be an exceptional hero, but he feels homegrown at the same time.
I doubt that Hacksaw Ridge will be as effective a piece of cinema as Sergeant York. Even then, I am compelled to see if the struggles between war and peace can lead to fascinating results. Then again, I am curious to see if Gibson can find a way to centralize his themes in a way that speaks to career atonement. From what the reviews are saying, this is far from accurate. However, the idea that war heroes still get to headline movies in 2016 is a testament to their appeal. Considering that Hacksaw Ridge's novelty is that the soldier doesn't use any weaponry only makes it one step more compelling. I doubt that it will have much of a legacy, but it's got potential to be further cinematic evidence of how complicated war can truly be.

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