The primary problem in dealing with a film like The Work and the Glory: American Zion is its episodic nature. Kind of like the second of The Lord of the Rings, American Zion has neither a real beginning nor a real end. After quick introduction to the characters and back-story, the film begins with the marriages of Nathan and Joshua Steed and ends with all narrative and thematic threads up in the air. Though its episodic form is understandable, I still think some temporary closure could have been brought to the some of the storylines, at least so that it felt more like a movie than an episode of a soap opera. Overall, though, I do think it’s a better product than its predecessor.
The script balances well between the factual historical events and the more personal on goings of the Steed family. Though he still doesn’t believe in the church itself, Benjamin (Sam Hennings) is coming to terms with the fact that his family does, and eventually moves with them to Kirtland. Meanwhile, Joshua (Eric Johnson) is adding fuel to the anti-Mormon sentiment in Missouri. I appreciate the underlying Christianity in the family conflicts. Nathan (Alexander Carroll) names his son after his hateful, rebellious brother Joshua and Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe) tells Benjamin, furious over the behavior of his son, that Benjamin himself is the one who needs to repent and forgive Joshua.
We see a great deal of Mormon persecutions: an early imprisonment of Joseph, the tar and feathering of Joseph in Kirtland, the ravishment of the Jackson County saints that prompted the formation of Zion’s Camp, and the destruction of W.W. Phelps’ printing press. The line between the humanness and saintliness in Joseph’s response is well done. He doesn’t give into all the persecutions as a quiet martyr, but there’s a striking nobility in his reaction ““ it is exactly as you would imagine a prophet would be.
One problem with the persecutions is that we almost never get a sense of where the persecutors are coming from. No doubt their motives were largely irrational, but irrational motives are better than none at all. For a long time we are left completely in the dark as to why they keep attacking the saints. The one time we are given a reason comes as the Missourians plan to kick the saints out of their neighborhoods ““ because the Mormons are abolitionists. I understand that was indeed one of the problems, but it alone seems a bit simplistic.
American Zion has received some criticism for its heavy-handedness, which I am somewhat sympathetic to, but one thing that those unfamiliar with church history often miss is that the history itself is heavy-handed! If the film had wanted to drive in the persecutions and trials of the saints in this period, there’s so much more it could have done. In the Kirtland tar and feathering of Joseph, as I recall, Joseph’s tooth was broken and he thereafter spoke with a slight whistle in his speech for the rest of his life. We don’t see that in the film, nor do we see how painful a tar and feathering really is. The whole episode is underplayed, as I see it. We also see very little of the violent sacking of the saints in Jackson County. If the film were pure fiction, I could agree to the accusations of heavy-handedness, but this film is really just barely brushing up against the major plot points of church history.
American Zion is not directed at Mormons per se, by which I mean you don’t need to know anything about Mormons to follow anything in the story. But I don’t see anything here that I think non-Mormons will get very excited about. When it’s not going over church history, characters are struggling with whether or not to believe in the church. If it weren’t for a great production value, you could almost mistake it for one of the free DVD’s that you can get from the church by calling a toll-free number. But for those who believe, it’s an often touching, sometimes powerful reminder of the faith of our forefathers.