196. Savage Journey (1983)
Director: Tom McGowan
Writer: Philip Yordan
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In
The story of the rise of the Mormon church and it’s eventual settlement in Utah.
We open with a scene of Joseph Smith being kidnapped from his home. He’s about to be lynched when a local preacher stops the mob, noting there are too many of them present to get away with it. So they tar and feather him instead, leaving him tied up. The preacher’s wife shows up and cuts him loose because what’s been done to him is wrong, and the movie is off and running!
Or generally limping along.
I’m not going to go through the plot of this movie because there isn’t one. It’s about Joseph Smith meeting Brigham Young and how the latter ends up developing the church into what it is today. Only it doesn’t communicate that story. There’s no sense of drama, tension, or focus. Rather than focus on a particularly dramatic moment in the development of the Mormon church, it tends to gloss the entire history, never focusing much on any one thing.
If there’s a narrative throughline, it’s the story of Samuel. Brigham Young, during his first mission trip, encounters Samuel and his wife Claire. They’ve immigrated from Europe and Samuel has become an atheist or at least an agnostic due to his rejection of aristocratic corruption. His position is, “How can God be good when He allows such suffering?” Basically it’s the question of theodicy which has never been satisfactorily answered. Claire, though, becomes a member of the church and the couple follow Smith and Young across the country as the church is routinely driven from their homes.
Samuel, narratively, is supposed to be the point-of-view character, the outsider who’s eventually won over to the faith thereby communicating the righteousness of Mormonism. The movie doesn’t spend enough time with him to do that, though, only checking in with him in each town for him to say, “I ain’t a Mormon yet,” and, “What? We’re moving again? Oh, c’mon!” At the end, of course, he converts. If that’s the story you want to tell, fine, even my unbelieving heart likes stories of faith journeys, but actually tell it.
Instead, we generally follow Young (Smith is killed by a mob halfway through) and there’s no real character there. He’s deeply dedicated to the faith and that’s about it. Various things happen, but I’m not Mormon so their importance or significance don’t register, and the movie is counting on you having that context. This isn’t a dramatization of the early Mormon church, it’s an illustration. You have to plug in the details yourself. “Oh, this is that moment. So that’s what it looked like. Oh, the Governor is lying to Smith right now! This is tense.” You have to come with that knowledge. The movie doesn’t give you any of these cues itself.
Initially, I thought this was going to be propaganda or a proselytizing work, but it doesn’t even reach those levels. It’s very much addressing an audience with a shared context and not making a great effort to talk to anyone else. There are nods to outsiders—the church’s stance on race (officially anti-slavery, but fails to mention their belief that non-white people are marked as cursed by God) and polygamy—but they feel incidental, like literal asterisks. Regarding polygamy, Young finds out about Smith’s declaration of it, tells his wife he’s not interested in having a second wife, then she picks a young widow for him to marry. The way it’s played up is, instead of having a harem, it fills Young’s house with a gaggle of gossiping women. Later, when representatives from the government ask Young about the church’s stance on polygamy, he plays it up as a mercy, as widows and spinsters being taken in and given a home—it’s not some creepy sex thing, it’s like an animal shelter, for women!
The movie’s kind of just nothing. If it focused in more on a specific moment, it’d be more interesting, but that’s not its goal. This is a movie for Mormons, part of that genre of Christian media whose primary purpose is to fill time to prevent secular media from having a space. It’s not being held to the standard of being good, it’s being held to the standard of being ideologically correct. As long as it reinforces the central message of “keep thinking about the church,” it passes. Unsurprisingly, the pair behind this movie did another one just called Brigham. I imagine it’s a very similar script.
McGowan and Yordan themselves are an interesting pair, though. Yordan wrote the script for the hallucinogenically bad Cry Wilderness, episode 2 of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return and the two of them did Night Train to Terror (forthcoming on this blog) and Cataclysm aka The Nightmare Never Ends. In other words, they’re exploitation hacks. Here they’re just exploiting an audience that’s willing to be pandered to. It’s neither offensive nor dramatic and just kind of meanders along. I don’t particularly recommend it, but it’s not hard to find if you’re curious.