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Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man

Saturday, March 24, 2012
6:00 p.m. Sergeant York
Howard Hawks (U.S., 1941)

Real-life World War I hero Alvin C. York reputedly insisted on Gary Cooper to star in this biopic, a stirring, folksy fable of God and country, not necessarily in that order. As the script traces York’s conversion from hillbilly hell-raiser to upright Christian, then from biblical pacifist to battlefield patriot, Sol Polito’s cinematography memorably renders the shift in scene from a Tennessee hill country out of a Thomas Hart Benton painting to a French landscape that is anything but pastoral. In 1941 the film’s tribute to York’s humble heroism helped assuage the conscience of a nation about to enter another war, but its ethical paradoxes are still ones to ponder. As York tells the commanding officer who tries to persuade him that killing can be a moral necessity, “You done give me a powerful lot to be a-thinkin’ about.”

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Abem Finkel, Harry Chandler, Howard Koch, John Huston. Photographed by Sol Polito. With Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias. (135 mins, B&W, 35mm, From Library of Congress, permission Warner Bros.)