Sketching the Prophet: Portrayals of Joseph Smith in Film

I recently re-watched the DVD of Christian Vuissa’s film Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold, which confirmed to me once again why I loved the film. I originally saw the film in a movie theater in Mesa, AZ during its limited theatrical release and I came out of the theater with a quiet, pervading sense washing over me. I left introspective and thoughtful about Joseph Smith’s early history, as well as how my role as a Mormon and my role as a playwright/screenwriter/artist interconnect. But I also thought about how absolutely refreshing it was to see a faithful Mormon portray Joseph Smith with a degree of honesty and complexity. That is too rare a quality and I commend Christian Vuissa for making a film that is both candid and faithful, showing that the two are not mutually exclusive qualities.

My experience in watching the LDS Church’s official film some years ago, however, was quite the contrast. I went in with rather moderate expectations for Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration when it was originally released for tourists and visitors to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. I had seen previous Church films like Legacy and Testaments and had enjoyed them for what they were–faith affirming films of a moderate quality. Those films weren’t high art in my opinion, but they were enjoyable on a certain level and I felt the Spirit in watching them (although I must say Tim Gail, who played Legacy‘s Joseph Smith, was the most awful on record. Mercifully, Joseph Smith was relegated to a small role in that film).

So I was expecting something along those lines, and was pretty excited if for nothing but the simple fact that I am a big Mormon History buff and had wanted to see a real Joseph Smith biopic produced for some time. I thought it was especially important after the discouraging news that Richard Dutcher was no longer going to make his Joseph Smith film due to lack of funding (this, of course, was before Dutcher left the Church). So in my mind at the time, this was probably the only real Joseph Smith film we were going to get for a while. So when my wife Anne and I went to see it I had moderated expectations, but I also had the slightest sense of hope that it would at least be as good as something like Legacy. Not a hard standard to beat, I thought. Unfortunately, as the film progressed I became increasingly frustrated and distraught.

Anne wasn’t particularly impressed by the film, but she was surprised at the intensity of my response. I was intensely discouraged by the approach they had taken with the film. I wasn’t expecting them to plumb the depths of Joseph Smith’s character and related controversies. For example, I knew there would be no mention of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, this was the Church trying to put its best foot forward, after all. However, the characterization of Joseph Smith was so shallow and devoid of conflict or interest, that I was astonished that such an intriguing and layered person as Joseph Smith could be so watered down.

There were some decent production values on a technical and acting level (although I do think there are some exceptions there, too, most crucially with Nathan Mitchell who never could seem to summon the charisma and personality needed for Joseph Smith, as nice as he seemed). Yet the high drama of Joseph Smith’s life turned into a one note, flatly told narrative… if it’s structure could truly be called a narrative. The film had no true story or character arcs, instead opting to tell a scrapbook version of Joseph Smith’s life with vignettes and isolated, unconnected events. It felt a lot less like a movie and a lot more like a glorified instructional aid. It was a seminary video with a big budget. Where I was hoping for catharsis, the film wanted to give me mellow, warm fuzzies. I left the film surprisingly devastated. But it was just a film, right? I thought my feelings were melodramatic even at the time, but I couldn’t shake them.

With the passage of time, I was able to see the film again and appreciate it better for what it was, as soon as I knew what to expect and could negotiate my expectations even lower. But the experience had still left within me a fierce outcry about how we represent Joseph Smith in our Mormon art. Fortunately, there have been other films that have struck a better balance. Jonathan Scarfe’s portrayal of Joseph Smith, for example, in The Work and the Glory films was powerfully nuanced and bolstered by some solid characterization by the screenwriters as well, especially in the second (the best of the triolgy) and third films. This was not a full Richard Bushman treatment of Joseph Smith, but it was getting closer.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Vincent Price played Joseph Smith (albeit briefly) in the black and white Hollywood treatment of Brigham Young (which was historically loose, but at least sympathetic towards the Mormons).

There was also a series Church History seminary videos that came out in the late ’90s (I remember seeing them when I was a senior in high school, so that would place them around 1998 or 1999). The writing, film making and acting in those short films were surprisingly sophisticated, complex and powerful, especially coming directly from the Church’s audiovisual department. With portrayals of Zion’s Camp, apostasies, conflict and high drama, the Church did a much better job with that series than all of the sound and fury signifying nothing in Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. And, from an acting stand point, only Jonathan Scarfe played a better Joseph Smith than the actor in those seminary videos, in my opinion.

But back to Vuissa’s version of the Prophet. Although Dustin Harding did a decently credible job in portraying a young, still inexperienced Joseph, it was really Vuissa’s approach as a director and screenwriter that gave this newest version humanity, depth and a level of sophistication. Also, Vuissa wasn’t afraid to handle potentially controversial subjects like Joseph Smith’s treasure digging, yet he also placed it in the context of his environment, his abilities and his upbringing–his father was one of the people who got him involved in the practice, and Joseph had always been somewhat of a reluctant contributor anyway. In the process it becomes less of a big deal and subsumes it to a lesser part of a larger narrative. That’s the thing about context, once you better understand what surrounds a thing, you understand the thing itself much better.

The characters surrounding Joseph Smith are also much more fleshed out. From his point of view, Emma’s father Isaac Hale has very valid reasons to objecting to Emma and Joseph’s marriage. And Vuissa is wise and fair to show this, to show what gave people pause about Joseph, just how crazy all of his talk about angels and golden scripture can seem to an outsider.

All in the process, however, Vuissa is building up a case for Joseph, not one filled with apologetics and hyperbolic straw men, but rather showing a very human Joseph Smith that we not only empathize with, but admire more because of his struggles. Of course by placing Joseph in this time period, Vuissa is able to sidestep issues like Joseph Smith’s polygamy in Nauvoo and other hot button issues, but that’s besides the point. This is a rich period of Joseph’s life. It’s worth telling, especially as it connects to the Book of Mormon, and he was smart to limit the scope of his story so that he could have a more focused narrative, instead of trying to bridge 24 years into one movie. And it’s to Vuissa’s credit that when he had a choice to be honest about the struggles that Joseph Smith had to deal with or a more sanitized version of the story, he opted for the struggle.

Here’s the thing with portraying Joseph Smith: although Joseph Smith famously said “no man knows my history,” we must nevertheless undertake the attempt anyway. In portraying Joseph Smith it does him a great disservice to portray as a two dimensional cut out. He was a man of depth, of conflicting motivations, of personality, of passion, of sadness, of anger, of indignation, of humor, and of heroism. To downplay his complexity, even his flaws, not only makes for bad art and bad history, but also bad religion.

Joseph Smith loved wrestling, and I think he deserves to be wrestled with. In trying to understand him, it’s likely that we’ll lose that match, but we grow from the effort–heaven knows, we grow!

5 thoughts on “Sketching the Prophet: Portrayals of Joseph Smith in Film”

  1. “Joseph Smith loved wrestling, and I think he deserves to be wrestled with.”

    Excellent line, Mahonri.

  2. I don’t think we’ve seen the definitive Joseph Smith film yet, although I believe we will someday. Some visionary filmmaker will take the leap and create a robust portrait that will capture the depth, passion, sadness (etc) you mentioned.

    I like Jonathan Scarfe the best also, although I think Dustin Harding is very effective. (But I think he’s more suitable as a younger Joseph than Nauvoo-era Joseph, unless Vuissa waits ten years before filming sequels.)

    I think we should mention Richard Dutcher has stated in interviews that the “lack of funding” for his Joseph Smith film was partly due to direct intervention from high-level Church authorities who obtained his original screenplay and put pressure on his financial backers to withdraw from the project.

    If true, that is an ever-present obstacle for any future filmmaker to create that definitive film: the risk of having to accept a more “correlated” vision of the Prophet’s life in order to acquire funding from LDS backers in the first place. Will there be interest (and money) from non-LDS sources for such a project?

  3. I’ll admit that Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration goes flat as soon as the Saints arrive in Nauvoo, but I think the early scenes of Joseph Smith as a boy are fairly well done and even powerful in that film. I was impressed, for example, with the scene where Joseph refuses to put dirt on Alvin grave. I read that as an attempt to explain psychologically why the prophet was always drawn to doctrines that explained the state of the soul after death.

  4. By far, the best Joseph Smith portrayal yet is Dean Cain in September Dawn. Too bad the rest of the movie was horrible to epic proportions, but at least Cain’s JS was one flower amidst a sea of melodramatic thorns.

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