Thursday, May 7, 2015

Birthday Take: Gary Cooper in "Sergeant York" (1941)

Gary Cooper
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Gary Cooper
Born: May 7, 1901
Died: May 13, 1961 (60 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - Sergeant York (nominated) as Alvin C.  York

The Take

War is, by definition, a controversial action. While its purpose is to serve protection, there are those who wish to solve things peacefully. In fact, a large swath of  70's film making focused on the aftermath of the Vietnam War in ways that helped to popularize the middle ground of anti-war films and art. Even in modern years, the recent hit American Sniper remains controversial not only for its depiction of war, but of its protagonist and his political views. Some could argue that it is a fictionalized account meant to sensationalize him as a hero. However, it seems like an odd reflection of how soldiers were idealized in the pop culture lexicon over 60 years ago with the classic Sergeant York.

Focusing on World War I, the story follows Alvin C. York as he goes from a small town boy whose devotion to the faith creates moral conflicts to one of the most revered war heroes of his time. With excellent direction by Howard Hawks, the results aren't so much about the war as dissecting why we do it. York is by every means a character who is great with a rifle and is even better in tough situations. For the majority of the film's first half, York isn't seen even showing a sign of wanting to be a soldier, but more the idea of being true to himself, which involves raising a family and making his community a better place. It is the second half when these morals are brought into question and he joins the army. He returns a hero, but mostly wants to relive life with his wife in peace and quiet.

It does help that at the core of the film is Gary Cooper, who was one of the idealized American actors of his era. Having starred in iconic westerns (High Noon) and biopics (The Pride of the Yankees), he captured everything that the country was known for. Most of all, he did it with stoic courage and charisma that managed to create its own form of rallying pride. With World War II going on simultaneously, the idea of celebrating a war hero served as a morale booster. To pit the attention on York, it created the sense that the common man could rise up to do his part. With populous cinema even coming to the point of serving as its own type of propaganda to audiences by suggesting to support the war, Sergeant York was a film that felt like it epitomized what was necessary for the era.

It is hard to underestimate Cooper's performance, which at times feels thankless. Even the direction by Howard Hawks manages to turn an integral battle scene into one of the better choreographed fight scenes of its time. Together, it was a film about more than war. It was about the underdog and triumphing over evil. It was a box office smash and the results speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the film's legacy has been shadowed on both fronts by its Best Picture nominee Citizen Kane and winner How Green Was My Valley. While both films have their own merit, Sergeant York is a film that feels lost to time for its lack of recognition. It was an American war film that painted the troops as heroes and did so with more quality than John Ford's drama. Some could argue that Citizen Kane should have won, but political reasoning should be brought up each time. There was nothing against Sergeant York by comparison. 

Cooper's career is full of memorable and manly roles. While some could argue that cinema in general has very little purpose and is in some cases very self-involved, it is interesting to note the societal impact that these type of films have. In the 40's, Sergeant York showed that America idolized its troops, even making them ridiculously flawless. In the 10's, American Sniper divided audiences because the troops were flawed. There is no correct way to portray war, but it is interesting to note how the genre has progressed over time and how society sees them. For what it's worth, Cooper's charisma and the intelligible story has a lasting impact for those that care to search out this film and recognize its graceful and impressive underdog story.

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