The Year of Joseph Smith
It's been a big year for Joseph Smith. For starters, it's the bicentennial of his birth. That's two hundred years for those of you unfamiliar with century-counting language.
Three hundred years is what, tricentennial? And four hundred years is, golly I don't know ... quartet-centennial? I bet you don't know either. Which makes me realize: we NEVER celebrate the tricentennial or quartet-centennial of anything. After two hundred years people stop caring. You never hear someone say, "Hey did you know that today is the tricentennial of such and such?" Or, "Next year is the sextet-centennial of such and such."
No. No one ever says that. And why? Because after 200 years, nobody gives a hoot.
Case in point: the year 1605.
What happened in 1605, I asked myself. This year should mark the quartet-centennial of what event?
To get the answer I googled (yes, that's a word now) the year 1605.
And do you know what I found? Boy are you in for a shock. How could modern historians have missed this one? Why aren't the newspapers this year plastered with quartet-centennial celebration announcements for what took place during that monumental year?
Because as everyone knows, 1605 was the year of -- drum roll please -- the Gunpowder Plot. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the Gunpowder Plot.
But wait. What's this? YOU don't know what the Gunpowder Plot is?
Allow me to explain.
Back in 1605 some dunderhead named Guy Fawkes tried to sneak 20 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar of the Houses of Parliament in an attempt to blow King James I of England to smithereens. And since this event is called the Gunpowder PLOT and not the Gunpowder Bomb, it should come as no surprise to you that Mr. Fawkes failed in his attempt.
So 1605 isn't even a year when something happened. It's a year when something ALMOST happened.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad the evil plot was foiled. We can all thank Sir Thomas Knyvet (a surname that sounds like a sneeze) for that. He caught Fawkes in the act and sent him packing.
Whew! What a relief that must have been. I can see it now, all those wigged, stuffy Englishmen giving themselves high-fives upon learning that they weren't going to be blown to bits.
"Jolly good show on catching that bomber, Sir. Knyvet."
"Gesundheit," someone nearby says.
"Oh it was nothing," says Sir Knyvet. "I knew that chap was up to something as soon as I saw him roll in that nineteenth barrel. 'Now wait a minute,' I says to myself. 'Eighteen barrels of gunpowder is one thing, but nineteen. No, sir. Some devious plot is afoot.'"
And so the Gunpowder Plot was born.
The following day all of England woke up and forgot about the whole thing entirely.
And you should too.
The truth of the matter is, very few events (or almost events) are worth remembering two hundred years after the fact. Three hundred years even less so. And four hundred years? Fuhgetaboutit.
But some events ARE worth remembering for that length of time and many hundred years to come. The birth of Christ is one such event. His resurrection is another. And the birth of Joseph Smith is yet another still ... to us Mormons anyway.
Much of the media this year thought the event noteworthy as well. Newsweek did a cover story on Joseph Smith a few months back, a rather positive portrayal of the Church, I thought. Someone told me later that the author of the feature was a member of the Church, and I believe it.
CNN also did a story on the Church's celebration of the prophet's birth and painted the Church in a positive light.
In short, the Church's PR team has been working overtime this year letting the world know why 2005 is such a monumental year for us.
A conference on Joseph Smith was held at the Library of Congress, which included Church historians, both members and non-members alike. Seminars were conducted here in Southern California (and likely elsewhere in the country) featuring renowned Joseph Smith scholars from BYU and other universities. A special commemorative broadcast was held on December 23 featuring the First Presidency and members of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Ballard and President Hinckley were on site in Vermont at Joseph's Smith birthplace for the event.
The Church distributed a wonderful free DVD in the Ensign this year entitled The Restoration, which felt like a remake of the Church's film The First Vision made back in the seventies.
A new website was launched, www.JosephSmith.net, a hugely comprehensive resource that includes scanned copies of the prophet's writings, letters written to the prophet by those close to him, artwork, photographs, maps, personal accounts, testimonies of apostles, and the list goes on and on.
If you haven't gone to this website, I strongly encourage you to do so. But set aside some time to explore the various links and to immerse yourself in the content. This isn't a site you can click through quickly. You want to put some time into it.
When I went there I was especially thrilled to find various scholarly writings (mostly from BYU) that defended the prophet from his most determined critics. I knew there were people who hated the man, but I never really understood their grievances. These essays tackle those opponents head on and attempt to exonerate the prophet of all the mountains of slander heaped upon him.
But the tribute to the prophet I enjoyed the most this year was the new film made by the Church currently showing at the Legacy Theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake. Entitled Joseph Smith The Prophet of the Restoration, the film gives an account of the prophet's life beginning with that leg surgery he endured as a youth and ending with his death at Carthage.
In a word, the film is breathtaking. Like Legacy and The Testaments before it, Joseph Smith proves that there are talented filmmakers in the Church who know how to tell a story and package it in such a way that is both beautiful and emotionally charged.
Is it a perfect film? By no means. My biggest complaint is that it felt like a three-hour movie cut down to sixty-eight minutes. It was just too fast. It covered too much ground too quickly and gave the audience little opportunity to explore the many characters and events of the story. Some scenes were ten seconds long or less, with only a single line of dialogue. It was almost like watching a slide show but with slightly moving pictures.
I got the sense that much more was shot by the director but then left on the cutting-room floor so that the film could be shorter and allow a greater number of screenings each day at the theater. This is a good idea in theory because it allows more people to see the film. But the film suffers for it. Pivotal characters like Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon barely get any screen time. And other characters, like Joseph's older brother Alvin, who die in the film and whose death is doubtless intended to be a moving moment, go their way without us much caring since we've had so little time to get to know them.
The film makes up for these fly-by scenes, however, with some truly stirring moments. Top of my list is the scene in the Richmond, Missouri prison in which the prophet stands and rebukes the foul-mouthed prison guards for ranting about all the Mormons they'd killed.
Nathan Mitchell, who plays the prophet, shouts at the guards with all the anger and majesty he can muster, telling them, "Silence ye fiends of the eternal pit! In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and hear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die this instant!"
Strong language indeed.
The scene could have been corny and pushed to the point of melodrama, but Mitchell channels the prophet's ire in a way that is both believable and rousing. Had I been one of the guards I would have shut up too.
Equally powerful are the scenes of the First Vision and the martyrdom at Carthage. Dustin Harding, who plays young Joseph, is one of those rare child actors who knows how NOT to act. His expressions during the First Vision are wonderfully subtle, an innocent boy witnessing and speaking to God and Jesus Christ.
And in Carthage, Hyrum's death, though brief, is particularly moving as the prophet holds and weeps over his fallen brother. Then Joseph's death, which immediately follows, captures the horror but none of the gore of the event. Kudos to the directors T.C. Christensen and Gary Cook for putting us in the action without unsettling our stomachs.
Other great performances are given by Rick Macy, who plays Joseph Smith's father and who, I swear, is in every church film I've seen in the last few years. He also played Joseph Smith Sr. in The Restoration and the father figure in The Testaments. A great actor. And then there's all the friends of mine in the film who do wonderfully: Chris Kendrick, who stick-pulls with and is later healed by the prophet; Lincoln Hoppe, the merciless prison guard at Liberty Jail; Emmelyn Thayer, who plays Mary Fielding, Hyrum's wife; Cameron Deaver, a Scottish immigrant with some bagpipes and who has a funny scene with the prophet; and Chris Miller, who plays a dock worker in Nauvoo.
In truth, there's no weak actor in the cast. Everyone holds their own. Nathan Mitchell deserves special praise for playing the second toughest role imaginable, that of Joseph Smith. Only the role of Christ would be a tougher character to cast. The actor has to capture all the many characteristics of the prophet, his charisma, his physical strength, his power of speech, his love of children, his jovial friendliness, his testimony, all the many traits that made him the historical figure he is. This is a man who nonmember scholars consider a theological genius. Finding the right actor must have been a carefully executed task.
But Mitchell does well, which is amazing considering this is only film to his credit.
In short, you must see this film.
If you're lucky enough to live in Salt Lake, go to the Legacy Theater and experience it in all it's super-wide-screen, surround sound, 70mm glory.
If you're like me and live in Southern California, you can see it at the Visitor's Center at the Los Angeles Temple. The theater is small and lacks all the whiz-bang accouterments like fancy subwoofers or stadium seating, but the experience is impressive enough.
I'm told that the film is showing at other Visitor's Centers as well. Washington D.C., I'm sure is one. The theater the Church built there several years ago rivals the Legacy Theater in its size and presentation capabilities.
Sadly the Church website doesn't list the Visitor's Centers where the film is playing -- at least not where it should list them, on the page dedicated to the film -- so you'll simply have to call the Visitor's Center nearest you and ask.
You don't want to wait a few years for the DVD to come out. This is a film you want to experience as soon as possible.
For me, it was a wonderful way to conclude the year dedicated to Joseph Smith, a man worth remembering for several hundred years to come.
Copyright © 2006 by Aaron Johnston
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