Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tale of Two Films Based on Mormon History

Saturday, I made the trek outside the city limits of Portland by bus just to see the movie "Emma Smith: My Story" that was playing at a suburban multiplex for a one week limited engagment. My Mormon friends laugh at my fondness for "cheesy Mormon movies" and I've probably seen more of them than all of my Mormon friends have COMBINED!

The ones I've seen, the ones based on history ("The Work and the Glory" trilogy) and the ones about Mormon Missionaries ("The Best Two Years", "Gods Army", "States of Grace" , "Return With Honor", and "The Other Side of Heaven") are the best ones. The cheesy comedies by Hale-Storm Entertainment tend to be bad and unfunny.

But who can resist a film about Emma Smith..."the Elect Lady" as she was dubbed by early church members. As a member of the Community of Christ, which owes its very existence to her strong dislike and distrust of Brigham Young, I had a special interest in seeing this film and if they'd by chance be so charitable as to show the reason why she didn't follow Brigham Young west.

No such luck! The film had three instances of a Mormon bias: a scene where Joseph and Emma were sealed in the Nauvoo Temple for all time and eternity (I'll have to check the history books on that one); a voice-over that mentioned how Emma's bad experience in Independence, MO with the anti-Mormon mobs had made her never want to cross the Mississippi again once she moved with the saints to Nauvoo, Illinois (it wasn't fear of the anti-Mormon mob that kept her from moving to Utah...it was her strong distrust of Brigham Young); and finally, the most controversial of all...Julia (Emma's adopted daughter) asks her about her silence on the plural marriage question. The elderly Emma responds, admitting that it was a painful commandment of God that nearly did in her marriage, that both she and Joseph were deeply pained by the revelation.

To that, I say BALONEY! Even when I was at BYU, I took an LDS History course (through 1844 only) by the respectful and honest Alex Baugh. While I remember being very annoyed during the class period when polygamy was discussed, I remember that he also said that Emma had told her son Joseph Smith III (who became prophet of the Reorganized church in 1860) that his father had never practiced polygamy. Was she in denial? Did she outright lie to her son? Or was polygamy a secret that Joseph kept from Emma? Or even, was polygamy merely done by proxy in order to make it seem like Joseph originated the concept? I don't think there's conclusive evidence to prove that Joseph Smith actually took on multiple wives with Emma's approval. It is my understanding that she believed Brigham Young to be the corrupting influence who brought up polygamy and later claimed that Joseph engaged in it. There was the practice of sealing women to the prophet after they die, but that doesn't indicate that any adultery or physical polygamous marriages happened while Joseph Smith was alive.

Besides those pesky details, the movie was pretty good and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of our churches (whichever branch they might be members of today). One other point that I have a small beef with is the over-dependence on voice over narration, which is simply a lazy way to move a story along. It's a step up from the "docudrama" type of film (actors performing roles while an unseen narrator speaks), but it could've been better executed.

What I most loved about the film is the actress who plays Emma Smith. She looks and acts exactly the way I had pictured Emma Smith to look and act like when I read about our history. I also like that she was a major hottie in her day. Joseph has good tastes. I had more problems with the actor who played Joseph because he lacks the charisma to play the prophet. While he does kind of resemble pictures of the prophet, I wanted to see a more charismatic actor play the role because it's no secret that Joseph Smith had plenty of charisma, which is almost required for any new enterprise that requires people to trust and follow.

Another Mormon film I saw a month or so ago was not so good. Actually, it was made by people who aren't Mormons, but it's about an event that happened in a place called Mountain Meadows, Utah. It's one of the dark stains in Mormon history, when a group of emigrants from Arkansas were on their way to California (kind of the 19th century's "Grapes of Wrath"). They camped out in Utah to rest their horses and cattle, and to re-supply the wagon train. According to one version of the event, Brigham Young, the prophet and the governor of Utah territory, ordered the complete slaughter of every man, woman, and child in that wagon train. Some overzealous Mormons, thinking they were avenging the death of the prophet Joseph Smith, massacred everyone (save for a few children who survived the ordeal). Brigham Young claimed no knowledge of the event and was absolved of any responsibility. Was it overzealous Mormons acting in what they thought was sanctioned by their prophet, or were they following direct orders from the prophet himself?

The reason I didn't like the film is because it had a lot of "filler". In order to make it more dramatic, they made a love story out of it, in which one of the Mormons falls in love with a girl who was part of the wagon train. This put a kind of "Romeo and Juliet" spin on the story. The event itself probably didn't merit a movie, and it was obvious when they had to add more to the story than history leaves us with.

Terence Stamp ("General Zod" of "Superman II") plays Brigham Young with bone-chilling psychosis. Even I got nightmares about it! And the scene where young Mormon men chant "blood atonement! blood atonement!" gave me a serious case of the heebie jeebies (as well as a flashback to my experience at BYU when I had a mentally unstable roommate who totally believed in blood atonement and once said that he couldn't wait to be a god of his own world so he could make the people on his planet practice polygamy or else he'd kill them!).

Overall, the film was rather boring and not something I'd see again. The fact that they had to make a love story to increase the dramatic tension of the massacre only proved to me that there wasn't much material to make a film in the first place. While I agree that it's scandalous and a dark stain on Mormon history, the events simply don't merit a film of this kind.

One of the oddest scenes in this film is a flashback sequence of Joseph Smith's assassination in Carthage Jail, IL. Unbelievably, they tapped Dean Cain ("Lois and Clark") to play the martyred prophet in a cameo performance. What were they thinking? Though this one isn't as bad as other anti-Mormon films ("Latter Days" and "Orgazmo"), I don't recommend this film unless you're a die hard Mormon history aficianado.


Mandalynn said...

I'm glad you finally got to see "Emma Smith," but even your review can't get me to see it.

d/b/c/m said...

interesting. i'm not really interested in seeing it, just because i'd rather read history than watch someone else's interpretation on it. i've only seen one mormon movie--the work and the glory and i thought it was cheesy and oversimplified.

on joseph smilth and polygamy...i'm sure many would argue with me, but a guy in my ward here (todd compton) has dedicated like 15 years of his life combing through every piece of documentation that he can get his hands on and wrote the most comprehensive history of his wifes as of yet. i trust his conclusions that joseph was sealed to, at very least, 28 other women. most of them were in secret and even emma didn't know for a long time, and he wasn't honest with her even later when she did try to go along with it. some of the girls were underage and it seemed pretty lustful and creepy to me. anyway, i'm not really o.k. with the whole polygamy thing, so i'm probably not the best representative from my church to talk about it, too, though.

also, about mountain meadows, from my studies on it, (although it was kept secret so well that no one can prove anything), i don't believe brigham young ordered the slaughter. i think the mormons had been driven west for so long, persecuted, and killed under the extermination order from missouri governer boggs (can you believe he ordered a genocide in our country 150 years ago?!) that most everyone was totally paranoid, and when this group came through they were suspicious and paranoid. the military faction down there wanted to eliminate the supposed threat to their peace and autonomy and make sure no one else would follow so they decided to take that action. perhaps they got a nod from brigham young, but i don't think he was the driving force.
no matter, it's a tragic story.