Review: Saturday’s Warrior (Millennium Edition)

Saturday’s Warrior was written and produced in 1973 by Douglas Stewart and Lex de Azevedo, and has had a fairly long and successful history among the LDS community in both stage and screen form.  According to estimates, over 2 million people have viewed a production of Saturday’s Warrior over the past three decades.

The most recent Saturday’s Warrior ‘revival’ took place in 2008 for the 35th anniversary, although for prospective viewers in 2011 unfamiliar with this LDS cultural milestone, the best option is the Saturday’s Warrior: Millennium Edition DVD filmed in 1989 and available through Netflix and LDS bookstores.

The Millennium Edition DVD is neither a full movie production, nor a recorded version of a stage performance but a combination of the two, with simple sets and movements that seem stage-play-like, but with a handful of production tricks and special effects to broaden the artistic scope.

“Reviewing” Saturday’s Warrior in 2011 may be a pointless endeavor.  Most LDS have either been exposed to the music and the message and formed an opinion already, or have deliberately chosen to avoid it.  Calling Saturday’s Warrior “cheesy” and “shallow” is probably true, but misses the point.  All evidence indicates it is just as it was designed to be, and its popularity through the decades indicates the play has satisfied the entertainment needs of many LDS members (even above and beyond the “it’s-clean-and-there-aren’t-any-other-acceptable-entertainment-options-available” factor that occasionally drives LDS choices in art.)

The dated production values (not to mention the laughable-to-the-modern-eye hairstyles and fashion) will probably prevent most new viewers from giving the musical a fair shot; however, Saturday’s Warrior is still an interesting microcosm (in both good and bad ways) of LDS culture and entertainment.

Let’s look at some of the content and theology of Saturday’s Warrior, 38 years later.  (All comments are based off of the Millenium Edition DVD.)

Saturday’s Warrior opens in the “pre-existence”, where a host of spirits are awaiting their imminent birth to receive a physical body.  Among them are the eight Flinders children, destined to be born into the same family.  Emily, the youngest, worries that by the time their parents have the first seven kids, they’ll be burnt out on parenting and won’t have the desire for one more.  Jimmy, the oldest, promises her that he’ll do all he can to help his parents have their full allotment of children.  Also preparing for earth life is Todd, the “eternal boyfriend” to the third Flinders child Julie, both of whom worry about finding each other in mortal life and continuing their pre-destined relationship.

Twenty years later on Earth, Jimmy is the oldest of seven kids and doesn’t see the need for his parents to have an eighth, especially since his large family already makes him the butt of jokes from his friends at school.  He soon separates himself from his family and runs off to California, where he meets Todd, a non-Mormon who wonders about the purpose of life.   Will Jimmy find himself, rejoin his family, and fulfill his promise to his youngest (unborn) sister?

The best element of Saturday’s Warrior, and the one that has stood the test of time the strongest, is Lex de Azevedo’s music.  Even 35 years later, the songs in Saturday’s Warrior are catchy and memorable, and Azevedo mixes a variety of musical styles within the set list to keep things fresh.  The performers on the DVD are better singers than actors, which is okay because they are singing most of the time anyway and the songs are the real “star” of the show.

The song lyrics, written by Doug Stewart, aren’t quite up to the same level as the music, with some cheesy rhymes and obtuse, head-scratching phrases.  (In “Humble Way”, Elders Kessler and Greene proclaim themselves to be “fearlessly extraordinary, workin’ righteous hari kari”.  They’re committing righteous ritual suicide?)  Still, they serve their purpose and provide an effective way to present the message and drive the narrative through song.

Some of the primary themes of Saturday’s Warrior are universal and apply to LDS today just as well as in 1973:  the value of family and discovering one’s eternal potential.  It’s unfortunate that the story catalyst for those themes — the conflict between “zero-population” philosophies and having large families — is very dated and clearly a product of the 70′s.  (Ironic, since the world population has almost doubled since Saturday’s Warrior was written).

The “villains” presented by Saturday’s Warrior will probably strike modern viewers as a bizarre kind of straw-man, with counter-arguments to gospel principles seemingly invented out of the air to fit the narrative, having little direct relationship to challenges and pressures faced by 21st century Mormons.  Would having six brothers and sisters be in the top ten reasons a Mormon kid might be mocked for his religion by his non-Mormon friends today?   Would his parents having an eighth kid really be among the top ten catalysts for an LDS teen to have a dysfunctional split with his family?  How many LDS families today will identify with the debate over whether to have eight kids or merely seven?

A more generally-applicable theme may have served the underlying story better — something with a more relevant link between world philosophies and gospel principles in a modern context.  Then again, Doug Stewart and company probably had no idea Saturday’s Warrior would still be relevant 35 years after they conceived it, so it’s understandable they went with whatever cultural memes and Church counter-reactions were hot at the time.

The doctrine of Saturday’s Warrior has both surprisingly good and bad elements.  Modern feminists may be pleasantly surprised at the open references to “Heavenly Mother”, but dismayed at the cliched (borderline sexist) comments of the female characters (one female spirit in the pre-existence remarks that “as a girl” her ONLY concern when she’s born is whether she’s pretty).

The biggest doctrinal problems presented by Saturday’s Warrior involve the pre-existence, an essential part of the narrative and the message.  Saturday’s Warrior didn’t invent speculation on the pre-existence — a staple of Mormonism since the 19th century — but does indulge in it to an extreme extent.  Defenders will argue that the musical was never meant to be a strictly accurate doctrinal lesson — which is true — but since it presents a moral message that is clearly intended to be based in LDS doctrine, and supports that message primarily through arguments based in the pre-existence, then it’s not surprising that audience members might find it hard to determine which elements Saturday’s Warrior wants you to take as gospel truth and which as merely fictional narrative devices.

(The beginning titles of the Millennium Edition DVD, in fact, extol Saturday’s Warrior’s impact over the years on “adjusting priorities” and “welcoming children” into LDS families — implying there’s more than a few members who have taken the play’s content to be more than idle speculation.)

As expected per its pro-family theme,  Saturday’s Warrior dismisses the idea of abortion with disdain and revulsion, but in context presents an interestingly nuanced view of the spiritual status of unborn children.  As portrayed in the film, pre-existent spirits do NOT enter their physical bodies upon conception, but at a later time much closer to their actual birth, implying that unborn fetuses are, in fact, not fully “human” from a theological perspective.   When Jimmy’s mom is pregnant for the eighth time and ends up miscarrying, Emily’s spirit is shown merely to be kept waiting for her opportunity to be born, rather than the miscarried fetus counting as her physical body — an interesting view of conception and humanity that ties in directly with the LDS Church’s conservative-but-not-THAT-conservative view on abortion.

No such link exists between current LDS doctrine and the Saturday’s Warrior concept of romantic relationships in the pre-existence, however.  Saturday’s Warrior directly supports the idea of “soul mates” — existing relationships that were kindled in the pre-existence and are destined to be re-kindled when both partners find each other again back on Earth.  Julie Flinders is originally waiting for a missionary boyfriend, then “Dear Johns” him for someone else.  Even as she’s engaged to an (unseen) LDS man, however, she feels that something isn’t right, as her “eternal” boyfriend Todd is still unbaptized and living in another state.  When they finally meet for the first time, it’s love at first sight and (presumably) they live happily ever after.

President Spencer W. Kimball had this to say about the idea of soul-mates:

“Soul mates” are a fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price.  (BYU Devotional Address, September 7, 1976)

Problems with the “soul mate” idea should be obvious:  it encourages an unrealistic standard for finding a partner by implying that there is a perfect mate waiting for you (in fact, probably pre-arranged for you before you were born), and you will have some sort of supernatural spiritual confirmation or recognition when you look into their eyes the first time.  When an ardent believer in the “soul-mate” philosophy encounters a good, decent potential companion but with some minor incompatibilities and without any obvious sparks when dating, they will often say ‘no, thanks’ and continue waiting for their “perfect” match.  (Unfortunately, many singles are still waiting today.)

Even after marriage, the belief in pre-destined soul mates can be dangerous: when marital problems arise, one spouse may think, “We shouldn’t be having these kinds of relationship problems — he/she is supposed to be my soul mate, compatible with me in every way.  Wait…maybe I married the wrong person after all.   Our relationship is doomed to fail!” — thus creating major marital problems out of minor, natural ones.

Most mature adults know that there are no “perfect” marriages or matches because there are no perfect people.  Needless to say, the track record of LDS who jump into marriage quickly based on a brief encounter with some sort of a “spiritual witness” is…mixed, to say the least.  In Julie Flinders’ case, we know she shouldn’t be with Elder Kessler, who’s portrayed as an arrogant jerk — but are we to believe she would really be doomed to eternal misery if she married a righteous Church member other than Todd?

The phrase “Saturday’s Warriors” itself implies a certain greatness and glory for those called to be on Earth during the “last days” (Saturday being the last day of the week, before Christ comes again on “Sunday”)  Saturday’s Warrior didn’t invent this idea either, that the current spirits on Earth were somehow greater and wiser than others in the pre-existence and saved until the end, the days of the “greatest wickedness”.  However, this has also been discounted by modern Church leaders:

We continue to receive reports of the distribution of a quote attributed to me which begins, “The youth of the Church today were generals in the war in heaven,” and ends with the statement that when they return to heaven “all in attendance will bow in your presence.” I did not make that statement. I do not believe that statement.  The statement, on occasion, has been attributed to others of the First Presidency and the Twelve. None of the Brethren made that statement. (http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/39791/Pres-Packer-refutes-quote.html)

It’s kind of amazing that Saturday’s Warrior could survive for so long as a LDS cultural cornerstone with so many of its ideas directly discredited by modern leaders.

The reliance upon speculative doctrines from the pre-existence for its theological arguments undercuts the message the film is trying to make.  When Jimmy’s friends present their arguments for “zero-population” — limited resources, environmental impacts, etc — the film’s only counter-argument is that there is an eighth child spirit waiting in heaven to be born to one particular family.

What if there wasn’t an eighth spirit waiting to join the Flinders family?  How would families know how many children were “assigned” to them beforehand when making decisions anyway?  Since the film makes clear those unborn children will just be assigned to the next available slot and receive their physical bodies somewhere eventually, how important is it really even from an LDS perspective for Emily to join her “assigned” family?

In 2011, where the current First Presidency has 3, 6, and 2 kids respectively, a family deciding to stop at seven kids would probably seem prudent to just about everyone, given many modern practical realities of life (college, health insurance, etc…).

(The proper counter-argument to the “zero-population” idea is that having an aging population due to falling birth-rates below replacement level will eventually cause more social problems than having too many kids in the first place.  Many countries today — in Europe and Asia, in particular — are facing societal collapse within a generation or two as the carefully constructed social programs and safety nets will soon have too many people taking out and not enough paying in.)

The Saturday’s Warrior approach to the pre-existent spirits’ transition to Earth runs into logical difficulties when considered outside of a strict LDS context.   In the film, one spirit in the pre-existence is hurried into position to leave for Earth with the handler saying, “Hurry!  If you miss this slot, the next one’s in Siberia.” (Well, I guess you’d better hurry because no one wants to be born in Siberia, right?)

But what about the boy or girl who was born in Siberia, then?  What right does Emily Flinders — or any of the other spirits featured in the film — have to be born in a happy, Mormon family instead of the millions of other birth locations around the world in less ideal circumstances? By focusing narrowly on a handful of privileged Mormon spirits, Saturday’s Warrior casually ignores the ramifications of its own narrative device, blithely skipping over the implications for the other millions of spirits who apparently don’t deserve the same blessings that the Flinders do.   This bias seems to play into the natural tendency of many LDS families to believe that they are choice spirits that have “earned” (in some abstract way) being born into comparative peace and luxury while other children are born into brothels in Calcutta or to starving families in Africa.

Again, pre-existence speculation is not new and is not going away.  And the reasons why folklore like this exist are understandable:  if you believe in the pre-existence and wonder about the vast differences in living situations between babies being born in every country around the globe, there are only two possibilities:

1.  It is random

2.  It is not random

Since most LDS do not believe God traffics much in “randomness” that leaves only the possibility that the parents we are all born to in mortal life are not random, but assigned — like the eight Flinders children — according to some kind of criteria.  What would that criteria be, though?

The other reason speculative theories on the pre-existence continue is that they can’t be disproven.  Since no one remembers anything from before birth anyway, LDS can easily argue why couldn’t attributes like race, social class, and ease of access to gospel ordinances be determined by some kind of pre-birth meritocracy based on righteousness?   If the alternative is just total randomness, it’s easy to see why LDS families would inherently want to believe they deserve their place in life, rather than simply getting lucky and winning a pre-birth lottery.

Of course, for a young girl born in poverty in Mongolia or into an abusive family anywhere who sees Saturday’s Warrior, what conclusion would she draw other than “God apparently doesn’t love me as much as other people.” Obviously, that’s not really the message that Saturday’s Warrior wants to provide, but isn’t that the direct implication of the underlying story for anyone living in a non-ideal family situation?

The popularity of Saturday’s Warrior through the years isn’t too surprising upon reflection.  The music is catchy.  The content is clean and safe to LDS audiences.  It’s content and story affirms LDS beliefs and appeals to their sense of pride.   It is possible that audience members genuinely enjoyed the story and the music of Saturday’s Warrior, then left the theater with good feelings, which — according to established LDS formula — usually means it’s the Holy Ghost testifying of gospel truths, which then made those members more likely to give the play greater doctrinal credence than they should.  (See this recent post here on the subject)

In the end, I don’t know if I’d recommend Saturday’s Warrior to those who hadn’t yet been exposed to it, but it certainly has enough positive elements to understand why it has lasted as long within LDS culture as it has.

My Grades:

B+ for the music

C+ for the story

D for the false and theologically dangerous doctrinal lessons.

(See also this recent post by Mahonri Stewart about his perspective on Saturday’s Warrior through the years)