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New movie '17 Miracles' highlights handcart miracles

Martin, Willie companies' stories told with flair

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 9:06 a.m. MDT

Men of the handcart companies carry other members across the Sweetwater River in director T.C. Christensen's new film, Men of the handcart companies carry other members across the Sweetwater River in director T.C. Christensen's new film, "17 Miracles." (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group)

T.C. Christensen knows what audiences are thinking.

Though the basic story of the 1856 ill-fated Martin and Willie handcart companies is fairly well-known, a more personal perspective of the events and a more specific focus on miracles are what Christensen says separates his new movie "17 Miracles" apart from others.

"This is not a big, western spectacle with lots of landscapes," the director said. "I wanted to tell more private stories and get to know these people that ended up having, in most cases we deal with, this great miracle that happened in their family."

Nearly 1,000 pioneers made up the Martin and Willie companies that crossed the plains late in the season of 1856 and encountered harsh winter weather in Wyoming, delaying their journey to the Salt Lake Valley. Stranded in the deep snow with few supplies and hardly any food, many died and were buried in shallow graves. A rescue party with food and supplies saved the majority of the destitute pioneers. Today, these noble pioneers are revered for their faith and courage.

Family and friends gathered for a group burial on the trail. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group) Family and friends gathered for a group burial on the trail. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group)

Christensen's movie focuses on 17 of the many miracles experienced by families in the two handcart companies, some of which aren't widely known.

The film debuts in local theaters today.

The project started two years ago, when Christensen and producer Ron Tanner were intrigued by the famous rescue at the Sweetwater River. In the process of searching records, they came across many faith-promoting miracles that sparked the idea for a movie.

The film is built around the trail experience of Levi Savage (Jasen Wade), who marched with the Mormon Battalion and was recruited to help the handcart company as he was returning from a mission in Asia. Savage and others found the remains of the Donner Party, a sad fate he prayed wouldn't happen to the handcart companies. Savage's experiences, recorded in his journal, are used to weave the other stories together.

Jens Nielson (Tomas Kofod) lies sick in a handcart. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group) Jens Nielson (Tomas Kofod) lies sick in a handcart. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group)

Wade has kept a daily journal for 20 years and felt a connection to Savage. He was also inspired by Savage's faith and courage.

"There was something about his faith that made me realize it was something I needed to go through," Wade said. "I had a teacher once ask me, 'Where can you personally heal by doing this character?' The healing is in his faith and the strength of his character. I wanted that in my life."

Another actor, Travis Eberhard, was born with osteogenesis imperfecta. Eberhard plays the role of Albert, a boy with physical disabilities. Originally, he thought, "Oh, another pioneer story." But the more he read the script, the more fascinated he became with the handcart pioneers. He said the experience was both fun and demanding.

Women and children gathered together to stay warm during the harsh winter. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group) Women and children gathered together to stay warm during the harsh winter. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group)

"It was a challenge to do a British accent and walk with crutches, but I got to stretch myself and do some things I hadn't done," Eberhard said.

Christensen took some artistic license in producing the movie. He combined the two handcart companies into one, and some events are not told in chronological order. These subtle changes do not detract from the story's compelling elements.

"There is so much heroism between the handcart companies and rescuers, it creates what I look for in a story," Christensen said. "You got these people with a goal and dream who are taken down to the depths, everything goes wrong, they are starting to die, it's a terrible thing and then comes a rescue. But not only are they rescued, these people keep a good attitude, believe it's for their own good and they find something positive about it. I don't know how you find a better story than that."

Mothers carried children and young babies along the trail. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group) Mothers carried children and young babies along the trail. (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group)

Through his research for the film, Christensen met several descendants of the handcart pioneers and invited them to be in the movie. About 30 percent of the extras are descendants. Some flew in from different states and countries to be part of the movie.

Christensen has produced such LDS films as "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration," "Testaments," "Forever Strong," "The Work and the Glory" and "The Mouth of Babes." He hopes audiences leave the theater with an increased respect and reverence for the handcart pioneers and want to learn more about them.

"Hopefully they will learn things that will touch them even more deeply and affect their lives," Christensen said.

"17 Miracles is rated PG."

Director T.C. Christensen films a scene in his new movie, Director T.C. Christensen films a scene in his new movie, "17 Miracles." (Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group)

For more on Christensen, the cast and the film, visit 17miracles.com.

For information on the DVD or Blu-Ray, visit deseretbook.com

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