Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Sergeant York (1941) >>

Sergeant York follows the “real” life of its hero quite closely. Screenwriter Jesse Lasky, who spent years trying to secure the movie rights from York, based his script on Thomas Skeyhill’s Sergeant York: Last of the Long Hunters (1930) and Sergeant York, His Own Life Story and War Diary (1931), edited by Skeyhill. In addition, York had script approval (it took three rewritings to gain it) and was present during the filming. Thus, Lasky, director Hawks, and York himself worked closely both on and off the set to make the film as accurate as possible. So, yes, the real York found religion, found sobriety, and became a war hero much like the reel York. Which is not to say that there were not some differences, however. The lightning strike that leads the reel York to religion and sobriety did not happen but was suggested when York once told Lasky “religion hit me like lightning.” Instead of the mythic lightning bolt from God, then, the real reason for York’s conversion to religion and sobriety was the tragic death of his closest friend Everett Delk in a bar brawl. After losing his best friend, York sought religion as well as support from his sweetheart Gracie Williams and never touched alcohol again. Lasky excluded this story from Sergeant York because York did not want the Delk family to relive their loss. Lasky and Hawks depicted York’s war heroics in the Battle of Argonne as it happened, except that Warner Brothers imposed a restriction on the number and graphic display of the killings. Thus, The film does not show York’s account of two members of his platoon shot up so badly their bodies were barely recognizable or that out of a platoon of twenty including a lieutenant, only York and seven other men survived. What would seem the most unrealistic part of the film, then, is actually quite real.