The Quest for Bottom Land

Gary Cooper is Alvin York who, for lack of a better word, is a hick. But then, in 1916 or so, there were an awful lot of hicks in this country.

York starts off as the sort of hick who gets drunk and shoots his initials into trees from the back of a horse outside a religious meeting. He's got an attitude, which gets him into fights, and he is basically uncontrollable by anyone except his Ma.

Then he gets interested in a girl by the name of Gracie, and manages to earn her disrespect by beating up another guy she wasn't really interested in. But, hick that he is, York decides he doesn't have enough to offer her and sets a mission for himself to get some precious "bottom land" which he can farm and use as an attraction for her. Here we get a character shift. He gives down payment to a man who is selling this piece of land and needs to pay the remainder by a particular date. He drops the drinking and carausing in favor of working every odd job he can find, and making a most creative use for his shooting skills in a local contest.

But he fails to get the money in time. At first, he is upset, and starts to act out in his usual way. Here's where he finds religion. This simplifies his life greatly, and he spends his days apologizing to various folks. Gracie even ends up falling for this newfound moral fellow.

On the edge of a happy ending and a war starts. York concludes he cannot register for the draft because he's a Christian (imagine that these days). With help, he tries to get a conscientious objector exemption, but it turns out that Christians are not considered to be peaceniks. He gets drafted, impresses a lot of people with his shooting in boot camp, and gets shipped off to the front as a noncombatant.

As it turns out, his unit gets decimated and he ends up in a position of taking charge. To keep a long story short, he starts killing people with his amazing shooting skills, and makes an amazing number of Germans surrender. His explanation is that he realized he would be saving lives. And so he becomes a hero, has a parade, gets to see what a hotel room looks like, and returns home with both triumph and a gift from the state of some bottom land.

Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance here. I won't argue much with the award as I'm not familiar with his competition. It's certainly a good and varied performance. What I take issue with is the story and the script's treatment of the moral decision-making process. The story meanders a bit too broadly, placing significance in so many events we stop caring. And for a film with high aspirations in exploring the moral ground in a modern setting, each change in York's character is surprisingly simple and almost too easy. We need more blood, sweat, and tears on the screen for what this man seems to have gone through.

Sergeant York is an adaptation of a true story in World War I. It would have benefitted from an "inspired by" approach that we see so often nowadays. While the film suffers from some of the usual adaptation blues, in this case it comes more from bad execution in the script than simply hammering a story too hard into an expected format.

The details in the movie are marvelous - the various jobs that York works, how cheap everything cost in that time, York's technique of shooting a flock of birds from the end so they don't scatter as much - many excellent choices here. And the characters all work. In particular, watch for Margaret Wycherly as York's sly mother - a truly great character doomed with too few minutes in front of the camera.

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