It might be worthwhile to point out that a few of the movies I listed yesterday were books first. The Godfather, I’m sure you already know about, and it is on the short list of books I’ve loved. You might or might not know that Sergeant York is based on a diary that Alvin C. York kept during World War I. Diary-keeping in wartime is illegal, lest information about troop movements and activities fall into the hands of the enemy, but many soldiers, regardless of rank, kept them, and we would not have the books we have about our most severe conflicts (for instance, Guadalcanal Diary, by Richard Tregaskis, and With The Old Breed, by Eugene B. Sledge) without them. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel by Milan Kundera; Scott Pilgim is a graphic novel; Ben-Hur was an enduringly-popular novel by Lew Wallace from long ago that I read and enjoyed in high school. Good-Bye, Mr. Chips, by James Hilton, might be read, if one wishes, as a British companion to York’s diary. The first war had been going on in Europe for three bloody years before the American Expeditionary Force ever got there, and Hilton’s book is the timeless expression–if sentimentalized–of how civilians felt as they went through a kind of warfare humanity had not experienced before, and of how we all passed from one way of life into another because of it.
What I have been most struck by after reading York’s diary several years ago is how closely Gary Cooper is able to hew to its expressions in giving his own performance as York. Of course, Cooper had opportunities to talk to York, also, and doubtless picked up cues that way, too, but, still, his performance is delightfully true to the diary as it stands. Watching Sergeant York (1941) is like seeing two movies in one: York’s backbreaking life as a farmer in Tennessee, and his later moral crisis and exploits as a soldier in World War I. Both parts are superbly paced and performed by everyone involved, and it’s just a great film to watch, even if one thinks of it–as many in its original audience might have thought of it–as a subtly-done propaganda film in support of American involvement in the second war that had been going on in Europe for almost two years.