SALT LAKE CITY — Filmmaker T.C. Christensen can't wait for audiences to see his new movie, "The Fighting Preacher."
In 1915, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked a middleweight boxing champion and his wife to occupy and keep up the newly acquired Joseph Smith family farm near Palmyra, New York, in a community full of negative feelings toward the Latter-day Saint faith.
"This is the best church history story you've never heard of. Actually, that would be the headline," Christensen said with a laugh. "It's entertaining and it has a lot of good messages. There is great conflict, which is the essence of drama. This film has it."
"The Fighting Preacher," filmed in various locations around Utah, is the latest cinema production by Christensen, who in recent years directed "17 Miracles," "Ephraim's Rescue," "The Cokeville Miracle" and "Love, Kennedy."
This film tells the true story of Willard and Rebecca Bean and their call by President Joseph F. Smith to care for a historic site where many significant church history events occurred.
The Beans, played by Dave McConnell and Cassidy Hubert, originally planned to serve in Palmyra for five years but ended up staying for about 25 years, one of the longest missions in church history, Christensen said.
In the process the couple used ministering to win over a community that was hostile towards Latter-day Saints.
The trailer for "The Fighting Preacher" was released this week.
The film opens on Pioneer Day, July 24.
"When we think of pioneers, we automatically imagine church members traveling westward across the plains," Christensen said. "Although the Beans went the opposite direction, traveling back east to the roots of the church, their pioneering spirit is no less captivating. They faced hostility and hatred, which still lingered in Palmyra, long after Joseph Smith and his followers were driven from the area. … The people were just awful to them."
One of the film's compelling elements is Willard Bean's background as a boxing champion. When the Beans weren't kindly welcomed into the upstate New York community, Willard began challenging his new neighbors to step into the ring, giving new meaning to the phrase on the movie poster, "He believed in the laying on of hands."
All boxing scenes were shot in the last two days of filming so if McConnell got "smashed in the face or whatever, we still got our film," Christensen joked.
"I had several people when they heard I was doing this say they hope the boxing doesn't look fake. But after seeing the previews, I think we did good. It comes off like they're really hitting each other," said Christensen, who had previously produced a commercial that involved boxing. "There were a couple of times where we had to say cut because our actors were going 'Wait, wait, ouch.'"
Despite his prowess in the ring, Bean soon learned that his boxing gloves weren't winning any friends for the church, giving way to lessons in service and tolerance, Christensen said.
"We show early in the film, people come up and start bugging him and he’d smack them in the face," Christensen said. "He had a little to learn that’s not the Christlike way. … By the time they came home after 25 years they had flipped the town around and they loved them."10 comments on this story
Christensen was first introduced to the story through the book, "A Lion and a Lamb," by Rand Packer, about eight years ago. He liked it but foresaw challenges in how to tell the story on the big screen. Christensen set it aside and continued making other films.
When people continued to push the idea, Christensen read the book again and with a little midnight inspiration, figured out how to make it work, he said.
"I'm laying there in bed one night thinking, 'What am I missing?' and I got like two ideas," Christensen said. "I was so excited to get up the next morning and start putting that down. Then it worked for me. Here we are two years later and we're finished. Hopefully we can get some celebration for what the Beans did in 1915."