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Sergeant York: Special Edition

Gary Cooper: The Signature Collection

Howard Hawks has long been canonized, but like many brilliant artists, his work was not recognized for its greatness until his autumnal years. Hawks received an honorary Oscar in 1975, only two years before his death, and while many of his films were popcorn favorites, he was only nominated once for Best Director. That nomination was (as should be obvious from the Academy's record) for one of his least-remarkable films, and the one that was most patriotic. That being 1941's Sergeant York, which is an acceptable crowd pleaser made on the verge of America's entry into World War II and can't help but show its roots in propaganda. The movie tells the tale of real-life war legend Alvin York (Gary Cooper), who starts out as a ruffian known for drinking heavily and shooting up the town. His mother (Margaret Wycherly) wears his bad habits down, but it's Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) that tames him, to which he begins working hard to buy some bottom land (known for its rich soil) in an effort to marry her. Running out of options to get the money he needs for the property, York enters a shooting contest and proves his flawless aim. Alas, the contest money comes too late for the land, which is sold to his competitor for Gracie's affections. York gets some blood lust for revenge, but when lightning strikes his gun he finds religion and becomes a pacifist. Such is why he initially reports to the government that he's a conscientious objector when he's drafted, but the government wins out and York becomes a solider, where his sharpshooting skills come into play once again. An episodic biopic, Hawks shows a smooth hand at the narrative of Sergeant York, which is neatly divvied out by screenwriters John Huston, Howard Koch, and Harry Chandlee. And each of those sections are engaging, leading to a mostly satisfying whole and with a fine leading performance by Gary Cooper (who netted an Oscar for his work). But as evinced in Hawks' best movies, he was too much of an individual to have much success as a propagandist, and the ending of the film — where York convinces himself it's okay to be a killer as long as it's for the preservation of life — leaves that central irony unaddressed. In this way, one can call the film an incoherent text, and somewhat in line with Red River's about-face ending. But it's also the sort of thing swept aside in favor of a rousing effort meant to help convince Americans that going to war against the Nazis was a good thing. Such criticisms don't suggest the innate artistry that Hawks was capable of, even at his worst (which is either A Song is Born or Rio Lobo). He could always be counted on to deliver an entertaining movie with good performances and capable direction. It was his gift, and unlike many of his contemporaries (including John Ford), even his more studio-friendly work is usually of merit, much like this one. Warner Brothers presents Sergeant York in a two-disc set, individually or as part of "The Gary Cooper Signature Collection." Disc One features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with monaural DD 2.0 audio. The source-print appears to be in fine shape, and the transfer is one of the better releases from Warner Home Video of late. Extras on the first disc include a commentary by Jeanine Basinger, the short period documentary "Lions for Sale" (9 min.), the Looney Tunes short "Porky's Preview" (6 min.) and a trailer gallery of Gary Cooper films. Disc Two contains two documentaries, "Sergeant York: Of God and Country" about the making of the film, which is narrated by Liam Neeson (39 min.). The second is "Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend," hosted by Clint Eastwood (46 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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