But as Alvin slowly begins to reform, the tone changes. The scenes in Tennessee are still hazy with idealism, but a faint note of seriousness is introduced. Alvin meets a girl and falls in love. Determined to do right by her, he quits his drinking and carousing and begins working a series of grueling jobs to earn money to purchase a piece of fertile bottom land, on which he intends to build a house and start a farm. Though he’s getting there, Alvin isn’t quite a hero yet; he shrugs off the pastor’s suggestion that he turn to religion, reckoning that it’s better for someone to wait “for religion to find him.” When the plot of land he covets is sold to someone else, Alvin cartwheels off the wagon. Drunk and armed with a rifle, he sets out to kill the man who bought his land (coincidentally, also his chief rival for the love of beautiful Gracie). It’s here that religion — in the form of a well-placed bolt of lightning, destroying Alvin’s rifle — finds him.
The next and most drastic alteration in the film’s tone comes when Alvin, now a pious pacifist, enlists in the Army. The U.S. is about to enter World War I, and the pastor tells Alvin that he can either join up now, or wait for the government to come get him. He joins, and proves himself to be a dead-eye on the target range, but still carries a moral objection to the killing he knows will be expected of him in battle. A sympathetic commander allows Alvin to return home for a few days to sort out his thoughts; Alvin spends his furlough on the side of a cliff near his home, alternating between reading his Bible and a history of the United States. He makes up his mind and returns to the army, still reluctant, but willing to fight.
It’s in the scenes portraying Alvin’s internal moral struggle that the film attains a real visual beauty. There is a lovely shot of him seated on the cliff, reading his books, silhouetted against the sky. As his doubts give way, so do the shadows, slowly fading away, moving Alvin from the darkness to enlightenment. Here, and in the scenes of the war that follow, the movie acquires a graver, more serious tone, as does Alvin once he reaches the trenches.
The depictions of battle and life in the trenches are not quite the equal of those found in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, or Lewis Milestone’s peerless All Quiet on the Western Front, but they bear the comparison well. The danger of trench warfare is well established when a soldier a few feet from Alvin is shot and killed because he sticks his head up too far. Wide crane shots of the American doughboys charging across no man’s land toward the German lines are also very effective at conveying the scarred, barren appearance of a World War I battlefield.
The previous paragraph raises an interesting question: Why so few great films about World War I? If I think a bit, I can come up with a decent list — the aforementioned All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, and some films less well-regarded artistically but significant nonetheless, like Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels, and Wings, which won the first-ever Best Picture Oscar — but for every classic World War I picture, there seem to be ten classic World War II pictures, or Civil War pictures, or Vietnam War pictures. Why has World War I been relatively ignored by American filmmakers? Because of America’s limited participation in the war, perhaps? Or that the other wars are seen as more exciting for whatever reason, and therefore worthier subjects for film? Besides Sergeant York, the First World War was full of heroes and legendary figures: ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, the Marines at Belleau Wood, General John “Blackjack” Pershing. Whatever the reason for their drawing the short straw, it’s a shame.
But back to Sergeant York. To its credit, the film doesn’t end Alvin’s journey as a hero with his sensational wartime exploits. Alvin returns home to a hero’s welcome, and is embarrassed by all the attention. He reconciled his participation in the war with his religious morals, but still takes no pride in the killings he committed, and bristles at the notion that he should be rewarded for them. In this way Alvin attains a rare level of complexity — he is an anti-war war hero. He comes back to Tennessee to find that not only has that piece of bottom land been purchased for him, but a house already built for him to live in with Gracie, happily ever after, we assume. It’s sappy as hell, especially following the war scenes, but by this point Alvin has earned it.