On-Screen: Filming the Book of Mormon

Last Saturday, at the AML Annual meeting, we had the privilege of seeing a public screening of Corianton, probably the first Mormon feature film.  Based on the play by Orestes Utah Bean (if there were ever a perfect name for a Mormon playwright, it would be Orestes Utah Bean), the film was produced in 1931 by Lester Park, who, as it happens, is also Orson Scott Card’s grandfather.  It was long thought that no prints of Corianton existed, but the Card family did have one, and it’s now been digitally restored and can be seen at the BYU library.  James D’Arc, who oversaw the restoration, was kind enough to allow AML members to see the film.  It’s a corker.  Of course, it’s old fashioned to our eyes; reminiscient of the early silent Bible epics of Cecil B. DeMille, in particular his 1923 Ten Commandments.  The acting style is one we make fun of today–everyone in the film sounds like Margaret Dumont (Groucho Marx’s comic foil), and they do blather on.  And the film really has alarming amounts of skin.  Of course, the story of Corianton is also the story of his seduction by the harlot Isabel, which in the film is accomplished with the aid of numerous half-naked dancing girls, cavorting about in what appears to be a 1931 attempt to capture Native American dance. 

The Book of Mormon narrative is structured in what would have been the conventional way sand-and-sandal epics were structured in the day–as melodrama. So Corianton has to defeat the bad guy in combat, not just through moral suasion, and although Isabel repents, she was actually naughty first, and must therefore die.  The bad guy, Seantum, is played by this enormous hunk of Russian beefcake, who wears an alarming thigh length tunic and plenty of bling; he represents “the rich”, who oppose Corianton because his mission is reducing their power over the poor.  In other words, the actual Book of Mormon text vanishes, superceded by the dominant melodramatic text of the thirties, which is itself given a superficial class warfare gloss, again reflecting the times in which it was made.  This is best seen, of course, in the character of Isabel herself. Of course, the  Book of Mormon tells us next to nothing about this woman, but the Book of Mormon is filled with characters who sin in very serious ways, repent, and become great leaders, prophets or even just ordinary, productive citizens. Surely a dominant theme of the entire Book of Mormon is the possibility–even the necessity–of genuine repentance.  But in the world of stage and film melodrama, Isabel’s repentance must be followed by her death–I literally cannot think of a single melodramatic text in which a fallen woman, no matter how sincere her repentance, doesn’t die.  So Corianton emerges as a film that uses Book of Mormon settings and characters and situations to tell a story that’s essentially at odds with the ideas which the Book is primarily concerned.

Which is not to say the Book of Mormon doesn’t have its moments of melodrama.  Good guys/bad guys, confrontations between morally polarized forces, fight scenes–a lot of the conventions of melodrama can be seen.  I think it gets more complex than that–there are surely heroic Lamanites and evil Nephites and morally complex characters–my personal favorite’s Teancum, sort of the Book of Mormon’s answer to the Joab of 1 Samuel.  A kind of scriptural Luca Brasi, if you will.  Anyway, there’s no danger of moral or narrative complexity marring The Book of Mormon Movie, Gary Rogers 2003 film version of 1 Nephi, which again reduces the scriptural text to something much more simple minded.  Again, the model is DeMille, but this time, it’s the later DeMille, of the 1956 Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments. Rogers’ film attempts an aesthetic that his budget won’t allow him to fulfill–DeMille’s film sort of reminds me of the line addled old Richard Attenborough keeps repeating in Jurassic Park ‘we spared no expense!’  Rogers probably shouldn’t be blamed for trying to make a big movie on a small budget, though I did get the giggles when Lehi’s family makes camp, and you see these mammoth, sumptous tents, which had to have been carried on the backs of the family’s three camels.  Well, okay, he could only afford three camels, fair enough.  The problem with the Book of Mormon Movie is how simple-minded it is.  Lehi is the biggest casualty–instead of the sophisticated, intelligent man capable of the sermon we read in 2 Nephi 2-4, we get this old nut wandering through Jerusalem going ‘you must repent!  Jerusalem will be destroyed!’ Bryce Chamberlain plays Lehi, and he can be a wonderful actor, but in the film he really does come across as crazy.

A more responsible and interesting approach to filming the Book of Mormon can be seen with Chris Heimerdinger’s 2009 film, Passage to Zerahemla.  I wouldn’t say that in this film the Book of Mormon text is superceded by a sci-fi text, so much as two kinds of texts clumsily mashed together.  But the first third of the film is quite good; the biggest problem with the film has to do with our suspension of disbelief.  I suspect that those who are willing to give themselves to it, the film might work pretty well.  And suspending our disbelief shouldn’t be that hard to do–we’ve surely all seen Star Trek episodes equally implausible.  So it’s either an unwatchably silly film, or quite an interesting sci-fi gloss on Book of Mormon themes. Either way, it starts out quite engagingly.

Kerra (Summer Naomi Smart) is a tough young woman, living in LA with her 11 year old brother, Brock (Brian Kary).  Her father disappeared on a hunting trip years earlier–her mother has just died.  And Brock’s a piece of work–given to boosting cars, and in league with an LA street gang.  He’s also ended up with a bag full of gang loot.  The two kids are about to be put into The System; they escape, stealing their case worker’s car, and head off to a small town in Southern Utah, where their aunt and uncle live.  Smart and Kary are both very good, and the scenes in Utah, with Aunt Corinne (Jan Broberg), and Uncle Drew (Bruce Newbold), are very effecting.  Bryce Chamberlain’s in this too, playing Kerra’s Grandpa Lee, who introduces her to the Book of Mormon.  Okay, but then an earthquake opens up some kind of rift in the time-space continuum, and Kerra meets her now grown-up childhood imaginary (or is he?) friend, Kiddoni (Moronai Kanekoa).  He’s a Nephite guard, watching a forlorn wasteland in the remote chance that an army of Gadiantons might invade.  Turns out Kerra and Kiddoni can visit each other worlds, and the Gadiantons are indeed on their way, and can also cross over.  They’re holding a prisoner, who turns out to be Kerra’s father.  Meanwhile, in reality world, Brock’s former gangbanger buddies have showed up wanting their money back.  It all gets very complicated, with lots of fights and escapes and last minute rescues.  Of course the movie suggests an equivalency between modern street gangs and Gadianton robbers, and of course both kinds of baddies terrorize the good folks.

Where the movie lost me was in the way Nephites and Gadiantonites, once crossed over, can both speak American English.  The rules of the time/space continuum seem to shift and change according to plot necessities and the Gadiantonites are costumed straight from Hollywood Indian central casting.  And from time to time, in case we missed the point, the movie underscores the action with a soft pop song telling us what we’ve just been watching all means.  And the movie shifts tone a bit too abruptly.  One scene struck me as particularly peculiar.  The Gadianton guys walk right down the mainstreet of this Southern Utah town.  A child is playing with a remote control car, which one of the Gadiantons kills with a spear and a sneer.  They rob a convenience store, and escape in a stolen car.  At one point, an old woman, sitting in her yard in a rocking chair–straight from a David Lynch film–laughs maniacally at them.  The Gadiantons, in other words, take this modern US small town way too much in stride–I would have expected a ton more cultural shock.  As for the small town, well, I’ve got family from Southern Utah.  You get four dangerous looking guys in Indian costumes walking down the street terrorizing children, and there’s a line of dialogue, I guarantee, you would hear: “Velma, get me my gun.”  The ratio of citizens to armed citizens in Southern Utah is essentially 1-1: these guys would face lead.

So there were problems.  Still, when the film works, it really works.  And although I didn’t buy the premise, I imagine a lot of audience members would, and would enjoy the film a great deal.  The film does illuminate the Book of Mormon, a little–it says that our gangbangers are more or less like Gadianton robbers.  I disagree, as it happens–I do think we have Gadianton robbers in our midst, but I think they wear suits and worked for Lehman brothers and AIG.  But that’s maybe harder to put into a movie.  What I do admire about Heimerdinger’s film is that it really is a genuine attempt to do something new, something different, with the stories and themes and ideas of the Book of Mormon.  It’s a film that takes huge risks, and if they don’t always pay off, that’s still really awesome.  It’s well acted, well filmed, well edited.  If it didn’t completely work for me, I can still look at what it was trying to do in some amazement.  And don’t we want that from Mormon art: risk-taking, daring, imagination, fearlessness?  I think so, at least.

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7 Responses to On-Screen: Filming the Book of Mormon

  1. Th. says:

    .

    Until the recent LDSPublisher contest, I had never really been interested in Book of Mormon storytelling. For one thing, issues of veracity are impossible to satisfactorily hack through (which is why I ignore them: I just don’t [i]care[/i] where Zarahemla was). And for another, as you imply, Mormon just didn’t intend for his book to be read as a bedtime story. (That said, a FARMS article c.1999 about how the Maori read the BofM as [i]story[/i] and not as a list of memorizable verses opened the book up to me in a whole new way.)

    Anyway, the point I want to make is that good BofM stories are possible after all.

    (I want to see the Lehman Bros Gadiantons though. Are you up to that?)

  2. EricS says:

    I’ve been thinking about it. I wrote a Gadianton play years ago; maybe it’s time for a sequel: Korihor. It is interesting how the sub-prime mortgage fiasco impacted evangelical communities disproportionately. The Gospel of prosperity, a la Joel Osteen, gave Christians the idea that God wanted to reward their faithfulness. So: "i never thought i could afford a new house at all, let alone one as nice as this! Praise Jesus!" Caricature, sure, but it did happen. My problem is getting my head around all the financial stuff. And i have a couple of other plays I gotta write first.

  3. Darlene says:

    Oh yes, do write it, Eric, please. You of all people could do it right.

    (My favorite line from your post: "Velma, get my gun." I’ve given myself the challenge of using it in some appropriate context sometime this weekend.)

  4. EricS says:

    As in "I didn’t get into the BYU grad program. Velma, get my gun."

  5. Lee Allred says:

    Eric,

    I can’t thank you, AML, and James D’Arc enough for the screening of [i][b]Corianton[/b][/i]. A real treat.

    Corker is an apt description indeed. I have to admit laughing as hard and as loud as anyone in the auditorium at what appear to our 2010 eyes to be real old fashioned howlers (my favorite was the lead looking right at the audience and telling us he knew there were people out there laughing at him).

    And yet, as I noted then, Lester Park’s epic wasn’t that far removed from the stilted acting, ham dialog, slow pacing, and unskillful shot editing of films from the same time period.

    A while back, they finally released one of my favorite John Ford movie, [i][b]When Willie Comes Home[/b][/i], on DVD. Unfortunately, or maybe fortuitously, the DVD is a double bill and comes with the 1930 John Ford film [i][b]Up the River[/b][/i].

    http://www.amazon.com/When-Willie-Comes-Marching-River/dp/B000WMA6H8/

    [i][b]Up the River [/b][/i]should be a sure-fire winner. It’s directed by John Ford and the script has all the big-hearted common man John Ford touches. It stars Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy, with CLare Luce as the love interest. Bogie’s a con about to get out of stir who wants to go straight and marry a feamle con who’s also getting out of the joint soon. Some hood’s looking to cause trouble and bust up this happy little plan, wanting Claire Luce to keep running the rackets for him. Spencer Tracy, a lifer, means to help Bogie out, so he and this other mug bust out of the joint just so they can stop the hood’s plan, then, that done, bust their way back in jail to make in time for the big prison baseball game (the other felons are counting on them to win the big game).

    Bogie. Tracy. John Ford. It oughta be dynamite.

    Instead, it’s just as big a wet firecracker as [i][b]Corianton[/b][/i]. Just as stilted. Just as badly paced. Just as badly dialogued.

    John Ford, Bogie, Tracy and the gang were just as much behind the curve trying to figure out the new technology of the talkies as our poor own Lester Park. If Lester had just waited maybe three more years, I think, Corianton might have been a pretty good flick.

    I think as much as anything else, Lester was a victim of the old Charles Fort misquotation: "It’s not time to railroad until it’s railroad-time."[i][b]*[/b][/i]

    I withhold comment on the 2003 film.

    – Lee

    [i][b]*[/b][/i] Actually what Fort wrote was:

    [quote]"If human thought is a growth, like all other growths, its logic is without foundation of its own, and is only the adjusting constructiveness of all other growing things. A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time." Charles Fort, Lo! (1931)[/quote]

  6. Davey says:

    Great article, Eric. "Corianton" is such a strange and interesting movie. I think my favorite part of "Passage to Zarahemla" was the Lamanites-breaking-toys stuff, like those bumbling Vikings who always seem to get stuck in the present, and then start inexplicably breaking everything and yelling. Hopefully Mel Gibson’s upcoming Viking movie with Leonardo DiCaprio will have lots of Viking-time-travel-breaking-stuff. If not, I’m out. "The Book of Mormon" movie makes me sad.

  7. Th. says:

    .

    Omigosh, The Book of Mormon Movie. What I hate most about that movie is that it presented one interesting idea in the first few minutes. Because of that one good idea, I suffered through the rest of the movie hoping for more. There were none.

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