SANDY, Utah — Minutes before last week’s movie premiere of “17 Miracles,” two strangers met in the Jordan Commons lobby, discovered a unique connection and became instant friends.
It was one of many special moments to come that night for those going to see T.C. Christensen’s new pioneer film.
One of the men was Jasen Wade, the actor who plays Levi Savage, the lead character in the movie. Wade smiled warmly as he was introduced to Kirk McMullin, Savage’s great-great-grandson.
Levi Savage, a Mormon’s Mormon, was a member of the Willie Handcart Company that crossed the plains in 1856. Early on in the Western trek, he told the company he feared that leaving so late in the season would lead to suffering and death. Despite being called to repentance, he humbly remained with the company and never complained. The movie depicts Savage as a valiant Mormon pioneer.
Wade said it was an honor to meet a member of the Savage family, but he was also sincerely nervous.
“If family members think I did a poor job portraying him, that’s going to break my heart,” the actor said.
“I can imagine. Wait until my dad comes to see the movie,” McMullin teased.
Wade, playing along, added, “Oh, no. If he likes my performance, send him to me. But don’t tell me otherwise.”
The two men discussed the frontiersman’s legendary record keeping abilities. Wade, who has also kept a daily journal for 20 years, said Savage’s journals offered tremendous insight into his character. Wade auditioned for the part by acting out the scene where Savage asked the Saints to wait until spring to cross the plains.
Wade: “You couldn’t ask for a better part. He is such a hero. He is the real deal.”
McMullin: “So what intrigued you about the part?”
Wade: “It was his faith. He was amazing. He knew how to balance leadership with submissiveness. After I did that (audition) scene, I knew I had to play this guy because I knew I could learn so much from him. I like to learn from my characters. I probably learned more from Levi than anything in my life.”
McMullin: “That is good to hear.”
Wade: “It was amazing to meet you.”
McMullin: “This is good stuff. Thanks for doing it.”
The men shook hands and entered the theater just as the lights dimmed.
The next day, McMullin, the director of marketing and sales at the Deseret News, sang the movie’s praises and reflected on meeting the man who played the role of his great-great-grandfather.
“The movie was well done. T.C. Christensen did a phenomenal job. It was heart-wrenching but inspiring,” said McMullin, who took his son and two daughters to the show. “It was neat to make a connection with Jasen. I thought he did a phenomenal job. As a descendant, all you can do is read the journals, but to see it in the motion picture is pretty sobering. You get a sense of what it might have been like for him.”
McMullin’s favorite scene was the depiction of Savage being forthright with the Saints about the lateness of the season. Savage’s boldness and humility left McMullin in awe.
“The turmoil he went through. He could have said, ‘I’m outta here,’ but he never threw it back in their face,” McMullin said.
In addition to the inspiring story of Savage, experiencing the handcart miracles on the big screen triggered many tears and sniffles throughout the audience.
Natalie Blackman, who plays Sarah Franks in the film, thought that given the extreme circumstances, it was a miracle that more handcart pioneers didn’t die on the trail.
Emily Wadley, who plays the single mother (Elizabeth Panting) of two children, said she liked two miracles. The first miracle was when Louisa Mellor found a pie on the side of the trail and shared it with her distraught mother. Another miracle was when the Cunningham family thought their teenage daughter, Betsy, died during the frigid night. The family left Betsy on the side of the trail but returned hours later when her mother remembered the family had been promised in a blessing that every member would arrive in Zion.
“They called the Lord on his promise and it came to pass,” Wadley said.
Kenzie Stinger, a 15-year-old from Kaysville, Utah, played the role of Betsy Cunningham. Her mother, Kim, and five brothers also had roles in the film. Kim is a descendant of Nathan Tanner Porter, who traveled part of the way with the Willie company, then helped rescue them. Being Betsy opened Kenzie’s eyes to a new perspective. She described her experience as “inspiring” and “spiritual.”
“I only had to endure a little of laying in the snow. They had to do much more than that. I am thankful for what they did and all the things they went through,” Kenzie said. “It hit me that it’s a true story, it actually happened, and the Lord can really perform miracles for us.”
For more on “17 Miracles,” visit 17miracles.com.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company