On May 31, as usual on Memorial Day, Turner Classic Movies replayed “Sergeant York”, the 1941 movie about the legendary World War I hero.
I’ve watched it numerous times, first as a kid in a movie theater, and I don’t know how many times on television.
It’s a great movie, one that earned Gary Cooper an Academy Award for his portrayal of Alvin C. York, the East Tennessee hillbilly and fundamentalist Christian who turned from being a conscientious objector into a sharp-shooting infantryman credited with killing 25 Germans and capturing more than 100.
The 1941 movie is based on York’s diary, and is mostly accurate. But like most Hollywood films, it doesn’t tell the whole story and takes some liberties with the truth.
One embellishment is having York and his mule struck by lightning shortly before he converted from a hard-drinking, fist-fighting carouser to a devout Christian and teetotaler. It was not lightning that enlightened Alvin York.
And the closing scene in the movie conveys the false impression that everything was going to be rosy for the hero and his bride-to-be, Gracie, after she showed him the farm and house the people of Tennessee presented to them.
That was only partially accurate. The Rotary Club of Nashville, in conjunction with other clubs, wanted to present York with a house and farm, but according to one account, “not enough money was raised and they gave him an unfinished home and saddled him with a healthy mortgage to boot.”
I just finished reading a recently published book entitled “The York Patrol: The Real Story of Alvin York and the Unsung Heroes Who Made Him World War I’s Most Famous Soldier.”
Written by military historian James Carl Nelson, it covers not only what was depicted in the movie but goes beyond the final scene.
As the title implies, the book includes details about the 16 other soldiers who accompanied York, an acting corporal, on a mission in France’s Argonne Forest on Oct. 8, 1918.
It also delves into the problems York had with his fame and finances after winning the Medal of Honor and becoming a national hero — thanks not only to his bravery and marksmanship but also to an article in the then widely read Saturday Evening Post that gave York credit for almost single-handedly doing what some other surviving members of the squad — several were killed — thought they had helped accomplish.
As for York, he struggled financially, off and on, throughout his life, despite his fame, the generosity of the public and earning a great deal of money on book and movie deals.
In 1919, he turned down offers from Hollywood, Broadway, and various advertisers who wanted his endorsement of their products.
But over the years he raised a lot of money to improve roads and build schools in his impoverished home area.
He had never been far from his then primitive home area until he was drafted into the Army and saw modern cities like New York.
Throughout the rest of his life, he tried, with some success, to improve education and infrastructure in his native corner of Tennessee.
And like some public figures even today, he got in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.
He personally profited a great deal from proceeds of the 1941 movie about his life and negotiated with the IRS, which accused him of tax evasion, for years before finally settling.
York, who delved into politics as well as religion in his post-war years, died in 1964 at age 76.
Just two decades after York’s heroics in France, war broke out again in Europe, with the United States entering a couple of years later. “The war to end war” as they called it when he was drafted was a misnomer.
Gary Cooper, who looked somewhat like York, did a great job portraying him in the movie which came out only months before the U.S. entered World War II.
Reports once had it that Cooper agreed to play the role after being requested, by letter, from York. The book says the movie producer wrote the letter and signed York’s name to it.
Charlie Dunagin is editor and publisher emeritus of the McComb Enterprise-Journal. He lives in Oxford.