Ephraim’s Rescue is writer/director T.C.Christensen’s second foray into the journeys and struggles of pioneer Mormons, following 2011’s 17 Miracles. It is not strictly a sequel, as it portrays common events between the films with different actors and different historical angles. Rather, Ephraim’s Rescue is a companion film — one that approaches the Martin handcart story from the perspective of the rescuers, and one that will appeal to the same audience.
Ephraim’s Rescue was released on May 31, 2013 and is currently playing in local theaters.
Ephraim Hanks was a Mormon convert who left home at a young age with his brother Sidney, seeking to become “a good man” and develop his spiritual gifts. In 1856, after the two had settled in Utah with Brigham Young’s group of Saints, Ephraim was among those called when the Willie and Martin handcart companies were stuck on the wrong side of the Rocky Mountains as winter hit and needed rescuing. When Ephraim discovers the starving and frostbitten handcart party, he soon puts his “spiritual gift” of healing to good use. But are the rescuers too late to get everyone back over the mountains to safety? Ephraim’s Rescue also features the story of Thomas Dobson, an English teenager travelling with his mother in the Martin party who learns about the value of service and sacrifice on the trek — “losing his life to find it” as his mother teaches.
There’s something to be said about experience, and Christensen and company already knowing the ropes for portraying 19th century pioneer stories, including costumes, make-up, and snowy filming conditions, makes an alternate pioneer project like this attractive. However, like Ryan Little with his Saints & Soldiers sequel, returning to the same well as a previous film, covering approximately the same story and themes leads to diminishing returns. Ephraim’s Rescue is competent and has a good message, but comes across as more preachy and simplistic than its predecessor, along with the feeling of deja vu that we’ve largely seen this movie already.
Darin Southam (One Man’s Treasure) is solid in the lead role of Ephraim, although his more passive character lacks the intensity of personality that Jasen Wade’s Levi Savage brought to the earlier film. Nevertheless, we follow along with him as he learns the movie’s theme: “being worthy when your opportunity arrives is what life is all about.” As with virtually all LDS-produced historical films, the 19th-century period detail is well-done. The stories of the pioneers and rescuers sacrificing all to make it to Zion are moving as before, and both Ephraim’s and Thomas’s education on the value of service and sacrifice is meaningful.
Christensen, though, doesn’t appear to have his directorial A-game here, utilizing a few too many slow-motion shots attempting to inject dramatic energy in scenes that aren’t inherently dramatic. The dialogue is basic, perhaps to ensure Primary-age children still get the message, and Christensen adds an unnecessary voice-over through much of the film that restates what’s already evident on screen. (Ephraim takes a fork in the road, stops, looks confused for a second, then turns around. Then the voice-over states, “I realized I had taken a wrong turn.” Thanks for that.) The characters in Ephraim’s Rescue never have anything compelling to say; however, Christensen properly allows their actions to speak louder than their words ever could. If you look past the banal platitudes in the dialogue and voice-over there are still some powerful lessons about service and compassion on screen.
Ephraim’s Rescue is based largely on the memoir Scouting for the Mormons on the Great Frontier, compiled from oral re-tellings of Ephraim’s life stories collected by his posterity over many decades. Ephraim’s life experiences in the film are taken directly from the text, although how reliably we should take the text itself is another question entirely. The oral history format of the memoir lends itself to tall-sounding tales, exaggerated for effect over time before being recorded in a book, and many of the ‘unbelievable’ elements of Ephraim’s life have that Davy-Crockett-killed-a-bear-when-he-was-three feel. (One passage from the book reads Ephraim “had developed into as strong a specimen of manhood as could be found in the country”, and that he “was destined to perform a work, which in later years caused even the savages of the plains to consider him with wonder and amazement”, indicating the memoir isn’t necessarily going to be an objective history of the subject.) Ephraim Hanks may have been a man larger than life, but probably not *this* large. Take the events of the movie — which include miraculous healings, instantaneously answered prayers, confounding Christian preachers merely by quoting seminary Scripture Mastery verses, and an encounter with one of the “Three Nephites” — at face value at your own risk.
Christensen is mostly faithful to the text of Scouting for the Mormons, although can’t resist adding to the tall-tale feel by throwing in even more melodramatic elements of divine intervention for effect. Compare for instance the circumstances of Ephraim finding a buffalo to feed the party, or saving Thomas Dobson’s feet from frostbite in the film, versus the accounts in his memoir — or even Dobson’s own recollection of the event — and you can see the dramatic license taken by Ephraim’s Rescue. Granted, all movies based on existing literary material will tend to do this, although Ephraim’s Rescue is framed as “true accounts taken from pioneer journals” which raises the bar for historical accuracy, I think.
While there aren’t as major “revisionist history” issues as with 17 Miracles, there are some problematic decisions. Christensen portrays Brigham Young sending the rescue party over the mountains as a dynamic act of foreknowledge and prophecy set while “the days were still warm” and the handcarts were still moving safely in summer weather. (In reality, Brigham Young found out only in early October after faster travelers found the Willie/Martin groups already in winter trouble and reported to Salt Lake HQ, setting the rescue in motion. Is the historical story not inspiring enough?) Unlike the previous film, Ephraim’s Rescue acknowledges the existence of polygamy among the early Saints — albeit only for a joke or two — although the movie isn’t bold enough to show any glimpse of the two wives Ephraim leaves behind in Utah when he departs for his rescue.
Christensen also can’t escape his tendency to constantly appeal to authority. One pioneer wife begs Ephraim to heal her dying husband with the non sequitur, “He’s a good man. He was the president of the branch in London. He always sacrificed his rations for the rest of his family.” (Which of those three sentences doesn’t belong?) Later in the end titles Christensen describes the future destiny of many of the pioneers and rescuers by listing only what callings they later held.
The film’s core audience, however — people who want to see larger-than-life pioneer stories — will respond to the meaningful moments in Ephraim’s Rescue without nitpicking historical accuracy. Ephraim Hanks, even with the obvious mythologizing, is a compelling historical figure, and provides a good example of dedication and service. Like most movie sequels (whether this film counts as one or not), Ephraim’s Rescue will appeal to fans of 17 Miracles while being weaker in virtually all areas. T.C.Christensen and company obviously find pioneer stories inspiring (and with good reason), but it may be time to set them aside and go onto something fresh and new next time.
Final Grade: B-