17 Miracles (IMDB, official site) depicts the story of the Willie & Martin Handcart Companies, two Mormon pioneer groups making the trek on foot from Iowa to Utah in 1856 and who encountered trials, tragedies, and small miracles along the way. It is directed by T.C. Christensen, director of photography for The Work & The Glory series, and co-director of Emma Smith: My Story.
[17 Miracles is currently in limited release in a small number of Utah theaters]
17 Miracles is a very well-made film — finely directed with a compelling story and moving elements whether you have LDS ancestors who crossed the plains in the handcart era or not. Some bothersome revisionist history issues and a sense of over-Correlation prevent me from giving it my unreserved recommendation, but this is a significant film that stands apart from many of its LDS film brethren.
In the 1850’s, Mormon converts were asked to leave their homelands and gather to “Zion” in Utah (“a price worth any sacrifice”). For thousands of English converts, that meant travelling to America, heading as far west as they could by train, then joining a handcart company to cross the unsettled frontier on foot to Salt Lake City. Walking 1200 miles dragging a cart would be a challenge for anyone, but particularly for these ragtag groups from England without “frontier” experience, many of them older seniors, and families with young children.In the summer of 1856, Levi Savage, a young elder who had previously served in the Mormon Batallion and as a missionary in Asia, was asked to be one of the leaders of the Willie Handcart company departing from Iowa City. Due to delays, the company was unable to hit the trail until mid-July, and Bro. Savage made known his feelings that it was now too late in the season to travel safely to Utah before winter hit. He was overruled by the other LDS leaders, however, who were confident that even if the season was late, they could depend on divine providence to deliver them to the promised land of Zion. In response, Levi famously told his travelling group, “What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”
As feared, the Willie handcart company (and the Martin company, who left ten days later) did not get to Utah before the winter, but found themselves stranded and desperate on the wrong side of the mountains when snows came. Rescuers in wagon parties sent from Salt Lake City prevented the total annihilation of both companies, although in the end 68 of the Willie handcart members and 145 of the Martin hardcart members died along the way, with a great many others in both groups suffering great injury from frostbite and other maladies.
The 1856 tragedies led to some fundamental changes in pioneer company organization, including stricter scheduling and better quality handcarts. In 1860, handcarts were discontinued in favor of two-way wagon trains, and gradually gave way to the transcontinental railroad that was slowly marching west, making the journey on foot unnecessary.
17 Miracles, for narrative purposes, combines the Willie and Martin handcart companies together into one group travelling to Utah, and per its title, focuses not just on the basic details of the journey and the many trials they encountered, but also the small miracles that were recorded in personal journals by the travelling Saints themselves. As the film opens, we meet a handful of the hopeful LDS converts in England who make the journey to the US, then join up with the handcart company. The audience knows from the beginning that a lot of them are not going to make it alive to Utah. Their stories of faith, love, and sacrifice are well acted and well presented.
The biggest strength of LDS films has been historical period pieces, and 17 Miracles is no exception. Despite low budgets, LDS filmmakers have consistently gotten period settings, costumes, and atmosphere just right, and 17 Miracles, in fact, exceeds that with top quality production values from cinematography to make-up. This is excellent work, and not just excellent-for-a-low-budget-film, but excellent period. T.C. Christensen, who has obviously learned some tricks from his other film experiences, shows it all off here, with good camera work and effective stylistic elements (flashbacks, dream sequences, etc…) that add to the feel. There’s no question this is close to the top for the best-directed and best-produced LDS film so far released.
The narrative is anchored by Levi Savage himself, played effectively by Jasen Wade (who appeared in T.C.Christensen’s previous short film, The John Tanner Story). Savage is genuinely a good person, helping others whenever called upon, and doing whatever needs to be done to help the trek succeed. His efforts are even more admirable under the circumstances, when he knows in his heart the company is doomed, but he agrees to go along anyway and do whatever he can. He’s the hero and moral center of the film…and yet strangely the end of the film still doesn’t give him his full respect. (More on this later)
The math in 17 Miracles is a little suspect — I tried to count each miracle in order while taking notes, and even stretching the definition of “miracle” quite a bit only came up with 12. (Calling Lionel Hutz — this is clearly the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since The Never-Ending Story!) I’d be interested in what the filmmakers consider to be the seventeen miracles in the film; however, from a viewers perspective the exact number is irrelevant. Definitions of “miracle” will vary by person, of course, and the film doesn’t delve into any deep theological questions about the role of divine providence in daily life. Rather, it is content to show simple experiences with faith and prayer that sustained the struggling Saints in little ways, and the audience is free to interpret the events of the film in any fashion they wish.
17 Miracles has a revisionist history problem, and I don’t mean combining the two handcart companies into one, or switching the chronology of some of the events — both perfectly acceptable decisions from a story-telling standpoint. These issues don’t sink the film, which has enough good points to be recommended regardless, but do raise some questions about intellectual honesty when depicting stories from LDS Church history.
The film is direct in depicting Levi Savage’s feelings from the beginning that the company is leaving too late in the season to be safe, leading to an impassioned plea in Florence, Nebraska that the company turn back while the opportunity is still there. He is immediately “called to repentance” by the team leader, James G. Willie who encourages everyone to have faith and push forward. Savage is later chastized by another LDS leader, Franklin D. Richards, for being “divisive” in his comments. Willie attempts to explain his actions later by saying they really had no option to turn back or winter in their current location due to lack of resources and funds.
This isn’t truly accurate — over 100 of the Willie handcart members *did* heed Levi’s warning and leave the company at this time to winter in Nebraska, thus avoiding the tragedies that would befall the rest of the party in later months. Even if this wasn’t the case, any glance at a map would tell you their location in Nebraska left them a lot closer to settlements in the East than their destination in the West — the company had plenty of time to use their current food supply to travel back East to a safe place rather than continue West, had the company leaders decided to do so. 17 Miracles makes it seem like the LDS leaders at the time had no choice in pushing the group forward; they most certainly did have a choice, and it is a fair question to ask whether the deaths that followed on the trail could have been prevented.
Modern analysis of the handcart era has led historians to generally agree that a combination of unforeseen circumstances with poor planning and management of the emigration system, ranging from Brigham Young down to the local leaders who prepared and approved the handcart groups was responsible for the pioneer deaths in 1856. It is expected that 17 Miracles would attempt to shield any LDS leader at the time from criticism, but why do it at the expense of Levi Savage? The end titles that provide historical information on many of the film’s characters spend four paragraphs talking about Levi Savage — not about his boundless compassion and service to others shown in the film, but how he “received criticism from Church leaders without murmuring” and “humbly followed the direction of Church leaders”. Without any mention that he was proven right and they were wrong? I’m betting the 100 or so LDS who listened to Savage and wintered in Nebraska instead of continuing on (ignored by the film) would view his warning as more inspired of God than the overconfident encouragement of the other leaders.
From the journal of William Woodward, a fellow Willie handcart co-captain:
We never ought to have left Mo. River. It was about August 17th when we left the River…While at Florence a meeting of our Company was held—I had been sent to Omaha & Council Bluffs, when Levi Savage told of the cold & suffering might be expected on the trip. Bro. Willie assumed all responsibility & Bro. Savage was condemned for his recital of what might be expected on our journey. Bro. Willie gave me the information when I returned from Council Bluffs. Every word spoken by Bro. Savage came true…Levi Savage who was censured for his truthful statement at Florence, was I think the best help we had—resolute & determined his whole soul was for the salvation of our company.
Rather than being “divisive” and “needing repentance”, Savage probably saved more than a handful of them from meeting the same fate along the trail that the others did. Heaven forbid we should appropriately recognize someone who went against counsel of LDS leaders and was proven correct, saving lives in the process. Is Levi Savage destined to be a casualty of Correlation?
It gets worse: another end title makes the statement that the casualties suffered by the Willie/Martin companies were “just about the same” as other pioneer treks along the Oregon Trail in US history. Why are we suddenly comparing Willie/Martin to Oregon Trail groups (who were covering an additional 800 miles of treacherous territory)? Why not do an apples-to-apples comparision with the other Mormon handcart companies from 1856-1860:
- Ellsworth company (1856) — 13 deaths
- McArthur company (1856) — 7 deaths
- Bunker company (1856) — 7 deaths
- Willie company (1856) — 68 deaths
- Martin company (1856) — 154 deaths
- Evans company (1857) — unknown
- Christiansen conpany (1857) — 6 deaths
- Rowley company (1859) — 5 deaths
- Robison company (1860) — 1 death
- Stoddard company (1860 — zero deaths
See any outliers among those statistics? Here’s a graph for further emphasis:
And now the film is trying to make the case that Willie / Martin were “just about the same” as other pioneer groups, as if losing 200 members of a pioneer company is suddenly just par for the course? Doesn’t this attempt to minimize the losses also minimize the sacrifice of the faithful Saints who listened to their leaders and pressed forward with both companies only to die upon the way? Isn’t it insulting to try to say after the fact that “well, it wasn’t really *anyone’s* fault and even if it was, it wasn’t really THAT bad, anyway.” — especially when the entire point of the film was to show us in gritty detail that it really was THAT bad? And that in the end the important lesson to learn is apparently “be humble and follow your Church leaders” even when the context of the Willie/Martin story suggests exactly the opposite?
Revisionist history matters — it is not a victimless endeavor. Erasing problems and mistakes from modern LDS retellings of Church history is not only fundamentally dishonest, it disrespects the very people films like 17 Miracles were created to extol. By not allowing “Church leaders” and “made a mistake” to be used in the same sentence, and not treating the consequences of those mistakes with the appropriate seriousness given the innocent casualties, those Saints who gave their all to cross the plain and join the Gathering of Zion essentially died in vain.
It’s rare that cutting off the end titles would actually make a movie better, but I believe that is true in this case. In actual on-screen content, 17 Miracles is fair to both Levi Savage and the other Church leaders who disagreed with him, but only after it ends does it undercut its own narrative through a weak attempt to tell the audience what lesson they are supposed to have received from the film when the credits roll. The film itself is more than respectful of those early pioneers and their sacrifice — why attempt to minimize their losses, and avoid any hint that LDS leaders had any culpability in the Willie/Martin tragedies in such an over-the-top fashion that anyone with deeper knowledge of handcart history (or an Internet connection) can disprove in minutes? That decision only detracts from a film that was good enough to have earned a unqualified recommendation, instead of a qualified one.
Final Grade: B+
Analysis and Other Comments:
(1) Is there a theological lesson to be learned through the Willie/Martin handcart experience? Many of the LDS leaders in Iowa who expressed their confidence in sending out the companies that late in the season seemed to be working from the idea that they (being God’s chosen people) would receive direct divine guidance and support against the elements, regardless of the calendar. Obviously on a macro-level, that divine assistance did not materialize, and while the stories included in 17 Miracles point toward some divine help on the micro-level, the death toll (and many other severe injuries suffered by the survivors) raise questions about whether “God was with them” or not.
17 Miracles is direct in showing some of the pioneers asking this very question. While most of the survivors arrived in Utah with their faith intact and strengthened, others found the answers to this question lacking and later left the Church, undoubtedly feeling betrayed by broken promises, either from God or the local LDS leaders.
There’s another perspective, however; the pioneer tragedy could be viewed as a confirmation of agency, and the refusal of divine power to alleviate the consequences of bad decisions. Theologically, the “problem of evil” is a common problem which has caused cognitive dissonance in religious believers for centuries. How does one explain the existence of a divine, all-powerful God who claims to love His children with the amount of mass suffering and tragedy visible in every corner of the globe. Especially, as is the case here, with people considered “chosen” by the Lord.
One common response to the “problem of evil” is that most tragedies are caused by man in the first place — either accidently, or with malicious intent. Cancelling out tragedies through a wave of the divine hand would have the side effect of minimizing man’s responsibility for our own decisions. Forcing human society to bear the full brunt of tragedies, even among “innocents”, can arguably have the positive effect of encouraging better decision-making, more so than if negative consequences were casually wiped out through direct divine intervention.
Thus, the lack of divine intervention on the macro level within the story of 17 Miracles could be interpreted as a lesson to Church members that bad management decisions have consequences — even fatal ones. Even while on the micro level, God was still active in working to alleviate suffering for some of the pioneers who asked in faith for help.
Of course, as discussed above, this requires bad management decisions to be recognized as such — otherwise the lesson is futile. Regardless of whether official responsibility was ever publicly admitted by the Church, local and SLC leaders did work quickly both to rescue the stranded pioneers on the plains, and then implement new systems to prevent any such tragedies in the future. If the Willie/Martin experience was indeed a divine lesson from above, the message was received in the end, regardless.
(2) One of the stories featured in the movie is that of Sarah Franks and George Padley, an engaged couple who were travelling to Utah to be sealed in the temple — Sarah’s primary goal in life. George died along the trip and the film features an emotional scene of Sarah mourning his passing and wishing they could be sealed together. (Sarah later “buried” George’s body in a tree, to keep him away from scavenging wolves.) The closing titles make note that President James E. Faust found their story moving and had them sealed together by proxy in 1997.
1997? Why, if the whole point of Sarah’s journey was to be sealed to George in Utah when she arrived, did it take until 1997 for it to finally happen? What’s the story behind the story? As is common for the period, the “p-word” is involved: Sarah arrived in Utah late in 1856, and in 1857 became the third wife of Thomas Sloan MacKay. Since they were sealed in the temple, and women were not allowed to be sealed to more than one man until the 1990’s, it took until then before the “opportunity” for Sarah to be sealed to George became possible.
(3) 17 Miracles also features the story of Tamar Loader, whose fiance did not travel with her to the USA from England, and who later sees her future husband in a vision: Thomas E. Ricks who would found the city of Rexburg, Idaho and for whom Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) is named. Not surprisingly, the film doesn’t mention Ricks already had a wife at the time, and ended up marrying both Tamar and his third wife on the same day in 1857.
(4) And, yes, Levi Savage married Ann Bummell Cooper, one of the fellow members of the Willie company, in 1863 as mentioned in the film. Five years later he married…well, I suppose those who are curious can do their own research.
Obviously, 17 Miracles has no interest in mentioning any polygamous aspect to these romances, framing all of these relationships as standard, monogamous love stories. Won’t viewers be curious about the stories behind the stories (like I was)? The film closes with a quote from Gordon B. Hinckley that encourages modern LDS to be thankful in remembrance of the sacrifices of those early pioneers. But since virtually all of those early pioneers became inseparably connected to plural marriage, and since many modern LDS are descendants of those plural wives, how can you properly respect and remember those ancestors without having to face the polygamy question at the same time?
In line with the revisionist history issues discussed above, the modern LDS Church practice of lessons, textbooks, and Church leader biographies pretending that polygamy never happened has the side effect of minimizing the sacrifices of those women (many of whom are featured in this film) who participated in plural marriage in the 19th century for the sole reason that they believed it was the will of the Lord. Were their sacrifices meaningless? Pretending that they didn’t exist because their presence in modern biographies becomes inconvenient for modern audiences makes it seem that way.