Most war films follow a formula. Take a typical red-blooded American man with a family and a pretty love interest and draft him into a well-documented, bloody war. We see our protagonist become disillusioned with the honor of defending one’s country. We see him lose his faith, either in God or humanity or both. Finally, we see him harden in order to defend himself against the corruption of war. Sergeant York deviates from the formula and in doing so provides a truly unique perspective on war and its consequences matched only by Catch-22 and M*A*S*H decades later.
Alvin C. York is a poor farmer from the hills of Tennesee. The stress and hardship he faces day to day had turned him into a mean drunk, but with a “little religion” and kindness, York works to better himself. He finds pleasure and peace in living by “the good book.” He is kind to everyone he comes in contact with and seeks out understanding and forgiveness rather than taking revenge like he used to.
York is an “every-man.” He’s not well-educated but he is by no means unintelligent. He wants what is best for his family and the woman he loves (even to the point of telling her she’d be better off with another man), and he works tirelessly to provide the best for them. Just as York’s life is coming together, war breaks out in Europe. Up to this point, the film has followed the formula, but here is where it begins to depart from it. York objects to the war, refusing to enlist and cites the Bible in his reasons. He files as a conscientious objector, but his request for exemption is denied and he is drafted into the war and becomes a model soldier. His superiors want to promote him, but he declines, repeating his objections once more. “I reckon, killin’ other folks ain’t what He was intendin’ us to be a doin’ here.”
This is the first and only portrayal of a conscientious objector that is not caricaturized as a no-good runaway who is just trying to play the system. York is a good man who does not run away from his responsibilities and does what he can to protect what is right and eliminate what is wrong. He truly believes that his religion leaves no room for killing another person. His sergeant respects his objections, but offers him another book to read and think over- The History of the United States of America. He tells York that just as God cares for his children, the government cares for its citizens. Here we have a hero struggling with the concept of war, not just condemning it or romanticizing it. He sees the obvious detriments, but he also sees how it can be necessary. With a little help from a greater force, York’s Bible opens to Matthew 22:21 and he finds a kind of answer. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s , and unto God the things that are God’s.” He accepts his promotion and fights bravely and brilliantly, capturing 132 enemy soldiers almost single-handedly. For his good work he is awarded countless honors, and he is grateful, but he does not like the recognition. He is still very much against killing another person, but as he explains to his commanding officers, he killed those 20 to save thousands. He wants only to return to the peace and simplicity of his life back in Tennessee. He does not think he should be given such recognition for killing so many men and being a part of a war. He sees his part as necessary, but ugly, something which should be avoided if at all possible, and faced only if it is the last option available. He does not allow himself to become a poster-boy for the American military or an example of America’s prowess in war.
Sergeant York presents the audience with great struggle- struggle surrounding war and its necessity and consequences, around duty to God and country, and duty to family and to one’s self. Yet, York never struggles against one idea, or for another; it is always between two. Sometimes there are no right answers. Sometimes there are no answers at all. One must can only do what must be done in the least damaging way possible to protect what is right, what is just, and what is kind.