Review: Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration

imageMonday I finally sat down and watched the hour-long film, Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration.

This is a motion picture created by the Church to provide an introduction to the life and legacy of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is a nice enough film, but I could wish for a few improvements.

Most of the ways this film differs from reality are artifacts of film. For example, some characters are composites, representing a large number of individuals. When it comes to family, we are only introduced to those individuals who play a part in the story that is being told. In other cases, the opposition Joseph faced is simplified into terms that would resonate with us now, based on the most popular of Joseph’s many re-tellings of the events of his past. And in all too many scenes, the space is simply too large, presumably because it would be hard to film action in the actual tiny spaces involved, such as Liberty Jail.

After Joseph’s first vision in 1820, Joseph is shown being harangued for apparently having told people about his vision. However it was not unusual in those days for folks to have visions. It was his recounting God’s assessment of existing Churches that produced the hostility.

I felt the portrayal of the courtship between Joseph and Emma included way too much mushy stuff. Interestingly, this romanticizing of their relationship plays into the idea that Joseph was quite the romancer, leading credence to the idea that he might have been similarly romancing women later in his life.

I was upset to see this movie again portraying Joseph translating directly from the plates, without using the Urim & Thummim or the seer stone. People (other than folks who make it look like Joseph is throwing up into a hat) need to find a way to portray the documented manner of ‘translation.’ To introduce this for the first time in this film as a faith-promoting depiction of the recorded manner of translation would have been really cool.

The movie skates through the Kirtland period very quickly. If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t be aware that it was a combination of economic downturn and Oliver Cowdery’s apostasy that primarily tore apart the Mormon community in Ohio. Interestingly, this makes Joseph look a bit silly for leaving relatively calm Kirtland once we learn about the horrors of Missouri.

The film does nothing to mention the role some Mormons (not Joseph) initially played in the acerbic rhetoric. I would have liked to see a show of this internal tension, which would have shown Joseph’s wisdom in calming the rhetoric, and ironically being the one to pay the price for the hostile environment initially caused by the strident statements of Sidney Rigdon and Danites. Haun’s Mill depicts lots of dead bodies on the ground, but none of the rapes. They tone down the language the mob actually used when talking about shooting the kids.

There is absolutely no mention of polygamy or of Dr. John C. Bennett. This is likely the most irritating thing for folks who are aware of the history. In a future variation of this film, I would love to see Dr. Bennett introduced, then intone the words about many being called but few chosen, followed by scenes implying Bennett is helping himself to sex in exchange for food, then railing against Joseph. We could have one of the iconic women from the Haun’s Mill scene coming forward Emma, telling her of what Bennett had taught. At the same time, I would be interested in seeing a scene where Joseph is sealed (say to Louisa Beaman) and then we follow them into the bedroom, where Joseph explains to Louisa about the doctrine, but letting her know that he daren’t betray Emma’s trust lest he lose her in heaven.

The film shows Jane Manning and members of her family. But we do not learn that Emma wished Jane to be sealed to them. This is also out of context, as Jane and her band of black converts wouldn’t arrive in Nauvoo until late in the fall of 1843. I suppose they wanted us to recognize Jane when they would cut to her later in the movie.

This movie doesn’t show Eliza Snow. There is no Relief Society. All the men working on the temple are wearing sturdy clothing.

They don’t show the 1840 mob attack on Nauvoo, they don’t show Joseph’s abduction in 1841, they don’t indicate Joseph had to go into hiding several times, most particularly 1842. They show us Joseph getting banged around in what is supposed to be the arrest at Inlet Grove in 1843. But the level of violence is appropriate for very young audiences. The rescue attempt is a modest horse chase. They do highlight the fact that Joseph invited the deputies to be his guests of honor, but given that there was hardly any violence implied, this invitation seems a bit more triumphalist than turning the other cheek.

Next we see Hyrum reading a note that the Governor has demanded Joseph and Hyrum surrender themselves into custody. There is no indication of the reason for the tensions. There is no Expositor, no opposition faction. I personally think this was a lost opportunity, in a Church which is emphasizing the need to support the prophet.

Throughout the film Emma is shown as a silent support, the good little woman suffering (and looking mighty pretty doing so). She is not a figure of power. Ironically, I think the movie gets it right that Joseph was entirely devoted to Emma. However for those who know about polygamy and don’t believe Joseph rarely (if ever) consummated his plural marriages, this characterization will feel completely false and manipulative.

As Joseph and Hyrum ride out of town, we see Jane Manning gazing on in concern. However Jane Manning had been evacuated by the time Joseph and Hyrum had to give themselves up to authorities. I think they could have alluded to the panic and fear, and shown Jane’s reaction upon learning of Joseph’s death to better effect that the scene shown of her looking on with concern.

We see Joseph and the others at Carthage. The mob storms up the stairs, and the Mormons in the upper room attempt to hold the door closed with their bodies. We see Hyrum get shot in the face, but there is no indication of the killing shot that came from outside the jail. Joseph looks toward the window, which is shown as being shattered by bullets from outside. The sky grows bright and fills the screen. Type on the screen tells us Joseph and Hyrum were killed.

I think an ending that showed Brigham’s leadership taking the Saints to the west, along with Mother Smith deciding to stay with a mourning Emma could have shown a common history that the two major Mormon traditions could respect. Having Mother Lucy addressing a crowd and telling them she agreed with the westward flight, while simultaneously announcing her determination to stay in Nauvoo was just a bit weird. I suppose telling the story from Lucy’s viewpoint and having her be narrator is intended to show that this is not a patriarchal version of the history. But in that case, I would have hoped for a version of the story that was actually closer to what Lucy wrote in her history of Joseph and portions of the history that involved Lucy. For example, I believe when Jane Manning was struggling with whether to accept the offer of being sealed to Joseph and Emma as a daughter, she talked with Mother Smith (Lucy).

This movie could well be entered as evidence in a case that Mormons are taught of a nearly perfect, infallible Joseph who didn’t have plural wives, but adored his sweet Emma to the end of his life. Yet minor additions to this film would make this a powerful vehicle for promulgating more correct historical information, which would simultaneously support the Church’s desire to impress upon individuals why it is desirable for members of the Church to avoid evil and criticism.

I wonder if the screen play to this movie is available. In any case, it would be fun to put together a screen play for a version of this story that would be similarly faith promoting, while reflecting much more of the true history.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

11 thoughts on “Review: Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration

  1. Sorry for stomping on Bruce’s post about John Dehlin. Actually, I thought mine got shoved in earlier, leaving Bruce’s post as the one casual visitors would see when browsing to M* today…

  2. Yeah, it’s not the most historically accurate film that’s been made. Granted, they were trying to keep it to an hour, and that’s a lot to fit in. Maybe they should have made a director’s cut.

    The Emma Smith movie uses a lot of the same footage and is a tiny bit better with the history (only a tiny bit–they mention polygamy once, said it was hard, and the movie goes on).

    Even though I’m a historian, I do like both of the films, though.

  3. I didn’t hate the film, but it’s like when I watch films that are ostensibly set in Washington DC or other locales I am familiar with. You’ll see chases filmed against great backdrops with no consideration of the fact that those locations are not even close to one another.

    Similarly, this film, particularly at the end, was giving me whiplash, due to my knowledge of the detailed timeline of events. And of course a lot was eliminated that could have/should have been included.

  4. Yes, there are some glaring omissions from this movie. However, if you have ever watched Emma Smith: My Story, you will see some of these things as it was the same production that produced both movies at the same time. In Emma, there is mention made of Joseph’s polygamy, even if it was brief, but it’s there.

    I have to say the point of this movie is for proselyting purposes and to help people who are being introduced to the church for the first time get a broad exposure to Joseph Smith. Yes, for someone like you and I, there could be more facts and details not omitted, but I would challenge whether we as long time members are the target audience of this film.

    I struggle with the idea as much as you might for the same reasons. Joseph Smith or any other leader of our church, should be looked at like an infallible ‘tall-tale’ figure without flaws. I would appreciate a more authentic approach to Joseph’s story. I can’t imagine the church feeling comfortable addressing some of those details as you laid them out. It would do good to emphasize however, the importance of getting the facts from reliable sources in case we’re interested in learning more. This movie is 5-7 years old (?) and a great deal has changed just in that time period that make the movie almost irrelevant in some ways.

    Just a couple of thoughts.

  5. Watched Emma Smith: My Story. Hooray for Amazon Prime…

    It was much, much better done. However it could have been so much better.

    For example, in the scene where Joseph asks Emma about the wall, it would have been completely possible for them to show him with hat in hand, as he peers around the cloth to ask Emma whether there was really a wall around Jerusalem. That would have been subtle, and could have begun to introduce the idea of the documented manner by which Joseph translated much if not all of the Book of Mormon.

    The Emma movie soft-pedaled the anger with which Isaac Hale rejected Joseph, demanding that Emma choose between Joseph and her family, telling her that he’d rather see her dead than leave with Joseph.

    I would have liked to see the 1831 revelation on plural marriage mentioned, showing how Joseph rejected obeying for years.

    In Kirtland, the Emma movie did show the background of dissent, but it would have been trivial to add Emma’s freak out about Fanny. Given that the historical Emma maintained that she was Joseph’s only wife, it would not be a stretch to assert that Fanny and Joseph hadn’t been banging away, as so many presume they must have been. But introducing this would set up the reason for Missouri (Oliver’s opposition, the rhetoric of those who were saying Oliver must be punished).

    In Nauvoo, it would have been easy to show the mob attack on the Holmes cabin, an attack on a mother and her baby just a block away from the Smith cabin. The actual death of Emma’s friend would have been more powerful than a couple of guys leering at Emma and hinting at violence.

    Again, introducing Bennett and showing Emma’s distrust and her actions as part of the Relief Society to thwart the evil would have been amazing. And when they showed Relief Society being formed, it would have been entirely possible to show Joseph turning things over to the women and Sarah Cleveland nominating Emma.

    Having introduced Bennett, it would have then been possible to show that Bennett’s acolytes were the specific men plotting Joseph’s death.

    I would have liked a bit of a nod to the valid reasons Emma remained near Joseph’s body, in the company of those Joseph had borrowed from.

    One last, major nit is the fact that Emma never acknowledged to Julia that she wasn’t Emma’s biological daughter, as far as I’ve been able to determine. Julia had been told as a child that she was Joseph’s love child, an accusation that hurt Julia badly. Long after Joseph died, Julia did correspond with her actual father, Brother Murdock. But this correspondence between Julia and Murdock was kept entirely secret from Emma (again, as far as I’ve been able to determine).

    I would have liked to see the myriad additional women in Emma’s life be a part of a movie about Emma. They keep showing Emma alone, struggling to raise her children without Joseph’s help. In fact, it was more often that Emma’s home was so full of people that she was living in a tent in the yard. There was no shortage of people around.

    Anyway, I am like the proverbial person who has read the book, and therefore can’t be satisfied with the movie. But the Emma movie was loads better than the Joseph movie.

  6. The movie you’d like to see would be interesting but wouldn’t be a church produced one aimed at disneyesque audiences. 10-12 year (heck most age members!) olds don’t need to see a member of the first presidency sexually abusing trusting female members, neither implied nor otherwise.

    I tend to wonder what is the point of it all, if we aren’t going to portray the facts as we understand them… But the big again, it’s impossible to do so in a movie that of this scope anyway as you have to cut things out. Striving for balance in mixing the good with the bad would of necessity cause some good to be cut. Once you’re making editing decisions, the question would always be why cut this good in order to show more of that bad.

    I’d love to ready your version of the ideal script. Maybe a Mormon wiki version that historians can contribute to and then we Kickstart it 🙂

  7. Hi Dq,

    I didn’t say that the movie would be produced by the Church. Though in fact I think that as we become more familiar with our history, this could well be a version that some future Church media group would be willing to produce.

    I think this may be part of why Richard Dutcher got soured on the Church, because his attempts to make a more historically accurate film (as he would have perceived it at the time) was supported neither by the Church nor by well-heeled donors. There is another recent project relating to Joseph’s life that might be similarly hampered in receiving funding (or not).

    I think the way the film I envision gets made is based on a successful novel (not history, as too much was left unrecorded), a novel that sufficiently interests everyone (how power can corrupt and the treachery of former friends) that regular movie studios are enticed to take the project on.

    Even a small movie costs millions of dollars. I wouldn’t imagine that’s something I’d want to try to fund with Kickstarter.

  8. The Church has so many unique stories from its history that would make amazing Legacy Theater movies. One story that would resonate is Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s mission through post-war Europe. The story of the Mormon Battalion would also be good.

  9. One of the fun stories I learned about has to do with the company that ended up staying with Sutter for the winter, during which time they found gold.

    When they left Sutter’s Mill, the three leaders went ahead, but never returned. Days later, the company forged ahead, eventually finding the bodies of their three leaders at a spring, which was named Tragedy Spring. Many of the diaries from that company mention helping Jonathan Harriman Holmes with his wagon, fixing a broken wheel. No one mentions burying the bodies. Yet a massive cairn was erected to protect the bodies, a cairn that is still there. I believe “fixing Bro. Holmes’ wagon wheel” was code for burying the bodies.

    The members of the company met in council and elected Brother Holmes to be their leader. Bro. Holmes immediately appointed a military man (Thompson) to be the other leader of the company. The Holmes-Thompson Company proceeded to forge a wagon trail across the Sierra Nevada mountains, a trail that would be used later that year as the first of the forty-niners made their way to Sutter’s Mill and the California gold fields. In time tens of thousands of hopefuls would traverse the trail created by the Holmes-Thompson Company.

    Jonathan Holmes released the married men several days before the main company was to arrive in Salt Lake Valley. But he himself remained with the company until all arrived in the valley.

    Once Holmes arrived, he was greeted by his wife, one of Joseph’s widows. His daughter ran away, crying that this emaciated scraggly man couldn’t possibly be her father. Holmes also learned that the baby girl he’d kissed goodbye at Winter Quarters had died there. The day his baby girl died, Holmes had recorded in his journal feeling ill, though no cause was recorded. The only other complaint in the entire journal was a time Holmes had been tossed on his head by a mule. It is therefore not unreasonable to suspect that he felt ill because somehow he had felt his family’s pain, even though he was separated from them by more than a thousand miles.

    A final gracenote to the Holmes story occurred a few years later. A set of orphans was left in Farmington by a wagon train passing through on its way to California. One of the children was roughly the same age the little baby would have been if she hadn’t died at Winter Quarters. But when Holmes went to ask if he could care for the child, someone else had already taken the child in.

    So Holmes went back home and fetched the mule he’d earned as part of his service in the Mormon Battalion. He took the mule to the other family and asked if he might have the privilege of caring for the child, offering the mule to show how much he desired the privilege. Thus the hole in the family created by the death of one child was filled via adoption.

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