403 Forbidden

Nine Moons » Blog Archive : Based on Actual Events. No, Really. » Based on Actual Events. No, Really.

Based on Actual Events. No, Really.

David - June 22, 2010

Since Vincent Price fell out of the window 70 years ago, I’m thinking now is probably a good time to release another big-budget movie about Joseph Smith and the early Saints. The Church has been generating some copious ink these past few years, so I’ll bet in the right hands (Martin Scorcese?), a Hollywood production about the most complex story of 19th century America  would attract interest– if not at least set a firestorm across the ‘net. Or am I the only one who thinks this?

Hollywood was attracted to the 1940 Brigham Young project because it struck a familiar chord at that time. Wrote Davis Bitton:

By this time, the terrible persecution of Jews in Hitler’s Germany was far advanced…  Jews were being herded into camps. Some hid and some fled to safety in other countries. All of this was very much on the mind of people like Darryl Zanuck… A movie about a persecuted religious minority, driven from their homes and seeking refuge elsewhere was very topical in 1940. You didn’t have to be aware of this sub-text to enjoy the movie, but it was there and provided some of the motivation that brought it into being. Davis Bitton, Meridian Magazine, July 11, 2002

These days the Saints don’t have to step in as metaphors for anyone else because their own story has grown into such a compelling historical subject. Between Ken Burns, the Helen Whitney documentary, the resurgent (and more balanced) attention on Mountain Meadows and the nation’s vital interest in its roots, I’d say it’s a good time to do the movie.

The first question then is, at what phase of the Saints’ story should the film take place? I’m thinking the Nauvoo period, perhaps the last couple of years there.  Next, who would be attached to star in it?   Who should play Joseph Smith today? Brigham? Oliver? Emma? Porter? And who would be the ideal director (I take it back on Scorcese– I don’t want Leonardo DiCaprio playing the prophet). I think David Mamet would make an excellent screenwriter. Maybe Mel Gibson directing (am I hearing groans already)?

For your consideration, here’s the cast I came up with. Feel free to deride my choices and suggest better. The only rule I’ll insist on is, keep it to current stock. For example, Grace Kelly can’t be Emma, she’s dead; and Clint can’t be Porter; he’s too old.  So without further ado…

Joseph Smith: Christian Bale

Brigham Young: Josh Brolin

Emma Smith: Diane Lane

Lucy Mack Smith: Glenn Close

Joseph Smith, Sr. (flashbacks): Donald Sutherland

Governor Boggs: Kevin Spacey

Oliver Cowdery: Aaron Eckhart

Eliza Snow: Halle Berry (kidding)

Eliza Snow: Emily Watson

Porter Rockwell: Viggo Mortensen

Martin Harris: Ed Harris

Sidney Rigdon: Bill Nighy

Despite the lightness of this entry, I really do think the story’s got all the elements of a great film. My only concern would be– Hollywood being Hollywood– that the prophet is portrayed as a well-meaning, misguided martyr who loses control of what he originally set out to do– much like the Lord in Superstar. So I suppose it begs the question: Can a complimentary– if not empathetic– mainstream movie about the Saints be successful today?


  1. I always wanted a movie called “Cumorah” starring Mel Gibson as Moroni and Sean Connery as Mormon:p

    Btw, what ever happened to the supposed Kevin Costner movie about the Utah War?

    In answer to your question, no. I don’t think it could just because our history and our beliefs are just too crazy for mainstream America. However, I like your musings here:)

    Comment by Bret — June 22, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

  2. Christian Bale’s nose isn’t prominent enough. Plus, he’s too sexy. Ditto Josh Brolin. The prophets can’t be sexy.

    Diane Lane is too old for Emma. Plus she’s a blonde. Emily Watson is also too old. I vote Emily Blunt for Eliza Snow.

    Glen Close isn’t old enough IMO.

    The rest of the cast seems about right, although I’m not sure Viggo could pull off an American accent.

    Comment by Olive — June 23, 2010 @ 3:13 am

  3. Anne Hathaway as Emma Smith. She has already played a Mormon (Jean Groberg) in the Other Side of Heaven.

    Comment by L-d Sus — June 23, 2010 @ 5:57 am

  4. Well, hair color can be changed, but Diane Lane IS too old for Emma if Christian Bale is Joseph. I have no problem with the prophets being sexy–how else would they get so many wives?

    Orson Scott Card has said that the reason there has been no Enders Game movie is because he insists on script approval and is glad he has because all the scripts so far have deviated significantly, many making Ender and Valentine have a romantic relationship (they are siblings, for the unread).

    Comment by ESO — June 23, 2010 @ 6:35 am

  5. How about Natalie Portman as Emma?

    Comment by ESO — June 23, 2010 @ 7:31 am

  6. I anticipated some resistance to Diane Lane. I chose her because she could pull off younger and world-weary at the same time. I set the film around 1843. Emma was 39 and even at 45, especially considering the kind of suffering Emma had already gone through, I thought Diane could pull it off (Anne Hathaway is 28).

    Eliza was 40 around that time. Emily Watson is 43 and Emily Blunt is 27. I originally cast Meryl Streep as Lucy Mack,. but decided she’s been overused lately and a little too overwhelming on screen. Glenn is 63, Lucy was 68.

    Viggo’s done American accents a number of times: Crimson Tide, Hidalgo, A History of Violence…

    As for the men being too sexy, they’ve been known to ugly down pretty good. I liked Brolin for Brigham immediately because he has that kind of granite face and, believe it or not, their ages are only a couple of years apart. His portrayal of George W. was none too sexy, IMO. Also you haven’t seen unsexy until you caught Christian Bale in The Machinist. I thought Bale’s challenge was to play older, but he’s 36 and Smith was 37, so there ya go.

    Granted, maybe putting the film at an earlier period might have more public appeal, when all were young and fresh, but for some reason I felt the last days (no pun intended) would be a more powerful study.

    That’s interesting about Ender’s Game, ESO. I wish Stephen King felt the same way about some of his works.

    Comment by David T. — June 23, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  7. uh, Viggo IS American. Hence, his uncanny ability to pull off the accent.

    Comment by MCQ — June 23, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  8. I just hope if and when they DO make an Ender’s Game movie it is just that, Ender’s Game. I read for a long while that they were going to combine the stories from Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow which would just be a mess, storywise; especially for the uninitiated.

    Comment by Bret — June 23, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  9. MCQ, you obviously underestimate the talent it takes for a New Yorker to pull off an American accent.

    Comment by David — June 23, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  10. Ha. I’m guessing people had him pegged as a “furriner” because of his name, or they had him mixed up with Daniel Craig or something. Just because he was in LOTR doesn’t mean he’s a Brit, there were a few Americans in that movie, even if they did speak Elvish.

    Comment by MCQ — June 23, 2010 @ 11:22 am

  11. If you were going to do this movie, the script would be more important than the cast. I can’t imagine a good even-handed, interesting, non-goofy script being written at this point, but let’s pretend it was. The casting should probably be mostly unknowns, not a bunch of big stars. You’re not going to have the budget for all those big names anyway.

    If you were going to go after a big name or two, it would probably be for the roles of Joseph and Emma, because you would want to pitch the movie partly as a story of their personal relationship. With that in mind, I would definitely not use Christian Bale, as he’s not exactly a good romantic lead. And if you did, Diane Lane would not be good playing opposite him. They don’t match up very well, in my opinion.

    I think Brad Pitt could pull off the role of Joseph. If you couldn’t get him, I’d try Scott Wolf. He lives in Park City and probably knows a lot of Mormons, so he might be interested. For the role of Emma, I love the idea of Anne Hathaway, but she’s too young. I’d go with Rachel McAdams. She’s not a lot older than Hathaway, but she can look older and she’s awesome in everything.

    Comment by MCQ — June 23, 2010 @ 11:57 am

  12. How about Amy Adams? She actually IS Mormon (although inactive).

    Comment by ESO — June 23, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

  13. I love Amy Adams.

    Comment by MCQ — June 23, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  14. After Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers and The Hot Chick, I don’t think I want to see Rachel McAdams doing Emma. On the other hand, after Meet Joe Black and The Assassination of Jesse James, I could totally see Pitt pulling off Joseph. Still like Josh Brolin for Brigham, though. The rest could be character actors. David Morse, Stephen Root… Paul Giamatti as Parley P. Pratt.

    You’re right about the script, though, it’s everything. It would need to be told from a totally different perspective than what we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. You’d need to break through the porcelain figurines and toss out the “Promised Valley” heigh-ho! heigh-ho!s. Maybe tell it from the POV of a child the prophet adopted or a new convert he’s mentoring– a witness to the wonder and conflict and contrariness of the time. It would need a writer who gets the Saints, and preserves the vision through all the controversy. A cross between Sarah Barringer Gordon and William Goldman. Probably way to big an order to fill.

    Comment by David T. — June 23, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

  15. After Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers and The Hot Chick,

    Hm. Been to the movies lately? McAdams was great in Wedding Crashers, (which was a pretty decent comedy, BTW) but she was also in The Notebook, The Family Stone, Red Eye, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Sherlock Holmes.

    Maybe we should just write the script. Let’s start tomorrow.

    Comment by MCQ — June 23, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  16. The problem is that Hollywood, and most of those who would watch in the first place, are anti-Mormon or at least hardly believers. We already saw the movie based on the Mountain Meadows Massacre that we can judge what would happen with other treatments. It was a disaster both in how it treated Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the Saints and (thankfully) the number of people who went to see it at the theaters. I once had hopes, but after that one I don’t ever want to see a movie based on Mormons and Mormon history.

    Comment by Jettboy — June 24, 2010 @ 9:00 am

  17. Jettboy,

    I agree. In fact, I don’t know of any Hollywood movie that has come anywhere close to portraying any faith properly in a movie ABOUT that faith. Movies made with religious themes are sometimes done well (sometimes quite well) but not about a particular faith (have they even made any?) and even those great movies like Martin Luther and Amazing Grace aren’t really about faith or spiritual beliefs. They’re about conscience and freedom.

    Comment by Bret — June 25, 2010 @ 12:59 am

  18. I’m not so concerned about them nailing– or even focusing on– the faith as much as the sequence of events, the moods of the various parties (the Saints, the non-member neighbors, the state and national leaders) and, to the best of their ability, the mind of the prophet. I guess I didn’t make it clear, but I was thinking more of a historical account rather than a “Ten Commandments Goes to Nauvoo” pic.

    Comment by David T. — June 25, 2010 @ 6:51 am

  19. Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you were, but I still think people think our history (with all the miracles and what not) and especially our doctrines and beliefs are just too crazy and weird to take seriously enough to do it justice. It won’t help if this new supposed documentary/muckraker film on prop 8 is widely seen.

    Comment by Bret — June 25, 2010 @ 10:45 am

  20. Bret,

    I really, really doubt it. I suspect the No on H8! folks will put out the 11 bucks for it, and that’s about it. I think the country is sick and tired of the whole subject.

    Comment by David T. — June 25, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  21. I think a movie like this would be terrific. Even if it doesn’t portray Mormonism in the way we’d like, it will make our story accessible and people will begin looking more deeply into it.

    Heh. It’ll make them want to finally read their copy of the Book of Mormon. (Don’t tell them it isn’t about the Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo church).

    I like the idea of telling the story from an outside perspective. Perhaps, an Illinoisan who sees the invading religious group and at first balks at their beliefs, then becomes vaguely interested and credulous, and in the end disbelieving but sympathetic when the mobs attack. Maybe with a glimmer of wishing it were true.

    Comment by Thaddeus — June 25, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

  22. People who say Hollywood can’t tell a sympathetic story of faith are just wrong. There have been many movies that have done just that, starting with the obvious one, The Ten Commandments. The Chosen was made into a movie too. It can be done, it just needs the right script.

    Comment by MCQ — June 25, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  23. David, Agreed


    Ten Commandments is about as close as anyone’s got (though I might make the argument it was mostly about freedom, a little but about faith) I haven’t seen the Chosen. I’m sure it can be done if it had the right script but I think it really needs the right director as well. That’s a rarity, especially nowadays:)


    I love that idea! Probably the best chance to help people understand

    Comment by Bret — June 25, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  24. Mostly about freedom? You better go watch it again. It’s about Faith with a capital F.

    Comment by MCQ — June 25, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  25. Ugh. I might have to apostatize if Brad Pitt played Joseph Smith.

    Donald Sutherland is way too old.

    Comment by Susan M — July 4, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  26. PLEASE don’t ever cast Christian Bale as Joseph Smith. Ever. EVER. He’s the too-obvious-go-to choice. I’m tired of the idea that he plays the spiritual/religious lead. Go for less obvious.

    Any of the following may be a little too old, but they can carry youth: Adrien Brody (“ugly,” but really, remarkably beautiful, a perfect combination for such a role), Daniel Day Lewis (what can he *not* do?), Ralph Fiennes (not as keen to this, but he seems to fit our stereotype of Joseph).

    For younger picks, Joaquin Phoenix or Cillian Murphy would do awesome for *either* Joseph or Brigham. Cillian often gets the villain role, but, as often is the case, putting someone of caliber in an unexpected role can prove judicious.

    Josh Brolin would be *okay* but he’s too two dimensional. I like to think Brigham was as multifaceted as was Joseph, even though he is known for his more stoic, hardy side. For that matter, I *could* see Christian Bale in Brigham’s role, especially after watching 3:10 to Yuma. But no Joseph.

    Emma’s a little harder. Bryce Dallas Howard has the right softness, but probably not enough character/earthiness. Miranda Otto might be a good pick (just die the hair). Better yet, Chloë Sevigny. (I know, she already plays a fringe Mormon, but she would be perfect.) (Again, die the hair.)

    So yeah, fun game all right. :)

    Comment by American Yak — July 12, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  27. Thaddeus, the person from whose perspective the story could be told is Hancock County Sheriff Jacob B. Backenstos, although he was actually elected to that position in 1845. (Hollywood won’t have the slighest problem rolling that back five years for the sake of the story.) He was a sympathetic non-Mormon whose life was actually saved by Orrin Porter Rockwell after the martyrdom of the Prophet and Patriarch. The sheriff had tried to serve a warrant for the arrest of Frank Worrell, the leader of the mob at the Carthage Jail, only to be chased by Worrell and a dozen of his cronies/mobbers. The sheriff was riding hell bent for leather down towards Nauvoo when he met Rockwell on the road. He deputised him and ordered Rockwell to save him. Just at that moment, Worrell came over the rise leading his friends and Rockwell recognized him as the mob leader. Rockwell had already personally sworn to heaven that he would avenge the Prophet’s death, so he took aim at Worrell’s belt metal buckle and fired. Rockwell’s aim was accurate and precise, and the bullet left a hole in the center of the buckle. Worrell doubled over as his horse spun and the murderer fell to the ground. His friends immediately turned tail and galloped away leaving their friend in the dust. The sheriff continued to be a friend to the Saints and eventually joined the Church. so I believe that, perspective-wise, he’s your man. He saw it all, mostly through the eyes of an outsider.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — September 28, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

  28. Upon some belated research, I confess that I was in error, Jacob B. Backenstos never did unite himself with the Latter-day Saints. But he was, nonetheless, a true and genuine friend of the Latter-day Saints during those dark last days of Nauvoo before the Saints went west.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — September 28, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI