Although it’s rather long and tedious in spots, and has the strong flavor of World War II propaganda, the 1941 Gary Cooper movie, Sergeant York, has an important message for today. Based on the true story of World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York, the movie was released in July 1941, before Pearl Harbor, when the majority of Americans, including notable celebrities, felt we should mind our own business and leave Hitler alone. The movie had a worthwhile message then, and it has a worthwhile message now.
Alvin York was a pacifist who was drafted in World War I but had his conscientious objector status denied because he belonged to a small independent Christian sect that wasn’t recognized as an organized religion. During one point in the movie, recognizing the Tennessee woodsman’s talent as a marksman, two of his commanding officers try to persuade him to accept a promotion. He has declined it because it would force him to command others to kill. One officer attempts to argue with Scripture, and fails miserably. Finally, the other one takes down a book called the History of the United States and hands it to York, telling him:
That’s the story of a whole people’s struggle for freedom. From the very beginning until now. For we’re still struggling. It’s quite a story, York. How they all got together and set up a government. Whereby all men were pledged to defend the rights of each man, and each man to defend the rights of all men.
York is given leave to think things over. If he decides he still can’t fight, the officer says he’ll arrange for his conscientious objector exemption. York spends his leave reading the Bible and the History of the United States, and returns to the unit willing to fight, or at least to die.
Then, in a muddy field in France, his unit comes under heavy machine gun fire. York sneaks up to the machine gun nest and kills every last German. After the battle, he has this exchange with the same commanding officer who had given him the lecture about freedom and its price:
Colonel: That night when you reported back to me at Camp Gordon, you as much as told me you were prepared to die for your country but not to kill. What made you decide to change your mind?
York: Well, I’m as much agin’ killin’ as ever, sir. But, it was this way, Colonel. When I started out I felt just like you said. But when I heard them machine guns agoin’ and all them fellas droppin’ around me, I figured them guns was killing hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothing anybody could do but stop them guns.
Colonel: You tell me you did it to save lives?
York: Yes, sir. That was why.
The real Alvin York remained a pacifist for the rest of his life. (He had reservations about having a movie made about his exploits. He hated war movies. They glorified war too much.) But he still supported American involvement in World War II. Even before Pearl Harbor. And in this modern world of rogue states with nuclear and biological weapon capability, you’ve got to think he’d approve of pre-emptive action against the likes of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Sometimes, you’ve got to fight to keep the peace. Sometimes, you’ve got to kill to stop the guns.