Many, many movies over the past 100-plus years have included characters described as Mormons, ranging from villains to punch lines. But it's only been 11 years now that we've had what is referred to as "Mormon cinema" — that is, theatrical features by Mormons about Mormons and, generally speaking, for Mormons.
Oh, there had been a scattered few before ("Brigham," "The Great Brain," "Plan 10 From Outer Space"), but the film that led to the past decade's prolific Mormon-cinema movement arrived in 2000: "God's Army," Richard Dutcher's comedy-drama set within the missionary program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a very well-made movie that belied its low budget with a witty script, nice performances and slick production values.
"God's Army" was so good — and so profitable — that it gave others the impetus to make their own Mormon movies, and the results cross nearly every genre, from comedies ("The Singles Ward") to tragedies ("Charly") to melodramas ("One Good Man") to fantasies ("Return With Honor") to faux documentaries ("The Work and the Story") — and, of course, further explorations of serving an LDS mission ("The Best Two Years").
Some broach Mormonism subtly ("Saints and Soldiers"), some are heavy-handed ("Day of Defense") and some are just embarrassing ("The Home Teachers").
But few are set in the past to explore Mormon history, and with good reason. It's difficult at best to pull together a film that requires period detail — from speech patterns to costumes to hairstyles to buildings and furnishings — even if you have rich Hollywood resources.
Doing so with the modest budget and short shooting schedule afforded most Mormon filmmakers just makes it all the more difficult. Add to that working with children and animals, and it can be a director's nightmare.
Some have braved these difficulties with decidedly mixed results: "Handcart," the "Work and the Glory" trilogy, "The Book of Mormon Movie, Vol. 1: The Journey," "Emma Smith: My Story" and the current "Joseph Smith: Volume 1, Plates of Gold."
And what is arguably the best of these, "17 Miracles," which played in local theaters for three months and will be released to home video on Tuesday (Excel, 2011, PG, $24.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray), with deleted scenes, featurettes and an audio commentary.
T.C. Christensen has directed only a handful of features but he's been a well-respected cinematographer for more than two decades and has also churned out a healthy number of short films — many of them favorites in LDS meetinghouse libraries and members' homes.
Among them are the hilarious "Mouths of Babes," with kids saying the darndest things about church-related subjects, as well as the dramas "Only a Stonecutter," "Pioneer Miracle" and "Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story," all period pieces based on church history. Perhaps his most popular effort is "The Touch of the Master's Hand," adapted from the famous poem by Myra Brooks Welch.
But "17 Miracles," which he scripted, directed, co-produced and for which he was, of course, director of photography, is a real leap forward for Christensen, a masterful re-creation of events recorded during the respective Willie and Martin handcart companies' treks to Utah.
The interwoven stories are true, though events from the separate treks have been blended for the sake of a smooth, albeit episodic narrative. Many of the performers are not professional actors but you wouldn't know it, and Christensen called upon his considerable cinematographic skills for the gorgeous visuals.
I've been hesitant to write about this film since I know Christensen personally, and, at his request, I read the script and gave him some — very minor — notes well before he made the movie. (My name, to my surprise, is included in the end credits as one of 15 "Script Consultants," though I don't believe I contributed anything noteworthy.)
With that disclosure, I acknowledge some prejudice to be favorable. But I make no apology.
In my assessment of the Mormon cinema oeuvre, "17 Miracles" ranks near the top.