As with States of Grace (aka God’s Army II), American Zion (Work & Glory Part II) was released and promoted with its ‘sequelness’ minimized as part of the on-going attempt of LDS films to attract a larger nationwide audience. (To this end, the opening of American Zion fills in most of the necessary details from Part 1 such that a viewer who hasn’t seen it won’t be totally lost)
Did it succeed? Considering that, despite the wider marketing scope, American Zion actually ended up with less box-office than the first movie (2 million vs. Part 1′s 3.3 million gross) this either marks a dramatic failure from the marketing side, or (more likely) is simply symptomatic of the current downturn in the LDS movie market. Barring an extremely unlikely box office breakthrough for Part 3 (filmed at the same time as Part 2) that will surely be the end to the Work & Glory movie series. Movies that do not make back even half of their operating budgets are clearly unsustainable ventures…
Does the Work & Glory series even deserve to continue? They are, to be sure, among the better LDS movies released in the last decade both in quality and production, but one must ask whether they are essentially ‘fish out of water’ in terms of the theatrical format. American Zion improves upon Part 1 in some areas, but is weaker in others. And it demonstrates that the Work & Glory series is unsuitable for the big screen.
None of the nine books in the series were written to be self-contained — rather, they consist of a continuous flow of characters and events from one book to the next. If that doesn’t just scream “TV mini-series”, especially given the budget constraints, I don’t know what does…
The lack of ‘ending’ in both Parts 1 and 2 play into this as well: it’s one thing to only wait a day or a week for the next installment to see what happens next, but quite another to pay $5-$10 for a ticket to a non-Lord of the Rings movie that just ends abruptly with many plot threads left unresolved.
A few random notes from the good and bad of American Zion:
Visual Style: A strength of the first movie, and even better here. Good cinematography, and a little more dynamic camera movement as well… This is certainly a new high in production quality for an LDS film.
Pacing: The first movie was somewhat slow, and the pace has been picked up a little in this installment, probably due mostly to the new director. This is different, but not necessarily an improvement. Whether due to directing or editing, the events of American Zion sometimes go by too fast, such that it’s hard to tell what’s going on.
We see the tar but not the feathers in Joseph Smith’s “tar and feathering”, for example, and the scene cuts to after his recovery so quickly a viewer who isn’t aware of the history will have no clue what just happened. Later, the printing press and printed copies of the Book of Commandments are shown to be burned by the mob, but the movie skips the complementary story — included in the book — about the young girls who saved many copies of the text from the burning building.
In addition, the movie switches from 1831 to 1834 very quickly, and many story details are passed over with barely a mention (Melissa’s engagement, Ben’s deciding to move to Kirtland, etc…)
Had the filmmakers gone for a more ‘epic’ approach (say, a two and a half hour running length or so) American Zion might have been able to include more details to enrich the movie experience and cut down on the confusion. Considering the scope of Church history it covers, American Zion seems to be cut too short to deal with the material appropriately.
A Work and Glory movie intended in part to teach its viewers about LDS history (as the book did) should be able to do so without having its viewers literally needing someone sitting by them already familiar with LDS history to explain what really happened.
Joseph Smith: The most compelling character of the movie should also be the most compelling character of the historical period — that’s Joseph Smith himself. Part 2 upgrades Joseph Smith from ‘supporting’ to ‘main’ character, and the performance is up to the task. We see Joseph coming to terms with his calling, and trying to lead the group of early Saints to find peace and security while having — in many cases – absolutely no idea how to do it. An interesting scene shows Joseph showing genuine amazement at how much faith other people have in him. One wonders if he had that much faith in himself at that point.
Unfortunately, having Joseph Smith in a larger role only emphasizes the fact that his personal story is so much more compelling than that of the Steed family, who still remains the primary focus of the narrative. In novel form, you can spend appropriate time with both parties, but in abridged movie form it’s still obvious on screen that W&G would be much stronger if it was first and foremost about Joseph Smith, without having a fictional family and their soap opera-style problems grafted on.
Casting: The weak link from Part 1 (Lydia McBride-Steed) has been recast in Part 2, and the new Lydia is an improvement…maybe. She’s only in the film for maybe 60 seconds and six words of dialogue, so it’s hard to tell. Emma Smith has been recast as well, and I prefer the Part 1 version, although she doesn’t have a large enough part in Part 2 to make an impression, either. The actor playing Brigham Young bears a striking resemblance to the real Brigham Young as a younger man, and makes a compelling character too. Would that we had a movie just about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young without all the other clutter…
Target Audience: The filmmakers may have wanted a larger audience, but I don’t see how the finished product was going to find one. This, like most Church-related releases, is a “Mormon movie” (as compared to a “movie about Mormons”) that is highly biased in favor of the ‘home team’. There’s no evidence that the movie was designed to appeal to non-member viewers at all. The history isn’t comprehensive enough (only a Church member…in fact, a learned Church member would be able to fill in the historical gaps the movie leaves out), and the characterizations are too one-sided.
Both sides (the Mormons, and everyone else) are drawn a little too broadly in good/bad terms. All the Saints in the movie are – literally – saints. Not a bad vice to be found. The non-members (Ben Steed excluded) tend to be almost exclusively drawn as villains.
True, the majority of non-member portrayals in American Zion happen to be from the Missouri mob, but it’s hard to think any objective viewer isn’t going to roll their eyes at the broad, simplistic characterizations. (Anyone can see this and know it was written and produced by Mormons) This, of course, is mostly true of the books as well (which will never be mistaken for a objective history), but if the filmmakers had genuinely intended to create a objective look at LDS history for a non-LDS audience this area is lacking.
The movie’s one instance of nuance in this category is a brief scene where one of the new LDS settlers of Jackson County informs his non-member neighbors in calm, yet confident terms that the Mormons would be coming to Zion, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do to stop them.
A more well-rounded portrayal would have gone further in this regard — showing how the Mormon settlers were wronged by the violent mobs that developed, but also explored further the fears and concerns that created the mob in the first place, as well as the actions and attitudes of the settlers that opened themselves up for the conflict to begin. There’s no question an objective viewpoint would still have shown the mob to be clearly in the wrong regardless of any direct or implicit goading on by the early Mormon settlers, and it would have been nice if American Zion had tried harder to achieve it.
Zion’s Camp: The portrayal of Zion’s Camp is also problematic in its bias. The march to Zion portrayed in the movie shows no contention within the ranks of the Saints, even though that is clearly a matter of historical record (and dealt with at length in the book itself).
Almost immediately upon departing, many of the men openly questioned Joseph Smith’s leadership, and fought amongst one another on matters both trivial and major. We’ll never know whether the Saints would have been successful in redeeming Zion from the mobs if they were ‘of one heart and one mind’ from the beginning, but it is obvious that many of the Saints’ inability to commit themselves humbly to the venture and to Joseph’s leadership was a key factor in their ultimate failure.
American Zion shows no contention amongst the Saints at all, which makes the march of Zion’s Camp to Missouri seem even more of a failure, since the unrighteousness of the Saints is no longer presented as a mitigating factor. Why, as Nathan Steed asks, would the Lord send the men to Missouri only for them to fail? The movie not only doesn’t provide an answer, but ignores one of the primary explanations for this failure…
Some books just don’t work as movies. Reading historical fiction based on the early days of the Church may be more intriguing than just reading a textbook, but on the big screen there just isn’t enough time to tell the potentially compelling stories from the beginning of the LDS Church while bogging it down with TV-movie quality family issues.
As it stands, the movie is not focused enough either on Joseph Smith as a biography nor portraying a comprehensive view of Church history to give either non-members or members a good learning opportunity. It remains to be seen whether Work & Glory Part 3, the (almost certainly) last cinematic feature later this year can improve on any of these fundamental flaws.
Final Grade: B-