Mormon cinema has evolved into bigger-budgeted, better-produced Sunday School films

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) I just saw “Ephraim’s Journey,” which is essentially another take on — with a different perspective — of “17 Miracles,” which details the sufferings of one ill-fated handcart company that traveled to Utah; “Ephraim’s Rescue” deals mainly with the other handcart company’s suffering. The movies are very religious, with oft-repeated legends of miraculous healing, a visit by one of the Three Nephites, and the raising of the dead being treated as fact by director T.C. Christensen.

Christensen, who is the new main director of Mormon cinema, is talented. The cinematography, pacing and action moves the film forward. There are moments of mild humor, which humanizes the characters. Although you don’t realize this while watching, virtually all the characters in “Ephraim’s Rescue” look like members of your own LDS ward, or the crowds milling through a BYU football game. (It reminds me of a recent pundit, relating a visit to a Mormon ward, who remarked that the LDS pictures of Jesus Christ remind him of how Jesus was depicted in the 1950s.)

Although I tend toward skepticism on miracles, as an active Mormon, I’ll give “Ephraim’s Rescue” a thumbs up. It does what it seeks to do — raises the testimonies of many of the faithful. It’s moving to see an historical overview of the sufferings of the handcart companies and a review of the desperate efforts to rescue the stranded handcart pioneers. However, let’s be honest, the film is a slick, better-produced reproduction of the filmstrip LDS history movies we’ve seen in Mormon primary and Sunday schools.

In fact, T.C. Christensen’s handcart tragedy films remind me of “The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt,” the martyred Mormon apostle. I love that book and have read it at least a dozen times. It’s full of early Mormon history miracles. In one section, LDS Church member Philo Dibble, left for dead by a bullet wound, is healed instantly. In another anecdote, Parley P. Pratt heals a child of Mr. Wandle Mace, who was in the last stages of brain fever. These are just two of many anecdotes. In “Ephraim’s Rescue,” the title character raises the dead twice and heals many of the sick. In one scene, Ephraim heals the frostbitten-destroyed feet of a major character so effectively that the healed man dances a Jig, lifting the spirits of the handcart company survivors. (This may sound silly in my blog, but you have to see the film.)

This is where Mormon cinema has evolved over the past 13 years. We’ve gone from the gritty missionary drama of Richard Dutcher’s “God’s Army” (scenes include a black man mocking a black missionary and an apostate elder leaving a believing elder speechless) to the “correlation-approved” sanitized biographical films of Emma Smith and Joseph Smith, as well as Christensen’s Sunday School historical dramas.

The baker’s dozen years of Mormon cinema’s evolution was dictated chiefly by economics. The vast majority of films released to theaters did not make money. Dutcher’s two follow-ups, “Brigham City,” and “States of Grace,” (desperately pitched as “God’s Army 2″ in Utah) did not make money, although both were excellent films — even better than “God’s Army” — which challenged LDS beliefs and assumptions by deconstructing the doctrine through various situations. In “States of Grace,” there is a powerful analogy to the “burying of weapons” story from the Book of Mormon.

After the gritty era of Mormon cinema, the genre moved mostly toward comedies that riffed off Mormon culture. There was “Singles Ward,” “Church Ball,” “Mobsters and Mormons,” “The RM,” The Home Teachers” and so on. There was also an attempt to make LDS romance films, such as “Charlie” and “Baptists At Our Barbecue,” (both based on books and BTW, “Baptists …” directed by Christian Vuissa, is a great film) and a slew of romantic LDS-themed comedies, including riffs on “Beauty and the Beast” and even “Pride and Prejudice.” There were more serious LDS mission-related films, including “The Best Two Years” and “The Errand of Angels.”

It bears mentioning that there were efforts to produce bigger-budgeted LDS-themed films. “Book of Mormon Movie,” “Passage to Zarahemla,” and three movies from the popular LDS fiction series, “The Work and the Glory” were produced. They just didn’t make money. In fact, the “Work and the Glory” films, financed by the late Larry H. Miller, have likely lost more than $10 million, and that may be a conservative estimate. (In the post-Dutcher era, the most critically acclaimed films may have been the “Saints and Soldiers” World War II-era films, released in 2003 and 2012.)

By 2010 most independent films produced for Mormon audiences were being released directly to DVD with a maybe a token theatrical release in Utah. In 2011, my family saw “Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold,” in a theater but it was shown in a DVD format! (A good site to keep up on Mormon-themed films is http://www.ldsfilm.com/)

Mormon cinema that makes it to theater screens has evolved to meet the needs of its chief audience, active Mormons. That need is faith repetition, or perhaps more optimistically called faith-promoting. As mentioned, I enjoy the films, but I miss the challenges to our assumptions in the earlier films, in which characters who deeply believed in Mormonism sometimes succumbed to the temptations of passion, loneliness, and rage. Even the silly films, “Singles Ward, ” “Home Teachers” or “Church Ball,” have more honesty. They riff on the Mormon culture, which is a safe but tempting target. The only “riffs” in “Ephraim’s Rescue” are a couple of mild jokes on polygamy.

The main events of Mormon-themed cinema have moved into the bowels of the church. It will be interesting to see if there is a serious effort to move part of the genre back into independence.

 

 

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9 Responses to Mormon cinema has evolved into bigger-budgeted, better-produced Sunday School films

  1. rick says:

    doug — you didn’t mention two of my favorites: “Mountain of the Lord” and “Legacy” — (not to mention “My Turn On Earth,” a simple recording of a stage production, but which has been a favorite of our family for years) …

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Rick, “Legacy” is not released to theaters. I will say I think it’s the best of the Temple Square films of recent years. They used more experienced professional actors and it shows. The woman lead in the film was in The Godfather II! I have not seen “Mountain of the Lord.” “I have enjoyed “My Turn On Earth” and “Saturday’s Warrior” but they pre-date the blog subjects. Have you ever seen “Brigham,” a relatively obscure 1970s film about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the move to Utah. It’s interesting.

  2. “(It reminds me of a recent pundit, relating a visit to a Mormon ward, who remarked that the LDS pictures of Jesus Christ remind him of how Jesus was depicted in the 1950s.)”

    It would be great if Mormonism would honestly depict the Jesus of the Bible.

  3. Collin says:

    Doug,

    I have been having a debate with an atheist friend of mine about miracles. He takes the David Hume approach to miracles (extreme skepticism). I have two questions for you
    1. What criteria do you use to help you determine if a miracle is authentic?
    2. It seems like you think that it is profitable to build up someone’s faith with a story of a fake miracle. Is that what you are saying?

    • Doug Gibson says:

      I believe miracles exist but that they are very, very, very rare. I can’t provide a context, other than perhaps its use for a prophet or the Saviour to complete their work. The film, 17 Miracles, bothered me because it promoted “miracles” in the context of great suffering that was caused by human error. Is it a miracle someone survives while their companions die? I just think we cheapen “miracles.” When someone claims a miracle that saves a life, prevents financial distress, or prevents other harm, what is that saying about the individual(s) who suffer similar to what the miracle-receiver claims to have been blessed with?

  4. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Re: “It would be great if Mormonism would honestly depict the Jesus of the Bible.” Honest picture of Jesus, at least the entity as depicted in the Bible? Comin’ right up:
    ——————-

    ——————
    That’s curious. He looks exactly like those depictions of Mohammed that some artists are too feared for their lives to draw. Now why would that be? :)

    • Bob Becker says:

      Many many years ago, driving deep into the night in south Texas, to keep awake I had on one of those mega- powered AM stations just over the Mexican borrder that lease time after dark to an endless series of preachers offering a variety of rewards for “faith
      offering” checks of sufficient size: prayer shawls, prayer rugs, neckless crosses, small vials of water guaranteed to be from the River Jordan ( the real one)…. and “a genuine photo Jesus!”.

  5. Gregory A. Clark says:

    More seriously:

    Interesting, balanced review, Doug. Re: “It [the film] does what it seeks to do — raises the testimonies of many of the faithful.”

    But as you imply, that’s more PR than it is art, or good cinema.

    But there is no reason, in principle, that a Mormon-themed story couldn’t be great. (Just as Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories are great.) Except perhaps, one reason: Even fictional good stories require honesty, not sanitizing, at a deep level. Conformity can interfere with that.

  6. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, November 9, 2013 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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