Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Prophet of the Restoration: The New Version

So I finally got around to watching the updated version of the film Joseph Smith:  Prophet of the Restoration.  I shared my thoughts on the first version here (and also on Main Street Plaza, which also contains the YouTube videos.)

The second version is, surprisingly, much better, both as a film and as a missionary tool.  It stands on its own much more strongly than the original, and even some of the problems that I had with the original were patched.

Prophetgasm Instead of Plot
The majority of the fictional, trivial elements have been removed.  The historical events are explained in much more depth, allowing for a more unified, smoother narrative.  It also allows the Joseph Smith story to be understood more easily by viewers who may not have heard it before.  This makes the movie much easier to watch and probably accounts for most of why I didn't hate it so much.

Obnoxious, Stupid Preacher
This one wasn't fixed.  Young Joseph's preacher friend is still a dick.  This is mostly the result of bad writing and rushed storytelling.

The Perfect Couple
Most of the sappy perfect-married-couple-lying-in-bed-discussing-things scenes were removed in the new cut. But there's still a lot of energy devoted to showing how wonderful the relationship between Joseph and Emma was.  And, of course, still no mention of Joseph's polygamy.  So no progress here.

No Cause, Just Effect
This was another issue that wasn't really fixed.  Mostly in the interest of improving plot cohesiveness, the motives of Joseph's enemies were least in passing.  The film mentions (some) of the charges on which Joseph and his friends were held.  But instead of really explaining why these people were so out to get the Mormons, the film simply asserts that they had some misguided reasons and leaves it at that.

No Gun
This, unsurprisingly, was not changed.  I am glad, however, that the film removed the cheesy, whispered version of Joseph's famous last words ("O Lord My God!").  Considering that, according to John Taylor in Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph "exclaimed" those words, the solemn whisper seemed like a needless, overdramatic mutation of a historical account.  But the whole martyrdom scene was pretty shamelessly whitewashed.  Still.

Ugly Means Evil
This didn't change.  The majority of the Mormons were attractive and well-groomed and the majority of Joseph's enemies looked like inbred mountain men.

Moving on to the things that the church probably didn't intend for their film to teach people:

The Church Draws In Vulnerable People
The removal of the fictional subplot involving the father and daughter traveling from England to meet Joseph did wonders for this problem.  Seemed like people were joining up with the Mormons because they believed Joseph's stories.  That seems much less pathetic than traveling thousands of miles to hear somebody tell you you'll see your dead mother again.

Joseph Molded a Religion to Match His Needs
This was unaltered.  However, I realized something that I missed the first time around.  The church showed a little restraint in this regard by not mentioning the age of accountability.  At the same time that Joseph learned that those who would have received the gospel if they'd lived to hear it would be saved, he also received revelation that told him children who died before the age of accountability would also be saved.  Considering how many of his own infants Joseph had to bury, you'd think this would be a pretty big deal for him too.  The film showed him burying his firstborn--but it never mentioned the doctrine about his dead children being saved.  That may not be important, but I think it's worth mentioning.

Mormons Kinda Do Worship Joseph Smith
Yep.  This aspect of the film was only intensified in the second version.

There are three new things that I'd like to bring up:

Lesser Attempt to Dispel Claims of Racism
The episode in which Joseph donates a horse to help a black man buy his son's freedom was cut from the new version.  Perhaps because it was fictional.  However, from the church's perspective, it might have been wiser to leave it in.  In the updated movie, all Joseph does is bandage a black woman's bleeding feet after she walks hundreds of miles to join the Mormons.  While this is nice, it doesn't send the same message.  Sacrificing personally to help buy someone's freedom sends a much stronger non-racist message than simply wrapping up a lady's foot.  Considering the criticism the church has received for racism, you'd think they'd want to bring out the big guns here.

Woe is Us!
The new film is actually pretty whiny.  Maybe it's just because I've heard the stories a thousand times, but I got really tired of "Oh, look, evil men are persecuting us again, let's go weep over our losses and complain about having to move again."  Did people treat the Mormons horribly?  Yes.  Did the film make a big show of whining about how unfair it all was?  Also yes.  This happened almost two centuries ago, but you get the impression that the filmmakers take all this stuff very personally.

Joseph the Rebel
When Joseph is extradited to Missouri, his friends catch up and rescue him before he leaves Illinois.  Joseph cheers them on as they approach and gloats to his captors as he walks free.  An honorable man who preaches about "being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates" and "obeying, honoring and sustaining the law" would not have acted this way.  What Joseph did here was just plain wrong.  And that's why I was shocked to see it included in the film.  The film plays it off by showing Joseph held no grudge against his captors.  He invites them to dinner and treats them hospitably.  But that doesn't change the fact that he acted with hypocrisy and rebelliousness.  This was the biggest thing the church did wrong in the second version of the film.  It fails to paint Joseph in a favorable light.

Despite that, however, much of it was improved.  As a whole, and from a secular perspective, it's a much better film.  From a religious perspective, it does a better job achieving the church's purposes.  It should work better (though still ineffectively) as a tool for convincing people to fall for Mormonism's lies.  It's grade-A propaganda calculated to garner sympathy, cover up historical fact, and bring to the forefront the most wholesome, easily digestible aspects of the religion.

And that doesn't seem right to me.

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