The Gospel Vision of the Arts
President Spencer W. Kimball once shared a vision that the arts were to be used as a tool for proclaiming the Gospel. He encouraged Latter-day Saint musicians, playwrights, actors, painters, filmmakers, and others to develop their talents, as well as their testimonies, so that their skills, magnified by the Holy Ghost, could be used glorify God and bring souls to Christ:
We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves. They must be faithful, inspired, active Church members to give life and feeling and true perspective to a subject so worthy.
Such masterpieces should run for months in every movie center, cover every part of the globe in the tongues of the people, written by great artists, purified by the best critics. Our writers, our motion picture specialists, with the inspiration of heaven, should tomorrow be able to produce a masterpiece which would live forever. (“The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” Ensign, September 1977)
Armed with inspiration of heaven and a testimony of the truth, Latter-day Saint artists have the potential to produce masterpieces. Unfortunately much of “Mormon cinema” is perceived as embarrassingly trite and insubstantial.
Having participated in sketch comedy at BYU, I’d be hypocritical to not concede that silly humor certainly has its place. We enjoy laughing at our culture and foibles. However, the “green Jell-o comedies” are rarely the ones I personally am anxious to show my friends of other faiths. Instead, when given the opportunity, I enjoy watching with them the films that accurately portray the depth of LDS doctrine, the richness of our history, and the beauty of our culture. These are the films of which President Kimball spake. President Kimball, in the same article, continues:
We must recognize that excellence and quality are a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and about life and about God. If we don’t care much about these basic things, then such not caring carries over into the work we do, and our work becomes shabby and shoddy. Real craftsmanship, regardless of the skill involved, reflects real caring, and real caring reflects our attitude about ourselves, about our fellowmen, and about life.
Outstanding examples of Latter-day Saint filmmaking do exist, and in more abundance that one might suppose. The following is a list of examples of Mormon cinema that come highly recommended. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are officially produced by the Church, and may be purchased from local or online LDS Distribution Centers. The other films are likely available for purchase at Deseret Book or for rent at video stores or online DVD rental services.
The Best of Mormon Cinema
American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith (2000) – This thorough and fair-minded PBS documentary is narrated by Hollywood icon Gregory Peck. Directed by Lee Groberg (who did the also-excellent Trail of Hope ), this is a terrific look at the life, teachings, history, and humanity of the prophet of the Restoration.
The Best Two Years (2003) – Although there are numerous LDS films claiming to be comedies, this one is actually funny . This riotous look at the lives of four missionaries in Holland features gorgeous on-location cinematography in Holland, some truly touching and faith-promoting moments, and solid performances across the board, especially by Kirby Heyborne as an overeager greenie and K.C. Clyde as his troubled companion. The Best Two Years accurately represents the fun, sorrows, and joys of the mission experience. It inspires while delivering plenty of chuckles and a handful of belly laughs.
Brigham City (2001) – A quick thought about writer/director Richard Dutcher: it is well known that Brother Dutcher has left the Church for his own spiritual reasons. I feel that the backlash he has received from some for his choice was unfortunate. I, along with many others, wish him well in his spiritual journeys, and sincerely hope that they lead him back to us. He has implied that they may, likening himself to Oliver Cowdery, which is ironic, because just like Cowdery (though on a smaller scale), Dutcher’s testimony still resonates even after he’s chosen a different path.
With Brigham City and States of Grace , Richard Dutcher gave us two of the most profound and powerful films of the LDS cinema movement. With Brigham City , he thoughtfully explores the reactions of a small Utah town to the presence of a serial killer in their midst. This harrowing and powerful film is actually a fine moral drama masquerading as a murder mystery, and holds the paradoxical distinction of being both a clever whodunit and a stirring religious film. While many mysteries take on a sensational tone, Brigham City swings the other way: it maintains its humanity by realistically portraying the grief of a community torn apart by violence and the love and support that pulls them together. Excellent writing and acting drive this thought-provoking, bittersweet, and uplifting tale. Note: while not graphically violent, this film is too intense for children.
Charly (2002) – A couple of sub-par acting moments aside, this sweet, tender, and sincere love story is faith-promoting, soul-stirring, romantic, and funny, with a terrific lead performance by Heather Beers as the titular character. Charly tells the story of a friendship that blossoms into romance between a strait-laced Utah man and a free-spirited New York woman as the latter investigates the Church. Ultimately, this is one of the more Christ-centered films on this list. Bring your hankies.
Emma Smith: My Story (2008) – Produced by the Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society, this lushly-shot and very well-acted take on the life of Emma Smith was directed by Gary Cook and T.C. Christensen, who together also directed the current Temple Square film Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration . This film uses the same actors, and truly feels like a companion film to that one. Nathan Mitchell continues to impress as Brother Joseph, but it is Katherine Thompson and Patricia Place, as the younger and elder Emma, respectively, who truly shine in this even-handed and faithful examination of the life, faith, and trials of this oft-misunderstood “elect lady.” The film strengthens audience’s faith in the Restoration even as it tactfully deals with such subjects as plural marriage and Emma’s staying behind when the Saints went to Utah. Solid production values add to the professional feel. Don’t miss it.
The Errand of Angels (2008) – Gorgeous cinematography and a simple, well-told story highlight this film, which shifts the focus to the equally valid struggles and triumphs of sister missionaries. Though the first 15 minutes are a little shaky, the film finds its footing to deliver a sweet, practical message. What’s more, it features charming performances by lead actresses Erin Chambers, Rachel Emmers, and Bettina Schwarz. Currently in theatres.
* Finding Faith in Christ – Very good, Church-produced film about the life and ministry of the Savior as recorded in the New Testament. Covers a lot of ground in 30 minutes, telling the story of the Lord from the perspective of the apostle Thomas.
Though some of the acting/dialogue is a little hammy, the beauty of the filmmaking, as well as the truthfulness of the message, make this terrific viewing. Contains footage found in The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd , and was likely filmed during the same time.
* How Rare a Possession (1987) – Currently available only on videocassette, I cannot wait for the Church to release this on DVD, as it’s one of the best it’s ever made. In three separate segments, this film powerfully demonstrates the value and importance of The Book of Mormon. The first segment introduces the book by portraying the lonely travels of Moroni as he finishes and buries the record. The second tells the story of Parley P. Pratt, and how the book impacted his life when he first read it. The final segment recreates the true story of Vincenzo Di Francesca, an Italian priest who came across a copy of The Book of Mormon without cover or title page; he knew it was true, but he didn’t know its name or how to join the church it came from. Terrific film, found now on a multi-feature video entitled A Voice From the Dust . Terrific production values bring the stories realistically to life.
* Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration (2005) – Tied with To This End Was I Born for my vote for best film ever made by the Church. It features thorough storytelling, gorgeous cinematography, great acting, and stirring music. I cannot recommend it highly enough. This film is currently only found at temple visitors’ centers.
* Joy to the World (2003) – Terrific short film portrays the Nativity story in both the Old World and the Americas, as well as the celebration of Christmas in modern times, with music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
* The Mountain of the Lord (1993) – Inspiring tale of the construction of the Salt Lake Temple is instructive in its history and doctrine, as well as a fascinating story in and of itself. Solidly-acted portrayals of Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff and good production values drive the tale.
The Mouth of Babes (1980) – Hilarious short documentary is sort of an LDS version of Kids Say the Darndest Things . T.C. Christensen asks primary children doctrinal questions, with adorably funny, and sometimes poignant, results.
* Mr Krueger’s Christmas (1980) – Legendary Jimmy Stewart’s other Christmas movie is a touching short film in which an old janitor fantasizes about happier Christmases, singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and ultimately kneeling before the newborn Savior. Terrific music and a very touching performance by Stewart make this a must-watch during the holidays.
New York Doll (2005) – Engaging, sweet, and always entertaining documentary about a punk rocker turned temple worker whose life of sex, drugs, and rock n’roll nearly killed him until he found solace in the LDS Church. Now middle-aged, Arthur “Killer” Kane dreams of reuniting with is band – not for the lifestyle, but for the joy of performance. Along the way, he encounters a lot of old friends whose reactions to his new beliefs are largely positive. A Sundance Film Festival favorite. Although it’s rated PG-13 for discussion of drug use, this inspiring tale is wholly appropriate for older kids and up. A terrific film for everyone, but may be especially inspiring for teenagers.
* On the Way Home (1992) – Okay, it is cheesy in parts, but this film carries the power of true principles and some moments of fantastic filmmaking (the scene at the homeless shelter really stands out for me). Displays how the restored Gospel can heal family wounds and help them find joy in the present and hope for the eternal future.
The Other Side of Heaven (2001) – This lavishly-produced feature film received nationwide theatrical distribution and a Disney DVD release. Tells the story of the missionary experiences of now-emeritus Seventy John H. Groberg (played by Christopher Gorham) as he served in Tonga in the 1950’s, facing hurricanes, famine, and temptation, all while exchanging correspondence with his girlfriend Jean (Anne Hatheway, The Princess Diaries, Get Smart ). With a budget of $7 million, it’s an epic with all the trimmings (including some very impressive special effects). The love for the Tongan people and for the Savior shines out from this film. The scenery and the storytelling are inspiring.
Praise to the Man (2005) – This Living Scriptures DVD release is a thorough and thoughtful overview of the life of Joseph Smith, reuniting the directors of the Temple Square film Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration with most of that film’s cast. At about an hour and a half, this well-made and well-acted docudrama, while not as emotionally-charged as the Temple Square film, nevertheless is poignant and involving in its own right, and is terrific for gaining (or remembering) the highlights of the prophet’s life. Much better than I’d expected, and well worth the purchase.
Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Tale (2003) – Stands next to The Best Two Years as one of the few worthwhile LDS comedies, this modern take on the classic Jane Austen novel stays true to the story and characters, even as it transports them to modern-day Provo. I had low expectations when I saw this, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the acting, romance, and humor. This charming comedy had me chuckling consistently from start to finish. It’s apparent that the filmmakers actually understand the pacing and delivery of comedy, and it pays off. Sweet and silly fun.
* The Prodigal Son (1990) – Touching modern take on the Savior’s parable, produced by the Church. One of my favorites to watch on my mission. Available only on VHS at the moment.
* The Restoration (2003) – Terrific, 20-minute depiction of The First Vision and the Restoration of the Church in modern times. Powerful, touching, and a wonderful missionary tool.
Saints and Soldiers (2003) – Director Ryan Little makes a $1 million budget look like $40 million in this harrowing World War II tale, based on actual events. A Latter-day Saint sharpshooter (Corbin Allred, in a fantastic performance) clashes and bonds with an atheist medic as they and three other soldiers attempt to evade German soldiers and bring classified intelligence to the Allies. The action scenes are intense but relatively bloodless, and language is minimal; on the other hand, the film’s message about faith and kindness, even in times of war, strikes a resonant chord. Saints and Soldiers shows the practical, real-world value of faith in the Savior and His gospel, without being heavy-handed or preachy. High-quality filmmaking, cinematography, music, and acting make this an exemplary example of what “Mormon cinema” can be. Rated PG-13 for war violence.
* Special Witnesses of Christ (1999) – Very well-made film finds the modern prophets and apostles testifying of the Savior from various sacred sites around the world (Elder Holland in Gethsemane, President Hinckley in the Sacred Grove and the Garden Tomb, Elder Faust in Nauvoo, and so on). Gives audiences the chance to hear the testimonies of living servants of God. Stirring and inspiring.
States of Grace (2005) – This is Richard Dutcher’s masterpiece (or close to it). Misjudged by some for its depiction of Latter-Day Saints as good-but-flawed people, as well as real-world topics such as gang violence, States of Grace powerfully demonstrates the modern-day relevance of the Gospel, the painful consequences of sin, our need for the Savior, and the long reach of the Atonement.
One merely needs to watch it all the way through, as the film breaks its audience down first, in order to build them up even more later.
States of Grace tells of how a drive-by shooting sets into motion a series of events that will alter the lives of an aspiring actress, a Pentecostal preacher, a gang-banger, and two LDS missionaries forever. Terrific acting and a deep, uncompromising screenplay are the film’s greatest strengths. If you’re in the mood to break out of the “green Jell-o” Mormon movies and desire something of substance, this is for you. This film is emotionally intense, so parents be warned. This film seems to divide LDS audiences; some love it, some hate it. I’m with the former: in my opinion, this is the most Christ-centered movie of the Mormon cinema movement (at least of those not officially produced by the Church). Rated PG-13 for gang violence and thematic material.
The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd (2000) – I look at this film a lot like a new missionary: a little awkward at times and doesn’t yet have a masterful grip on the language, but the sheer sincerity of the presentation, as well as the earnest testimony borne invites the Spirit in a powerful fashion. I can’t help but roll my eyes at Chaio, the Pet Monkey (who I consider to be the Jar-Jar Binks of Mormon cinema). Quibbles aside, the raw beauty of the filmmaking, the power of the acting, the truthfulness of the story, and the clarity with which this film displays the relationship between the Bible and The Book of Mormon, as well as its reverence and love for the Lord Jesus Christ, all combine for a powerhouse viewing experience every time. Rick Macy in particular, as the Nephite father Helam, gives a magnetic performance. Great cinematography and music.
To This End Was I Born (1993) – In my opinion, this is the best movie the Church has ever produced. In a half an hour, it tells the story of the final week of the Savior’s life, including his visit to the spirit world. I’ve seen the edited version of The Passion of the Christ , and I loved it; this film, however, is far less graphic and is in many ways even more powerful. Perfect for Easter, with gorgeous music, solid production values, and a reverent depiction of the Lord. A shorter version, called The Lamb of God , is also available.
The Work and the Glory trilogy (2004-2006) — Sadly, only the first three film versions of Gerald Lund’s celebrated Church historical fiction novels were ever made. Thus, the story of the Restoration is just getting moving when the film trilogy ends, though the story of the fictional Steed family is given a nice arch. Gorgeously shot, with terrific production values and fine acting (especially by Jonathan Scarfe, who makes a compelling and charismatic Joseph Smith), these films have terrific messages about faith, testimony, forgiveness, sacrifice, and familial loyalty. Though there are some flaws (occasionally sappy dialogue, a change of several key actors after the first film), the sheer artistry of the filmmaking and the power of the storytelling make these worth the watch.