Sergeant York (1941) is a war movie that carries an anti-war message. It’s the true story of World War I Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York (1887–1964). The York family eked out a meager existence in remote Pall Mall, Tennessee. Like most of the people in this area, Alvin had almost no formal education. Subsistence farming, hunting, and railroad work got the family by economically. While Alvin grew up in a Christian home, he rejected the Christian faith after the death of his father in 1911. He wrote in his diary, “I got in bad company and I broke off from my mother’s and father’s advice and got to drinking and gambling and playing up right smart. . . . I used to drink a lot of Moonshine. I used to gamble my wages away week after week. I used to stay out late at nights. I had a powerful lot of fistfights.” This part of Alvin’s life is portrayed accurately in the film, but the same can’t be said for the depiction of his “conversion experience.”
When his best friend was killed in a bar fight in 1914, York began to take stock of his destructive living. At a revival conducted by H.H. Russell of the Church of Christ in Christian Union, York realized that he needed to change his ways or suffer a similar fate. In time, he gave his life to Christ and became an active member of his church. The Church of Christ in Christian Union held to a strict moral code which “forbade drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, popular literature, and moral injunctions against violence and war.” ((Michael Birdwell, “Alvin Cullom York”: www.alvincyork.org/AlvinCullomYork.htm))
It was the church’s pacifist stance and his own personal beliefs that put York in conflict with the draft board in 1917. His logic was simple: “I ain’t a-goin’ to war. War is killin’ and the Book is agin’ killin’, so war is agin’ the Book.” Pastor Pile’s response is priceless. “Alvin, you’ve got the use’n’ kind of religion not the meet’n’ house kind.”
The irony here is that York was an expert marksman. He was not anti-gun, but he was against going to war against people who had not done him any harm. Through repeated efforts, his attempts to gain conscientious objector status failed. He entered the army but with the tension between his religious views and his duties as a soldier still in conflict. He proved himself to be an able and willing soldier during his training at Fort Gordon in Georgia.
There’s one scene in the film that shows that his sharp shooting abilities did not impact his religious convictions. Guns were legitimate tools, even for someone who was opposed to war. York and the other inductees are taken to the firing range for target practice. York’s first shot is marked a miss. He protests that there is no way he “could miss that great big target.” His sergeant is skeptical but calls for a remark. Sure enough, York had hit the bull’s eye. He is given several more chances and places each bullet through the center of the bull’s eye. After the completion of his marksmanship demonstration, and with the target in hand, York comments that the rifle “shoots a might bit to the right.” The first shot was off center, but he had made an adjustment in his subsequent shots.
At this point in the movie, York is still wrestling with his religious objections to war. While still not settled on how he might react in a combat situation, he and the rest of his company are sent to France in the Battle of Argonne Forest. It is here that York’s spiritual struggle forces him to a make the most difficult moral decision of his life as he sees some of his fellow combatants struck down by enemy fire. York believed he was justified in taking action against the Germans to save lives. He might have recalled Ezekiel 33:6, a passage that Captain Danforth asked him to consider in light of his religious convictions: “But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand.”
For his actions, York received a number of commendations, one of which was the Medal of Honor whose caption reads as follows:
The Argonne Forest, France, 8 October 1918. After his platoon suffered heavy casualties, Alvin York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 German officers and 128 men and several guns.
While York returned home a “hero,” he never lost his distaste for war. Sergeant York is a thought-provoking movie that will make all who watch it consider God’s commandments in light of the pressures of the world.