Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Sergeant York (1941) >>

1:29:56 Back in the hills

God or Gun

By Adrianna Abreu

[1] According to Thomas Skeyhill’s authoritative Sergeant York: Last of the Long Hunters, Alvin York’s “real” conversion begins when his captain, Captain Danforth, reports to Camp Gordon’s Major Buxton that York “has religion, and he has it bad” (161), meaning that York is still struggling with his conscientious objection. Using the Bible -- York’s ultimate authority -- Danforth and Buxton debate with York long into the night over such verses as “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, Who trains my hands for war, And my fingers for battle,” “A time to love, and a time to hate; A time for war, and a time for peace,” and “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” These powerful verses, however, do not sway York’s focus away from the still more powerful and more basic “Thou shalt not kill.” In short, York remains unconvinced, but he so impresses the obviously humane Major Buxton with his intelligent sincerity that Buxton tells him to “Go back home and think it over; then if you can come back with a free conscience, come back, and we will take you overseas as a doughboy. But if you cannot come with a free conscience, let me know and I will let you out” (165).

[2] When he goes home, York seeks guidance from Gracie, Pastor Pile, and his family. Yet right before his leave is over, Alvin kneels on a mountainside, alone and close to God, and prays for two days and a night. After this thirty-six hour vigil, Alvin finds his decision “like the waters of the lake when the Master said, ‘Peace, be still’” (168). Believing that he has received a declaration from as well as assurance from God, Alvin returns home and tells family and friends that “I’m a-goin’ to war with ‘the sword of the Lord and of Gideon’” (168). The Old Testament warrior Gideon was told by God to save Israel by raising an army that would attack anyone who worshiped any other gods, and, because God was always on his side, Gideon’s victories were always easily obtained.

[3] York’s “reel” conversion follows the two-part sequence of the “real” one: Buxton meeting followed by the return to Pall Mall. But there are three differences to note in the version by Director Howard Hawks and screenplay writer Jesse Lasky: Daniel Boone and the American history text are added, the Caesar passage from the Bible replaces the significance of the Gideon story as the climatic step of York’s conversion, and York’s thirty-six hours on the mountaintop are turned into a mythic and majestic scene.

[4] First, in the “reel” version, Buxton shows York an American history book in which York is excited to find his hometown hero Daniel Boone. York has already been linked to Boone in the turkey-shoot episode: "Ain't nobody ever cut 5 centers, lessen' it were Daniel Boone,” says one of the town cronies, “And you ain't wearing no ‘coon skin hat." But York does emulate Boone’s sharp-shooting prowess in that scene, does, in effect, don Boone’s coon skin hat there. But in this scene Boone’s function as a role model and alter-ego for York is much expanded. We who know our history are reminded, if only subliminally, that Boone’s skill with a rifle was aimed not only at turkeys and “b’ars” but Indians. Daniel Boone was an Indian fighter; he killed “savages” for just cause. In opening the frontier west -- in truth literally founding York’s beautiful and beloved Pall Mall valley -- Boone established the space where good people could build good homes and be free. That’s the element that Hawks and Lasky inject into this scene through the symbolic resonance of Boone. Boone was a Freedom Fighter, and York’s cultural moment demanded the service of similar freedom fighters to maintain the ideal democratic society Boone founded. As Buxton said -- alluding Lincoln-esquely to another cultural moment when self-sacrificial fighting was necessary -- in “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” “all men were pledged to defend the rights of each man, and each man to defend the rights of all men.” The image of Daniel Boone, then, is an instrument aiding both York and the audience to overcome conscientious objection.

[5] The main “reel” instrument for overcoming York’s conscientious objection, though, is the Bible. In “real” life the “render unto Caesar” text is inconclusive; in “reel” life it is dramatically climactic. The wind chooses the page, the camera looks down from God’s perspective, America the Beautiful plays in the background, a bright light shines on York’s face, and the heretofore perplexed simple mountaineer has an epiphany reading Matthew 22:20-22. And conscientious objection is over. In “real” life York imagines himself as Gideon (Judges 6-8), as the sword-waving Old Testament Jehovan general -- who, not incidentally, also had his initial misgivings about fighting for the Lord -- commissioned to free the Chosen People from the Midianites. In “reel” life, however, the conversion scene is punctuated by a quiet, still, tableau-like image of a humble, meditative York and trusty hound framed by open sky, far above and away from the madding crowd. An aura of peace, ironically, envelops the decision to make war. Why this shift from “real” to “reel”? It looks like Hawks and Lasky made a conscious decision to tone down the violence of York’s own characterization of his conversion (he would be no blood-thirsty killer) and to emphasize that, though aided by God, York was fighting for country.

[6] Third, using the magic of movie-making, doing what film-makers live to do, Hawks and Lasky take that Tennessee mountaintop off the printed page and turn it into a majestic and mythical space. Soft lighting demarcates the mountaintop from the realistic panorama of the valley below and the ordinariness of Buxton’s office. We are literally in another world. The camera burrows in on York’s head, scene of the numbing and paralyzing voices of “God” and “country” waging war, if you will, therein. And then moves up as York reads the words that break the Gordian knot, moves up so we feel that these words are coming from on high, that God is giving His overly-faithful servant the Word. A national anthem suffuses this spiritual moment of awakening, itself merging the spheres of God and country, and York rises to the dawn of a new day and a new understanding. It’s a glorious moment, the pivot of the entire film, and the filmmakers insure that we feel its full emotional power. There’s been a theophany in Tennessee. A miracle. That’s what mountaintops are for.

[7] As the “reel” York looks out upon the mists covering his beloved Pall Mall and perhaps toward the raging conflict in Europe beyond, audiences feel the latest and greatest of York’s conversions. The man who has moved from drink to devotion, from idleness to industry, has now moved with extraordinary divine support from passive saint to moral warrior. A future American hero has just been born.