It’s Pioneer Day, a holiday commemorating the arrival of Mormon pioneers in what would later become the state of Utah. Seeking refuge from violent and deadly persecutions, they fled the United States, a nation they were loyal to, a nation whose Constitution guaranteed them religious freedom, a nation that was supposed to be a safe harbor for people of all faiths, but which was ultimately unwilling to protect them from militias and mobs. Traveling across the continent with hopes of making a home for themselves in the American West, they found their promised land, accompanied by tragedies and miracles all along the way.
We in the Church are grateful for our pioneer heritage and for the faith and sacrifices of those who would rather give their lives than deny the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. In commemoration I’d like to offer my recommendations for worthwhile movies portraying this oft-overlooked chapter in American history. Certainly there are other good pioneer films, so if I’ve overlooked any let me know. These are just the ones that I’ve seen. If you’d like to support the filmmakers and buy the DVD’s, simply click on the movie titles. For more recommendations of family-friendly films for any occasion, check out my book 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families.
Director T.C. Christensen’s portrayal of the hardships endured, and blessings enjoyed, by the Martin-Willie handcart companies has become the definitive pioneer film, although the director’s own Ephraim’s Rescue is giving it a run for its money. This one is a harrowing tearjerker with excellent acting and production values. It pulls no punches in portraying suffering and human imperfection, but it also uplifts by displaying the tender mercies of the Lord over a faithful people. The film is available on DVD and on Bluray.
T.C. Christensen follows up 17 Miracles with the intersecting story of Ephraim’s Rescue, in which frontier hero Ephraim Hanks answers Brigham Young’s call to bring aid to those Saints who are starving and freezing on the plains. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, with excellent performances by Darin Southam, Katherine Nelson, and more, Ephraim’s Rescue is a marvelous film. Now playing in theaters
If you prefer unadulterated history and powerful stories without the artistic license of dramatization, this meticulously-researched BYUTV documentary is for you. Simple but elegant in its production values, you’ll find that the stories, locations, and facts speak for themselves. Those with short attention spans will want to look elsewhere, but for those who like to dive deep into informative history, this is the ticket. Read my full review.
From director Kieth Merrill (The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd), the original pioneer film that kicked off Temple Square’s giant-screen theatre (named the Legacy Theatre, natch) is still a powerful experience, even if it now seems melodramatic and cheesy compared to the realistic tone of more modern LDS films like Saints and Soldiers and Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration. Though it plays like a “Cliffs Notes” version of Church History, skimming over details and context in order to cover a lot of ground, there is undeniable beauty in the storytelling, romance, and artistry.
A must-see for anyone looking to understand the significance of temples in the worship of Latter-Day Saints, this one-hour film portrays the building of the Salt Lake Temple through the eyes of modern prophet (and meticulous journal-keeper) Wilford Woodruff. The Mountain of the Lord provides excellent insight into the settling of the Salt Lake Valley as well as well-rounded characterizations of figures from Mormon history.
Well-acted, with lovely cinematography, this moving short film tells the amazing true story of John Henry Moyle, a stonecutter for the Salt Lake temple who endures near-cripping tragedy, but whose dedication to Christ gives him the strength to carry on. Also available on the Doctrine and Covenants & Church History Visual Resource DVD.
Powerful 15-minute short film portrays the miraculous true account of angels coming to the rescue of frontier Latter-day Saint children. This is extremely moving and the perfect length for family home evening.
Gritty and understated, Redemption isn’t afraid to show the human flaws of 1800’s Utahns; some of them here are judgmental and downright spiteful towards a grave-robber who desecrated the resting places of their loved ones. What makes this true story so inspiring is its portrayal of a sheriff finding the humanity behind the criminal, and what the penitent prisoner teaches him about hope through Jesus Christ. A hit at both the Heartland Film Festival and the LDS Film Festival. Read my full review.
Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in couples’ therapy and singles guidance (www.jdeckertherapy.com). He reviews Hollywood films from an LDS perspective at www.mormonmovieguy.com and hosts a segment on classic and overlooked cinema on The KJZZ Movie Show. His book, 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families, is <a href="https://www.
amazon.com/dp/1462112188/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_til?tag=morm03-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=1462112188&adid=0S6FTYV0BQMP6QEB76N0″>now available for pre-order. To learn more about the book, please visit www.moviesformormons.com.