In 1995, prospective filmmaker (and returned LDS missionary) Richard Dutcher was reading the movie listings in the local newspapers, and noticed that in addition to the Hollywood wide-releases, there were also “black” films, “Indian” films, “gay/lesbian” films, and many other niche films each catering to a smaller, specialized market. Why, he asked himself, couldn’t there be LDS films, too?
Five years later, his film God’s Army was released in theaters, marking the official beginning to the modern age of LDS cinema – just as its creator hoped.
God’s Army proved to be a financial success — $2.6 million gross against a $300k budget – although not without some controversy. God’s Army, while still at heart a faithful LDS film, possessed a certain “edginess” that the target audience was not accustomed to. (Indeed, God’s Army could be called the first “Bloggernacle” movie – covering non-Sunday School topics in a ‘faithful-but-open’ manner, as many LDS group blogs would do in the future).
The irony is that God’s Army is not actually that “edgy” — certainly not to the extent that many of the orthodox LDS crowd in the BYU area believe it to be. (I was a BYU student at the time God’s Army was released, thus had a ‘ground zero’ perspective of LDS opinion when it was released.)
It’s arguable that, due to the controversy, God’s Army was not the most ideal film to be the official trailblazer and model for the burgeoning LDS film industry. However, it’s also arguable that the LDS film industry wouldn’t have started at all without a bold filmmaker like Dutcher willing to take risks in getting a film like God’s Army made in the first place. Perhaps God’s Army is exactly the sort of movie the LDS film industry needed after all.
Now that the tenth anniversary of its release is approaching, let’s look again at God’s Army the movie.
The core of the story involves Elder Allen, fresh from his home in Kansas on a two year mission to California. His family situation back home is less than perfect, and he feels his motivation for going on a mission is less than perfect as well. In California, he finds he’s not alone in either capacity.
Elder Allen clashes with his older companion “Doc” almost immediately, and finds his other missionary housemates have varying levels of testimony, faithfulness, and work ethic themselves. Will Elder Allen “find himself” in the mission field, and find a way to “do some good” within the people he’s serving?
God’s Army worked for me as a film. However, explaining why the film ‘worked’ on a personal level is not easy. As with any character-driven drama, if it works it’s usually because you (the viewer) are able to identify with the characters and become emotionally invested in their lives.
Dutcher, being an insider to LDS culture, has succeeded in making a film that’s authentic without leaning too far towards “idealism” (as many LDS films do) nor towards “sensationalism” for the sake of drama. Even though my mission experience (in Taiwan) was different in virtually all practical details than Elder Allen’s in California, the authentic elements of young, naïve 19-year-old missionaries figuring out what they believe and how to share that with others are common across any mission.
At the risk of being self-indulgent, let me share some personal experiences that relate to things that happen within God’s Army.
(1) An LDS friend in high school had divorced parents, and later her mom married again in the temple. Her step-father was a decent, humble guy who treated her and her mom very well. My friend stated outright she HATES her real dad…yet found it hard to fully accept her step-dad as part of her “family”, temple ordinances notwithstanding. He simply was not her “dad” – blood-ties are not simple matters, and cannot be discarded (or copied) at the drop of a hat.
(2) In the mission field, my companion and I baptized a woman, then tagged along as one of the ward missionaries presented her the “after-baptism” discussions used at the time. One of the principles was the encouragement for this sister to work towards the conversion of her husband so they could be sealed together in the temple, sometime in the future.
“Why?” came the new member’s response.
“’Why?!’” said the ward mission leader, “So you can be together as a family in the eternities!”
The new member’s response was calm and direct: “I have no interest in being together with my husband in the eternities”
We knew this investigator fairly well — she had a good marriage, and was interested in her husband receiving the gospel for his own benefit. But being with him for all eternity? No thanks… Many members assume being tied to their family eternally is always something to look forward to, when to many people it is not.
(3) When I was in the MTC, one elder had to leave and go home for personal reasons. He found his way back to the mission field a year later, and a year wiser. He was frank is saying that he wasn’t ready to be a missionary at the time, but after some ‘time off’ proved to be a solid elder in the mission field. He said something wise: that elders who go home from their mission early only have two spiritual paths: they get better quickly, or they get worse quickly. He was an example of the former, although there are numerous examples of those who were the latter.
Each of these experiences has complementary scenes and sub-plots within God’s Army, which may explain why I was able to identify emotionally with what Dutcher presents. (Note the blank look on Elder Allen’s face when his mission president – somewhat tactlessly – tells him his ‘step-father’ is really his ‘father’ because they’ve been sealed. It’s not nearly that easy…)
Dutcher deserves a lot of respect for avoiding the obvious temptation to create something ‘safe’ and ‘happy’ that would please LDS audiences without challenging their comfort zones. God’s Army is authentic about life in the modern LDS Church without being either overly naïve or cynical – a rare balancing act that other LDS filmmakers in the decade since have struggled to walk. Ten years later, this is still one of the top films in the LDS cinema canon.
Analysis and Other Comments (possible spoilers):
It’s rare that LDS movie-goers call a movie “offensive” for reasons other than profanity, violence , or sex (of which God’s Army has none), yet for many Latter-Day Saints in 2000 this was exactly the case. I was a BYU student at the time of God’s Army’s theatrical release and had a first-hand look at the responses to the film – positive and negative – among the Utah Valley crowd of which I was a member at the time. Let’s look at some of the “controversial” elements.
It is true that God’s Army features a less than idealistic picture of LDS missionaries – elders in particular. However, the reality is from any kind of an objective viewpoint the elders in God’s Army aren’t actually that bad.
Most returned missionaries like myself have stories about capital-B Bad missionaries – stories involving sex, drugs, and felonious behavior — that go far beyond the practical jokes, reading anti-Mormon literature, and saying the ‘d-word’ of God’s Army.
Still, for a young generation of Church members weaned on highly-idealistic Church-made films such as Michael McLean’s “Labor of Love”, reality can be a shock. (One female BYU student I know was offended that God’s Army “showed an elder turning over a table in anger”. Okay, then…)
There’s a tendency in the Church to assume that sending a 19-year-old boy on a mission turns him into a man, when in fact he just becomes…a 19-year-old boy with a name tag. White shirts, ties, and name tags don’t automatically bring “maturity” when worn, especially when living together with several other elders of the same age without direct adult supervision.
Any elder who has served a mission knows this. Any sister who has served a mission *really* knows this. It may not be too much of a surprise that many of the BYU students who were ‘offended’ by God’s Army were young, non-RM women with idealistic views of missionary elders, especially if they were planning on marrying one.
Perhaps God’s Army should be considered a welcome wake-up call to them, rather than an offense. The truth in the Church is that being an RM does not mean that an elder is (a) mature, (b) a hard worker, (c) has a strong testimony, (d) is temple worthy, or (e) would make a good husband or father.
“Bad” missionaries — the “chaff” — are not automatically weeded out and sent home beforehand, leaving only the “wheat” to walk off the plane after two years with glory and honor, and into the waiting arms of some lucky girl. Being sent home early is an entirely subjective call of the mission president and many MPs do not send anyone home regardless of the circumstances.
If the depiction of missionaries in God’s Army offends someone, then so be it. However, it is a realistic depiction of elders in the mission field – like it or not.
Another area of criticism was God’s Army’s direct depiction of priesthood blessings on-screen. Latter-Day Saints are naturally sensitive to sacred and holy things being put on common display – however, let’s consider two things about God’s Army and priesthood ordinances.
1) Priesthood ordinances are not secret – not in the way that temple ordinances are. Non-members are not forbidden from being present and hearing the words of a blessing when it is given, and as such, having some of the actors giving blessings in God’s Army be non-LDS should be irrelevant.
2) More importantly, the priesthood ordinances in God’s Army are entirely appropriate and done with the utmost seriousness they deserve. While the elders joke around in light-hearted and immature ways at other times in the movie, when a blessing is required, to a man they mature up and conduct themselves in ways becoming of their priesthood. Unless one objects to priesthood blessings being displayed on screen at all, there’s nothing in the way God’s Army depicts them that should be problematic for any LDS viewer.
God’s Army really is the first “Bloggernacle” movie, as members reactions to the movie were quite similar to the reaction many of them have to the “outside-Sunday-School” discussions on many LDS web sites today. That’s fine — I’m a “Bloggernacle” veteran since 2004, and even I know it’s not for everyone. God’s Army won’t be for everyone, either — however, I believe complaints that the movie is offensive from an objective sense don’t have merit.