Academic journal article Afterimage

Latter-Day Screens: A History of Mormons and the Movies

Academic journal article Afterimage

Latter-Day Screens: A History of Mormons and the Movies

Article excerpt

Demographically outnumbered by Catholics, Baptists, and United Methodists, (1) and internally fragmented into nearly fifty denominations, (2) followers of Mormonism, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, or "the Church"), (3) might be said to exert more direct media influence than any other religious group in the United States. One significant measure of Mormonism's new self-confidence and continuing cinematic savvy appears in the emergence of indie films specifically targeted at a LDS audience, with significant crossover potential as well.

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The broader implications of these developments lie in the stereotyping of Mormons as white, conservative Christian others; a secret kingdom of repressed violence and incestuous sexuality living in the heart of Middle America. Such otherness has clearly characterized the history of Mormonism since its founder Joseph Smith Jr. claimed to have divinely received and translated The Book of Mormon in 1830. The subsequent persecution of Smith and his followers reached its zenith in the Missouri governor's official "Order of Extermination" in 1838 and Smith's subsequent violent death at the hands of a mob, the invasive Utah War of 1857-58, and two decades of Congressional anti-polygamy legislation that precipitated Church bankruptcy upon passage of the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act. (4) Whatever the theological differences between Mormonism and mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations, LDS otherness appears to have been defined around specific points of cultural negotiation and contention. Mormons have been simultaneously feared and envied on the basis of a perceived sense of group cohesion extending to the point of tribal and even conspiratorial tightness.

Among the earliest Hollywood films, explicitly anti-Mormon themes and titles coincided with a rising tide of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic bias that found another counterpart in stricter Jim Crow laws and institutionalized lynching in the Southern U.S. Furthermore, Utah was not formally admitted into the Union until 1896, six years after LDS President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto that renounced plural marriage "for the current dispensation." (5) Popular magazines still discussed "The Mormon Problem"--specifically migration into Mexico in numbers sufficient enough to possibly justify the establishment of an independent LDS state that could legalize polygamy. (6)

Moreover, the literary precedents for anti-Mormonism had already been set by Robert Louis Stevenson's short novel The Dynamiter (1885) and the first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes murder mysteries, "A Study in Scarlet" (1887). The popular western writer Zane Grey's 1912 novel Riders of the Purple Sage was so full of references to Mormon sexual bondage and political ambition that Church President Heber J. Grant denounced it publicly. In 1912 American producers released a Danish feature titled A Victim of the Mormons, (1910, by the Nordisk Film Kompagni) which had done well in Britain. Despite official LDS protests the film was quickly followed by The Mountain Meadows Massacre (1912), which referenced the 1857 Church-ordered or inspired butchery of some 120 disarmed men, women, and children passing through Utah on their way to California. The commercial success of both movies inspired a trend that went on to include The Danites (1912, by Francis Boggs), The Mormon (1912, by Allan Duran), A Mormon Maid (1917, by Robert Z. Leonard), and a film version of Riders of the Purple Sage (1918, by Frank Lloyd). One of the last, silent examples of the genre, Trapped by the Mormons (1922, by H.B. Parkinson) was a British production that has been recently remade in a campy version by Cherry Red Productions titled Trapped by the Mormons (2004, by Ian Allen). Mormon film historians have credited this rash of cinematic propaganda to "heightened sensitivity to the potential of film for reaching, educating and influencing vast audiences," (7) to the point where Church authorities openly discussed the issue at their 1912 general conference. …

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