Friday, June 03, 2011


In the 1840s, a band of Mormons who have slowly moved westward to escape persecution are now feeling the heat in Illinois. During a huge celebration, a vigilante mob attacks with torches and guns. They set the house on fire, whip a couple of older men to death, and even shoot one of the few non-Mormons present. When Mormon leader Joseph Smith (Vincent Price) suggests that the Mormons arm themselves for protection, he is arrested for treason, found guilty despite a heartfelt courtroom speech from Smith's friend Brigham Young (Dean Jagger), and killed by a mob. Soon the Mormons are split between staying to compromise with the town businessmen, a position advocated by Angus Duncan (Brian Donlevy), and following Brigham Young on an exodus to Mexico. They wind up leaving, crossing an iced-over river as a mob follows, burning all the Mormon homes. Even Duncan comes along, though tensions remain between the two men--it seems to come down to a question of who is getting the "real" messages from God. The strong implication here is that Young doesn't feel like God is speaking through him, but he has to say so to lead his people. The rest of the film follows their trek west; many of them, including Duncan, want to go on to California and the Gold Rush, but Young is determined to settle in valley they find near a salt lake. Most of the families stay and endure a very hard winter, only to face a horde of crickets who are about to destroy their crops. Just as Young is about to admit his failings, flocks of seagulls appear and eat the crickets. Next thing you know, Salt Lake City is a going concern.

Almost everything I know about Mormons comes from Angels in America or South Park--I had a Mormon friend in high school, but he blended right in with us Catholics and Protestants. I'm sure this film is just as fictionalized as any other slice of Hollywood history, but you can't prove it by me. The historical aspect is very interesting; Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both come across as utopian socialists, advocating living by the laws of nature, not buying or selling land, and working together for the common good so that no one accumulates too much money. Most of the actors are quite good, including Jagger, Mary Astor as Young's wife, Jane Darwell as a Mormon matriarch, and John Carradine as a cornrowed Mormon cowboy, but too much time is spent on a romance subplot between Jonathan Kent (Tyrone Power, pictured in the background, with Jagger) and the non-Mormon Zina (Linda Darnell), who, after her father is killed in the raid, joins up with the Mormons, though she never joins the faith, and spends the rest of the movie dating Kent. Power and Darnell are two lovely people, but they don't work up many sparks, and there's no compelling reason to root for them to marry. Actually, the whole polygamy issue is mostly skirted here--a joke is made early on about multiple wives, and Darnell's chief objection to marrying Power is that she's afraid of becoming just one of many objects of his affection. The movie was, for a time, retitled Brigham Young--Frontiersman in an attempt to bring in Western fans. [FCM]

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