The Work And The Glory

on November 24, 2004 by Wade Major
It's a bit surprising that it's taken more than a dozen films and nearly five years for the nascent wave of Mormon independent cinema to get around to dealing with the faith's 19th-century roots. There is, after all, a wealth of dramatic material to be mined from the story of founding prophet Joseph Smith, his visions and persecutions. Based on the first of Gerald N. Lund's immensely popular series of novels, "The Work and the Glory" doesn't exactly tackle Smith's story head-on -- he and his family are only minor supporting characters here -- but rather offers an efficient and often credible, if overly sanitized, look at the time, place and circumstances in which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was born.

Financed by auto dealership magnate and owner of the Utah Jazz NBA franchise,Larry H. Miller, "The Work and the Glory" approaches Mormon history through the experiences of the Steeds, a fictitious Vermont family who, in 1826, relocates to upstate New York where they hope to earn a tranquil livelihood as farmers. What they encounter, however, is anything but tranquility, especially after they innocently enlist brothers Joseph and Hyrum Smith to help with some manual labor. Just being seen talking to the Smiths, it seems, is enough to earn the scorn of townsfolk for whom Joe Smith's reports of celestial visitations and ancient golden plates containing sacred scriptures akin to the Bible (the future "Book of Mormon") are nothing short of madness, if not outright blasphemy. But the Steed family isn't of one mind on such matters. Dad Benjamin (Sam Hennings) and oldest son Joshua (Eric Johnson) side with Smith's detractors, with rebellious Joshua going so far as to fall in with a rowdy band of ne'er-do-wells intent on snatching the golden plates as soon as Smith makes an attempt to unearth them. Younger son Nathan (Alexander Carroll) and his mother, Mary Ann (Brenda Strong of "Desperate Housewives") are more earnest and less swayed by social pressure. Smith's words and teachings genuinely move them, putting both on the fast track to conversion.

Of course, it can't ever end with just religious division -- there's always got to be a girl, in this case a local shopkeeper's daughter (Tiffany DuPont) who attracts the attention of both brothers, setting up an irreversible "East of Eden"-style family schism.

Writer/director Russ Holt last dealt with similar material in the hourlong 1987 public television special "How Rare A Possession: The Book of Mormon," detailing the true story of an early Italian convert to Mormonism. His approach then, as now, is unapologetically reverential, almost to the point of corniness. Many will draw immediate and not necessarily flattering comparisons to the aw-shucks homespun wholesomeness of '70s television standbys "The Waltons" and "Little House on the Prairie." But Holt and his colleagues aren't going for the crossover appeal sought by other Mormon filmmakers -- this is strictly for-the-choir fare, loaded with references and inferences that assume a working knowledge of Mormon culture and history. Differentiating the good guys from the bad is as simple as separating the boyish, clean-shaven lads with good teeth from the shaggy, dirty, unkempt rednecks. There are several rather on-the-nose dialogue exchanges clearly designed to softly evangelize any non-Mormons who may be watching, but for the most part, despite the abundance of period production value, this is still niche fare. Among the supporting parts, Jonathan Scarfe cuts a respectable Joseph Smith while Edward Albert makes a subtle, memorable impression as early Mormon convert and Book of Mormon scribe Martin Harris.

Whether other "The Work and the Glory" installments will follow remains to be seen. "Left Behind," the comparably popular evangelical book series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, has thus far only delivered two films out of a dozen books. "The Work and the Glory" series, by contrast, is just three behind at nine, clearly posing a similar challenge. But where there's a will, there's usually a way, especially when -- as is seemingly the case here -- money is no obstacle. Starring Sam Hennings, Alexander Carroll, Eric Johnson, Tiffany Dupont, Brenda Strong and Jonathan Scarfe. Directed and written by Russ Holt. Produced by Scott H. Swofford. An Excel release. Drama. Rated PG for mild thematic elements and violence. Running time: 110 min.

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