Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration (review)
For kicks, I decided to pass the time during my lazy, uneventful day off by watching Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration, a church-sponsored film about the life of Joseph Smith. I found it on YouTube, split into five pieces, each with a description of the video containing a claim that it was a “documentary film.” And as I watched, I noticed lots of things that seemed…wrong.
Prophetgasm Instead of Plot
The film is supposed to be following the events of Joseph Smith’s life, but many of the events in the film are fictional–and if they are true, then they’re trivial. These scenes often perform double duty as both character development and comic relief. They show that Joseph was a really, really good person and it helps lighten the mood to see the protagonist playing with children instead of freezing in a cramped jail cell.
But those scenes mostly feel like the Mormon equivalent of fan service. Indoctrinated Mormons who already hold Joseph Smith as only second to Jesus as far as awesome people who have graced this earth will get to see a historical character they adore being charming, funny, but above all, virtuous. And they’ll eat it up and use it to reinforce their idealized, glorified perception of who Joseph Smith was.
The movie spends too much time on this and not enough time on the actual plot, so that the important historical events of Smith’s life seem disjointed and spontaneously generated. More time should have been devoted to explaining how these events developed.
Obnoxious, Stupid Preacher
I get the sense that the audience is supposed to assume a kind of mutual respect between Joseph and the preacher from his hometown. I think we’re supposed to see that Joseph looks up to him and that, more importantly, the preacher genuinely cares for Joseph and is concerned for his eternal welfare. Except that the script just makes the guy look like a complete prick.
One example: Joseph and the preacher are working together in a barn. The preacher earnestly informs him that revelation doesn’t happen anymore and he should stop talking about the vision he claims to have had. And then he walks away. Apparently this wasn’t a discussion or even an explanation. The preacher doesn’t open his Bible and say, “this is why you’re wrong.” He doesn’t give Joseph a chance to explain or ask questions. He just says, “Don’t talk about it anymore” and walks away. Okay, dick.
Even better is the scene when Joseph is by his brother Alvin’s grave, mourning his recent death. And the preacher walks up and reminds him none-too-gently that since Alvin wasn’t baptized, he’s “lost” and that Joseph should take care not to make the same mistake. And then, you guessed it, he wanders off. There was no hug, no “I’m terribly sorry for your loss,” advice on how to deal with the grief or honor the memory. There wasn’t even a respectful moment of silence. It was just a drive-by with a quick bullet to the heart and then he was gone. What a jerk.
The Perfect Couple
Joseph’s relationship with his wife Emma is sickeningly overplayed. There are a few of the happy-married-couple-lying-in-bed-together-discussing-life scenes. There are a lot of shots in the film in which the presence of a wedding ring on Joseph’s finger is made intentionally apparent. You get the sense, from watching this movie, that Joseph and Emma were inseparable, deeply in love, and the paradigm of a happily married couple in a healthy, traditional relationship. The fact that Joseph had a bunch of other wives never came up.
No Cause, Just Effect
Whenever this movie showed people who disliked Smith or the church, their opinions were not explored. The focus was more on the presence of their hatred than the reasoning for it. Perhaps since the film had already skipped historical events that would have painted Smith in a less-than favorable light, the writers couldn’t delve too deeply into his murderers’ motives while keeping Smith’s image untainted. So that meant we got some random backstabbing army asshole trying to get Joseph executed even though we don’t really understand why he’s so intent on the prophet’s demise.
I’m not saying that Smith’s murder was justified. I’m just saying that this is evidence of just how skewed and one-sided the film is. These people weren’t necessarily fueled by blind bigotry. The whole polygamy thing, Smith’s attempts to create his own society and garner governmental power, as well as the church’s tendency to draw converts away from their homes and roots could all understandably piss people off. But all you see in the film is unexplained hatred that, probably intentionally, makes all the bad guys look like idiots. It’s pro-Mormon propaganda at its worst.
In the film, Joseph was unarmed when he was murdered. But that’s not how it happened. He had a gun, and he used it. But he was defending himself. There’s nothing wrong with that. So portraying him without a gun only helps destroy the movie’s credibility.
Ugly Means Evil
Joseph and his buddies are trapped in the room in Carthage Jail, desperately trying to keep the door closed. They’re all good-looking, well-dressed and clean. Then the camera cuts to the mob outside the door, full of men with unruly beards, bad teeth, filthy clothes and dirt smeared on their skin. You know, just to reinforce the idea that people who storm jails to murder prisoners are bad, the filmmakers figured they’d make sure they lookedbad too. God forbid Joseph Smith’s murderer was better-looking than the prophet himself. What a shameless attempt to manipulate people’s perceptions.
And beyond the things about the movie that I simply disagree with, there’s plenty in there that can easily be interpreted to mean something the church did not intend:
The Church Draws In Vulnerable People
The noble side-story about the woman and her father traveling to meet Joseph is pathetic. The woman reads Joseph’s teaching that people who didn’t have the opportunity to receive the gospel in life but would have accepted it can be saved. She turns to her father and says that her mother would have accepted the gospel. Suddenly, the story stops being about a woman whose faith was strong enough to carry her thousands of miles from home and starts being about a woman whose grief was strong enough to carry her thousands of miles from home. She thought she’d never see her mother again and that made her vulnerable to Joseph Smith’s enticing lie.
Joseph Molded a Religion to Match His Needs
Smith suffered many losses of his own. Several children, his father and an idolized older brother all die during the course of the film. Especially based on Joseph’s reaction to his brother’s death, it seems that he created a religion that he wantedto be true. It spoke to his own fears. He wanted to see his brother again, and later he got “revelation” saying that he could. He was raised as a humble farm boy but started a religion that elevated him to a man of position, respect and reverence–God’s mouthpiece in the modern day. It seems suspicious that the church he started gave him assurances and results that he would have wanted for himself.
Mormons Kinda Do Worship Joseph Smith
This issue is directly addressed in the movie. Joseph has a discussion with a woman who claims that the Mormons worship him, and he sets the record straight for her–they don’t worship him, they just rely on him for the word of God. He’s just their fearless leader and divinely inspired prophet.
But let’s be honest–Mormons may not pray to Joseph Smith or consider him to be any kind of deity, but the way he’s discussed in church meetings puts him pretty damn high on the list of beings that Mormons care about. He may not be worshiped, but he’s held in nearly as high esteem as the things that are.
I don’t know why I bothered to watch that movie. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy getting mad about Mormonism sometimes. But I do find it hard to believe how blatantly, shamelessly, unabashedly, unapologetically one-sided it was. I remember when it came out. I hadn’t seen it, but I’d heard great things from those who had. It was heralded as a great film, a testimony-building experience. But that’s not what it is. It’s just propaganda by the Mormons for the Mormons. It’s at once laughable and despicable.
And that does not seem right to me.
Cross-posted from my blog Challenging Mormonism.
The Church re-edited the film a few years ago, so you’re lucky to have found the original release. The new cut is even worse; all side characters are *gone* and all that is left is a series of small vignettes strung together with a small acknowledgement of historical continuity. Now the film is “all Joseph all the time”. I’d be interested in your opinions on the new cut. The rumor mill goes that the new cut was made because the old film was causing confusion among non-members who wanted to know more about the fictional characters (thinking they were real) and weren’t as interested in Joseph Smith. You can watch the new cut at http://mormonchannel.org/joseph
One aspect of both versions that stuck out to me as a newly returned missionary was that each story presented in the films was only half-told. There was enough given to try and incite curiosity, but then the stories just dropped out. “This is about the promise of eternal families!” “This is about the temple!” “This is about tithing” and so on. It seemed to me that the hope was that non-Mormons would watch the film, fill out their comment cards, get missionaries in their home, and would then ask, “I was watching your movie about Joseph Smith, and I have a question…” ‘Well, that’s a good question, Sister So-and-so. If we turn in the Book of Mormon…” I wonder how often that ever actually happened…
I had heard there was another version, but I’d heard it was redone to make Joseph’s story less confusing to those who weren’t familiar with it. I kind of believed that claim since the events in the film were so disjointed and the historical references were cursory at best. Although I doubt either version ever really became useful as a missionary tool.
You’ve piqued my curiosity. I’ll definitely be checking the new version out. Thanks!
My husband watched this around the time that I left the church. He kept telling me to watch it, but at the time I was so angry about everything that I just couldn’t bear to. Maybe I will have to give it a look see.
In defense of the film (as effective pro-Mormon propaganda), I saw it when it was first released while I was at the MTC, and it actually served to subtly improve my image of Joseph Smith.
I didn’t know all the REALLY weird crap about Smith at that time, but even just the seminary basics had served to convince me that old Joe’s story was strange. I liked to bear testimony of the BoM and all that jazz, but J.S. was always uncomfortable for me.
Having this film showed to me helped temporarily quell my doubts about Smith, simply because it was a more positive view than I’d ever been able to conjure before.
Of course, the feel-good vibes from the movie were temporary and did no long-term convincing, but I just wanted to point out that as a young missionary with some repressed doubts, I ate this film up.
I didn’t know of the film before. The LDS church seems quite into making propaganda films, isn’t it? It seems the missionaries are always turning up with yet another DVD they ‘know’ I’d just love. :oP
I was interested by the title, tho. One of the misshies gave me a print out of Tad Callister (I think he’s a 70)’s essay by the same name once. I had no idea why, since I never brought up any problem I had with Joseph Smith’s character flaws (I had only been poking holes in the doctrines that they presented to me at discussions… ). Found the essay quite exasperating to read (he starts off downplaying JS’ character flaws as inconsequentials, never addressed any specific, and went on to shoot the messengers by character-assassinating anyone who mention them, before ending in more baseless faith-building pep talk… a lot of bangs and smoke, but no substance that I could detect).
I agree that the Mormons seem to worship Joe Smith, too. They would deny it. The misshies always know the ‘right’ thing to say, but I went to church with them 4 times, I think, and could cumulatively count on one hand the number of times Jesus was mention. It was always Joseph Smith this and Joseph Smith that that the testimony bearers went on and one about. That was one of the first things that tickled me about the Mormons, definitely one of their prevailing patterns: the end justifies the means, say one thing but do the opposite, appearance counts more than what you really feel, etc.