107: Sergeant York

Learn more about World War I Medal of Honor recipient who was the subject of the 1941 Gary Cooper film simply called Sergeant York.

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About the movie Sergeant York

How are you at movie trivia?

Let’s see if you can figure out the common denominator between these five movies:

El Dorado.

Hatari!

Rio Bravo.

Scarface.

Bringing Up Baby.

Did you figure it out? The first three all have John Wayne in them, but that breaks as soon as we hit Scarface.

All of those movies, and another 42 that I didn’t name, were directed by the legendary Howard Hawks.

But wait! Wasn’t Scarface directed by Brian De Palma? Well, yes—the 1983 version did. But that was a remake of a 1932 film of the same name directed by Howard Hawks. So, yeah, I was a little sneaky there. Haha!

As you can probably guess, today we’re going to be looking at a movie directed by Howard Hawks. Based on the life of a hero of World War I, the movie Sergeant York was released on September 27th, 1941—just before the United States was drawn into World War II.

So let’s take a few minutes to learn more about the real Sergeant York as we compare history with the classic 1941 movie.

Learn the true story behind Sergeant York

Our movie today starts in a little bit of a different way. After much longer opening credits than many modern films have, we’re greeted with some text on screen that thanks the heroic figures who have agreed to have their story told.

There’s not many movies today that start off by thanking the heroes depicted within.

After this, we’re told the time and place for the movie. According to the next bit of text on screen, our story takes place high in the heart of the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee. More specifically, the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. The year is 1916. Springtime.

Then the movie shows us an external shot of a country church. Inside, the congregation is singing a hymn. When the song ends, Pastor Pile begins his sermon. He’s played by Walter Brennan.

It’s not long before he’s interrupted, though, when a man walks in from the back. With each step, the wooden floor creaks loudly—distracting everyone in the small, one-room church.

Finally, the man sits down and the pastor continues. Then, another disturbance. This time it’s three men outside, riding horses, whooping and hollering as they shoot their pistols off in the air. Although the movie doesn’t mention his name, we can clearly see one of the men who shoots his initials into the tree is Gary Cooper’s character, Alvin York.

This whole opening sequence is one of those fictional scenes that’s portraying something that could’ve happened rather than showing a specific instance.

To understand this, and to understand who the real Alvin York was, we have to go back to before the timeline in the movie. So the film starts in 1916, but let’s hop back for a moment to Dec 13th, 1887.

That’s when William and Mary York welcomed Alvin into the world. He was their third child, but was hardly their last. They’d go on to have 11 children total—eight boys and three girls.

Just like the movie says, this happened in the small community of Pall Mall in Tennessee. And just like the movie says, that’s in a region called the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. The valley got its name because of the nearby Wolf River that had, well, three forks that branched off in the area.

Alvin’s dad, William, was a blacksmith who worked out of a cave near their home. His mom, Mary, would earn money by washing or patching clothes or doing other various chores for people in the area. Combined, they made about 50 to 75 cents a day—roughly $13 to $20 in today’s money.

Having to feed 11 kids, it’s safe to say the Yorks didn’t have much.

That’s one reason why, like his brothers and sisters, Alvin started helping with chores around the house as soon as he could walk. As he grew, those chores moved outside to the farmland where helped his dad.

According to Alvin’s recollections later, he said this is why he didn’t go to school very much. Less than four months’ worth of school over the course of five years. It was enough to teach him how to read and write, but not a lot more. Alvin himself assumed he probably couldn’t have passed the second grade if he were tested—but he wasn’t in school enough to take any tests to prove that one way or the other.

It was a tough childhood, but little Alvin learned the value of hard work. He also learned a lot about nature, survival in the wilderness and things that he probably couldn’t have ever learned in a one-room schoolhouse.

Then tragedy struck.

In 1911, William York contracted typhoid fever and passed away. Alvin was about 24 at this time and with all of the long hours he’d spent with his father in the fields or at his blacksmith shop—Alvin didn’t take it well.

While his mom was left raising 11 kids on her own, Alvin turned to alcohol to deal with the pain of the loss.

So that’s why, in the beginning of the movie, we see a drunken Alvin York for the first time. It was five years later, but as the years passed, Alvin only fell deeper and deeper into weekend binges of alcoholism and gambling.

And although that scene with Alvin shooting his initials in the tree outside the church didn’t really happen as far as I can tell, there was a similar incident where Alvin was drunk and saw a bunch of turkeys. So he took a shot at them.

Six shots.

Six turkeys fell to the ground. So, like the movie shows, even drunk Alvin was a good shot.

Unfortunately for Alvin, as a valued source of food, you couldn’t just kill turkeys like that in the Pall Mall area. Alvin ended up in a local court for the incident, but fortunately for him it was near Thanksgiving so he was able to sell the turkeys he killed and buy his way out of any trouble.

Back in the movie, there’s a scene where Alvin and his brother George are hunting a fox with their hounds when a voice tells Alvin where the fox went. Alvin turns to see where the voice came from…there she is, Gracie Williams. She’s played by Joan Leslie in the film.

From the ensuing conversation, it’s clear Alvin is smitten. It’s also clear he knew Gracie when they were both younger, but for some reason hadn’t seen her in a while.

That particular scene was a fictional one to introduce the two characters, but again it’s one that could’ve happened.

Gracie Williams was a real person. And it’s true that, although Alvin and Gracie both grew up within close proximity of each other, the two didn’t really see each other for a while. Then, one day, like something out of a Hollywood story, they met.

Alvin never could really recall why he didn’t notice her sooner. Maybe it was because of the drinking, gambling and general not caring about much of anything after his dad died. But after he stopped drinking and turned his life around, that’s when Alvin noticed Gracie.

And it was, like the movie shows, love at first sight.

But that brings up a good point. We talked about how Alvin started drinking after his father passed away, but we didn’t talk about how he stopped.

That’s because, in the movie, he doesn’t stop his drinking and turn to religion until after he meets Gracie. So the movie’s timeline is a little flipped there.

According to the movie, Alvin finds religion one day as he’s riding to exact vengeance on Zeb Andrews for buying a piece of bottomland behind his back.

Zeb is played by Robert Porterfield in the film and, as far as my research indicated, he’s a fictional character.

But the plotline here basically has Zeb vying for Gracie’s affections and buying out the land that Alvin wanted. Then, once Alvin finds out, one dark and stormy night he heads off to find Zeb—presumably to beat him up or worse.

On the way, lightning strikes, nearly hitting Alvin and throwing him from his horse. After this close call with death, Gary Cooper’s version of Alvin hears singing from the church nearby. He walks in to the congregation singing “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” first and then, after stepping inside, the song switches to another Christian hymn written in the late 19th century, “Old-Time Religion.”

That whole plotline is fictional.

The truth is that after Alvin sank into drinking, gambling and a general neglect for life when his dad died, his mother was disappointed. She never yelled at him, but she’d always look at him with that look of disappointment and utter sadness that only a mother can give her child. She was heartbroken to see what he’d become, and every time he looked at her, he knew it.

For years, he ignored this sadness—pushing it down deep with more and more drinks.

But that could only last for so long.

Finally, Alvin determined he was going to change. It wasn’t easy. He’d gotten into the habit of drinking and partying with friends, and that was a hard habit to break.

It wasn’t the sudden transition after a flash of lightning that we saw in the movie, though. But he did.

There’s a great book that I’d really recommend you picking up called Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary by both Alvin York and Thomas Skeyhill. It’s out of print, but if you can find a copy it’s really worth it. That book is basically Alvin’s life in his own words. I mention that because I really love this quote that Alvin said in that book about what it was like his change of life after converting to Christianity:

That is the greatest victory I ever won. It’s much harder to whip yourself than to whip the other fellow, I’m a-telling you, and I ought to know because I done both. It was much harder for me to win the great victory over myself than to win it over those German machine guns in the Argonne Forest. And I was able to do it because my mother’s love led me to God, and He showed me the light, and I done followed it.

What I love about that quote is the mention of how hard it is to win a victory over yourself. That’s a universal truth, regardless of your beliefs—sometimes our most difficult enemy is ourselves.

And for Alvin York, that was certainly true.

By January 1st, 1915, he finally gave up smoking, drinking, swearing, gambling and brawling—all habits that he would later proudly recall that he never did any of those things again—even during the Great War.

Speaking of which, heading back to the movie, just as Alvin’s life seems to be taking a turn for the better, the United States enters into the war that was spreading around the world. That happened on April 6th, 1917.

Initially, it didn’t matter much to Alvin. He’d never traveled more than a hundred miles outside of Pall Mall during his entire life, so a war thousands of miles away didn’t mean much to him—or most others in the area, for that matter.

That was, at least, until the draft.

Although the movie doesn’t go into much depth about it, the Selective Service Act of 1917 went into effect almost immediately after the war officially began. That would be May 18th, 1917.

As a result, about 4 million American men were drafted into the military.

According to the movie, Alvin tries to avoid going to war by writing letters to claim an exemption on religious grounds. It’s denied. So he appeals. That’s denied. So, finally, he goes to the military labeled as a conscientious objector.

That’s all true, including the conscientious objector label. Sometimes people called them C.O.s, not to be confused with the acronym for Commanding Officer.

Basically, a conscientious objector is someone who claims a religious exemption for war. Because a lot of people in the United States were vehemently pro-military, anyone who didn’t want to serve their country by joining the military was seen by many as being unpatriotic.

It was un-American.

But that didn’t stop some people from following their beliefs despite what others thought. Alvin York was one of those men who stuck to his beliefs despite what others might think of him.

The appeals didn’t happen quite like we saw in the movie—there were actually more rounds of appeals and letters written—but the overall gist is pretty accurate.

It was a terrible conflict that Alvin couldn’t quite wrap his head around.

On one hand, he loved the United States. The United States was saying that he had to go off and fight and kill. They were saying that was the right thing to do.

On the other, he was a devout Christian. God said fighting and killing was wrong.

And Alvin just couldn’t understand how the United States could say they’re a Christian nation and then go about sending off people who just want to live in peace to fight and kill.

But after having numerous appeals denied, Alvin figured that if they’d send someone to force him to go to war then that’d only end up in a fight that could end up in killing. He didn’t want that. So the only option he had, in his mind, was to go to war.

And so, on November 15th, 1917, Alvin York reported for duty.

In the movie, the question of what was right wasn’t settled in his mind, though. He wrestles with this until one of his commanding officers named Captain Ed Danforth helps Alvin come to a solution. In the movie, we see Harvey Stephens’ version of Captain Danforth sharing an alternative perspective about some Bible verses with Alvin.

Then, surprisingly, he’s granted a 10-day leave to go home and decide what he wants to do.

That is actually true, even down to the 10-day leave of absence to clear his mind. The movie doesn’t really mention the dates, but those ten days were March 21st to March 31st, 1918.

Ultimately, there were two Bible verses that helped convince Alvin what he should do.

The first one was Matthew 22:21 which says, “…Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

The other was Luke 22:36 which says, “Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”

And so it was, just like the movie shows, that Alvin York returned to the U.S. Army entirely convinced that God had told him to fight for his country.

He was, like the movie correctly shows, promoted to the rank of Corporal.

It’s here in the movie we get a bit more text on screen that explains that the soldiers are fully trained and equipped, heading off for battle in France.

There’s no mention of a timeline in the movie, but we know from history that this happened in May of 1918 for Alvin’s unit. Of course, it wasn’t a fast journey. It took about a month to get there by way of a pitstop in Britain.

But that’s where the next major plot point happens. We see a scene with Pastor Pile reading a letter to Gracie, Alvin’s mother, brother and sister.

Well, as we learned earlier, Alvin was one of eleven children, but I guess it’d be a bit crowded to show all of Alvin’s brothers and sisters, so maybe that’s why the filmmakers only show us one brother and one sister of his throughout the movie.

The movie fades to the trenches in Europe—the front lines. There’s a brief scene where we see Alvin with a few other soldiers waiting out artillery shells. Sadly, one of the soldiers gets hit with shrapnel, killing him.

Then there’s a bit more text on screen that explains it’s the second week of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. We get a date, October 8th, 1918.

It’s here that, according to the movie, the American advance is being slowed by heavy losses from the Germans. With the rest of his unit pinned down, Alvin uses his shooting skills to silence a German machine gun nest, capturing dozens of Germans in the process—they don’t even seem to realize Alvin is the only person attacking them!

All of that is true.

In fact, it’s the reason why we know the name of Alvin York today at all.

Although the movie doesn’t really mention it, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which we also know of today as the Battle of the Argonne Forest, didn’t start on October 8th, 1918. It actually started on September 26th and lasted for 47 days, until November 11th.

On October 7th, the offensive started to wane thanks to German machine gunners pinning down the soldiers. And so it was, just like the movie says, that on October 8th, 17 American soldiers were given the task of silencing the machine gun nests. The man in charge of that task was Sergeant Bernard Early. He’s played by Joe Sawyer in the film.

One of those soldiers under Sergeant Early’s command was Corporal Alvin York.

Before the sun rose on that cold morning, rain and sleet were falling as the men began making their move. Unfortunately, thanks to the cold, dark conditions but mostly due to the fact that the map they had was in French, the 17 men went the wrong way—and ended up behind enemy lines.

This led to some confusion on both sides when they eventually ran into the German forces. After a brief firefight, just like the movie shows, the Germans ended up surrendering to the 17 men.

According to the movie, though, after surrendering, one of the Germans pulls the pin on a grenade and tosses it at the Americans. This kills a good friend of Alvin’s, the character of Pusher. He’s the one played by George Tobias in the film.

Well, Pusher was a fictional character, but he was based on a real man by the name of Murray Savage. Murray became good friends with Alvin during their time in the Army together.

Despite the name change, sadly, the movie is correct with the results of what happened. Although it wasn’t a grenade like we saw in the film.

Instead, what happened was that after the Germans surrendered to the 17 men in Sergeant Early’s unit, it didn’t take very long for them to realize that there were a lot more Germans than Americans. It seemed they had misjudged the number of attackers when they surrendered.

Some other Germans in a nearby machine gun nest shouted at the German soldiers who had surrendered to fall to the ground.

That’s when all hell broke loose. With the Germans lying prone, the nest open fired on the Americans, killing nine of them—including Murray Savage.

Alvin saw this happen from his position in a natural depression, and took action. The movie was right about his skills with a rifle. Alvin single-handedly took out about nine of the Germans operating the machine gun nest.

Meanwhile, it’s not like the rest of the American soldiers were just watching what was going on. They opened fire, too, and within the matter of just a few moments 25 Germans were dead.

This time, the Germans surrendered for good. Some reports suggest there were seven Americans who survived, although in Tom Skeyhill and Alvin York’s book, Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary, Tom mentions that there were eight privates who survived, seven who told their story and a total of eleven non-commissioned officers and privates.

The point is made, though. Vastly outnumbered, Alvin and the remaining American soldiers walked 132 Germans the 10 miles to the American lines.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that as the story of what happened on that October day spread, a lot of reports blew things out of proportion. Alvin York acted alone. He took down over 32 German machine guns and captured 132 soldiers on his own.

The movie doesn’t really show him acting alone, and that’s more accurate than many of the reports that suggest he did.

Although he admitted to taking down at least nine Germans on his own, Alvin never claimed to act alone.

As the movie comes to a close, we see Gary Cooper’s version of Alvin return home a hero. He returns to the United States to be awarded the Medal of Honor—the highest decoration for a soldier in the United States. He’s offered a lot of money in movie deals to tell the story of what happened in France.

But Alvin’s not interested. Then he returns home where Gracie shows him a beautiful house and 200 acres of prime bottomland given to them by the state of Tennessee.

The specifics of all of that were dramatized a bit for the movie, of course, but the overall gist of that is pretty accurate.

After the war came to a close the next month on November 11th, 1918, Alvin York returned home a hero. For his part in the events of October 8th, 1918, Alvin was promoted to Sergeant along with the highest decoration for a soldier in the United States—the Medal of Honor.

Just like the movie suggests, Hollywood wanted to turn his story into movies. Alvin refused to take part.

Although he didn’t get the brand new home and land right when he returned home like we see in the movie, Alvin finally returned home to Tennessee in June of 1919 to a massive ceremony put on by the state’s governor. At that ceremony, he married the love of his life, Gracie Williams.

A few months later, in November, the Rotary Club in Tennessee bought up a 400-acre farm in the Wolf River valley where Alvin grew up and had a two-story house built on it. Then, on February 14th, 1922—Valentine’s Day—Alvin and Gracie moved in.

They were officially given the land in May of 1922.

It’d seem a storybook ending. But I’m sure you have a lingering question: If Alvin refused to have his story turned into a movie, how did we get the film we’re covering today on the podcast?

Well, for many years, Alvin refused to talk about what happened in France. He wasn’t proud of the fighting and killing. He took his diary and locked it away, presuming he’d pass it on to his children and leave it at that.

But after seeing more of the world than he ever could’ve imagined, Alvin returned home with a new mission. He was determined to build a school and help the children in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf get the education that he never had.

Then it was Tom Skeyhill, who I’ve mentioned before as co-authoring the book Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary who convinced Alvin to publish his diaries.

It took a lot of persistence. But as it turns out, Alvin’s turning down the riches of Hollywood meant he didn’t have much money. Of course, he didn’t care—he’d grown up without much and didn’t need much.

But building a school wasn’t cheap. Building the roads needed to help children get access to the school wasn’t cheap.

Tom convinced Alvin that if he wanted the idea of a school to come to fruition, he could help raise money and gain attention for the project by telling his own story.

So he did.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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