Memorial Day commemorates American men and women who died while in the military service. It’s not a day to celebrate war. In fact, it should be a day when we reflect on the true costs and consequences of war. I can think of no better way to do this than to offer a review of the film Sergeant York (1941), a war movie that caries an antiwar message. It’s the true story of World War I Medal of Honor recipient Alvin C. York (1887–1964). The York family eked out a meager existence in remote Pall Mall, Tennessee. Like most of the people in this area, Alvin had almost no formal education. Subsistence farming, hunting, and railroad work got the family by economically. While Alvin grew up in a Christian home, he rejected the Christian faith after the death of his father in 1911. He writes in his diary, “I got in bad company and I broke off from my mother’s and father’s advice and got to drinking and gambling and playing up right smart. . . . I used to drink a lot of Moonshine. I used to gamble my wages away week after week. I used to stay out late at nights. I had a powerful lot of fistfights.” This part of Alvin’s life is portrayed accurately in the film, but the same can’t be said for the depiction of his “conversion experience.”
When his best friend was killed in a bar fight in 1914, York began to take stock of his destructive living. At a revival conducted by H.H. Russell of the Church of Christ in Christian Union, York realized that he needed to change his ways or suffer a similar fate. In time, he gave his life to Christ and became an active member of his church. The Church of Christ in Christian Union held to a strict moral code which “forbade drinking, dancing, movies, swimming, swearing, popular literature, and moral injunctions against violence and war.” It was the church’s pacifist stance and his own personal beliefs that put York in conflict with the draft board in 1917. His logic was simple: “I ain’t a-goin’ to war. War is killin’ and the Book is agin’ killin’, so war is agin’ the Book.” Pastor Pile’s response is priceless. “Alvin, you’ve got the use’n’ kind of religion not the meet’n’ house kind.”
The irony here is that York was an expert marksman. He was not anti-gun, but he was opposed to warring against people who had not done him any harm. Through repeated efforts, his attempts to gain conscientious objector status failed. He entered the army but with the tension between his religious views and his duties as a soldier still in conflict. He proved himself to be an able and willing soldier during his training at Fort Gordon in Georgia. There’s one scene in the film shows his sharp shooting abilities did not impact his religious convictions. Guns were legitimate tools, even for someone who was opposed to war. York and the other inductees are taken to the firing range for target practice. York’s first shot is marked a miss. He protests that there is no way he “could miss that great big target.” His sergeant is skeptical but calls for a remark. Sure enough, York had hit the bull’s eye. He is given several more chances and places each bullet the center of the bull’s eye. After the completion of his marksmanship demonstration, and with the target in hand, York comments that the rifle “shoots a might bit to the right.” The first shot was off center, but he had made an adjustment in his subsequent shots.
At this point in the movie, York is still wrestling with his religious objections to war. While still not settled on how he might react in a combat situation, he and the rest of his company are sent to France in the Battle of Argonne Forest. It is here that York’s spiritual struggle forces him to a make the most difficult moral decision of his life as he sees some of his fellow combatants struck down by enemy fire. York believed he was justified in taking action against the Germans to save lives. He might have recalled Ezekiel 33:6, a passage that Captain Danforth asked him to consider in light of his religious convictions: “But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand.”
For his actions, York received a number of commendations, one of which was the Medal of Honor whose caption reads as follows:
The Argonne Forest, France, 8 October 1918. After his platoon suffered heavy casualties, Alvin York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with 4 German officers and 128 men and several guns.
While York returned home a “hero,” he never lost his distaste for war. Sergeant York is a thought provoking movie that will make all who watch it consider God’s commandments in light of the pressures of the world.
- Alvin York is part of a storyline in Newt Gingrich’s novel, 1945. In Pennsylvania, a paint ball establishment is named for him as is a sandwich in a San Diego eating establishment. The United States Post Office issued a stamp in York’s honor and the army introduced the “Sergeant York Tank.” Ironically, it could not hit anything it shot at and was decommissioned soon after its rollout.
- The film shows York using a German Luger against the Germans. The actual firearm was a 1911 .45 ACP automatic. The Luger was used in the movie because they couldn’t get the .45 to fire blanks.
- York had requested that the person who played Gracie not smoke. Joan Leslie, who plays Gracie, was only 15. Cooper was 40. She did her screen test with George Reeves who played one of the Tarleton twins in God With the Wind and Superman in the television series.
- Gracie’s fictitious uncle is reading his Bible on the front porch while Gracie and Alvin are doing some verbal sparring. At one point he reads “The lion also shall dwell with the lamb.” Actually, Isaiah 11:6 reads, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb.”
- June Lockhart, who plays Alvin’s sister, is best known for her roles as Ruth Martin in the 1950s series, Lassie and as Maureen Robinson in the 1960s series, Lost in Space.
- Laura Cantrell’s song “Old Downtown” devotes several stanzas to Sergeant York.
- York’s moral distaste for war showed when he refused to shoot at targets that were human silhouettes.
- Sergeant York is listed as #57 on American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspirational Movies and #35 on their list of the top 50 heroes in American cinema.
Points to Ponder
Question: When is it right to fight?
Answer: In the movie Ben Hur, there is a discussion between Balthasar and Judah Ben Hur about seeking revenge.
Judah: I must deal with Messala in my own way.
Balthasar: And your way is to kill him. I see this terrible thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur. But no matter what this man has done to you, you have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably.
Overhearing their conversation, Sheik Ilderim states the following: “Balthasar is a good man. But until all men are like him, we must keep our swords bright!” If all those in the world had the heart of Balthasar, then there would be no need to discuss what the right response is regarding self-defense and war.
Jesus tells us “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), but He doesn’t tell us what our response should be when someone, despite our best efforts to be peaceful, still wants to steal, rape, and murder. Then there’s Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:38–39). There’s quite a difference between slapping someone across the face and someone wanting to take a baseball bat to your head. Self-defense is a biblical option in such cases: “If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account” (Ex. 22:2). The homeowner can assume that someone breaking into his house at night has nothing but bad intentions.
While governments should pursue peace in every way possible, there are still times when peace is not an option. We can see the differences when we compare Romans 12:17–21 with 13:4. Paul tells Christians, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (12:18). Some times peace isn’t possible. While the individual is never to take his own “revenge” (12:19), the civil magistrate “does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (13:4). Knowing how to balance these passages takes wisdom.
Michael Birdwell, “Alvin Cullom York”: www.alvincyork.org/AlvinCullomYork.htm[
Article posted May 25, 2009