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‘Brigham Young’ creaky but holding up fine, thank you

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The 1940 movie "Brigham Young," with Dean Jagger in the title role, is a somewhat creaky black-and-white pioneer saga, a bit hokey in places and with an incredibly mixed-up sense of history.

In that regard, it's on a par with Mel Gibson's current Revolutionary War revenge flick, "The Patriot" . . . only "Brigham Young" is better. A lot better.

In fact, it's rather surprising, some 60 years later, that "Brigham Young" holds up as well as it does. The film is quite an enjoyable golden oldie, fondly embraced by members of the LDS Church but also entertaining enough to hold the attention of anyone else who might be looking for a good old flick to watch.

Seeing the film again recently, I was also struck by one scene in particular that will have some modern-day resonance with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It's a telling moment that comes when the prairie schooners are on the trail, and it occurs during a conversation between Brigham and Zina (Linda Darnell), a non-Mormon who is in love with a young Saint (Tyrone Power) and traveling with the pioneers.

After he is informed that Zina is not a member of the church, Brigham welcomes her warmly. But she responds antagonistically, saying that she appreciates the hospitality, "But that doesn't mean I'm going to be a Mormon."

Brigham looks at her curiously and says, "You don't seem to like Mormons."

"No, it isn't that," Zina replies, "but, well, it's just that I'm a Christian."

"So am I," Brigham shoots back.

Considering how often Mormons today are accused of not being Christians, it's a scene of surprising power.

Most of "Brigham Young" takes place on the trek westward, of course, and some of it was actually filmed in Utah. But I'm not sure that qualifies the film as a Western, which is the category wherein the film is most often placed.

If you have a hankering to see "Brigham Young," it is on video, of course.

And, even better, it's also on the big screen — to coincide with Utah's celebrations for the 24th of July, the date Brigham and friends entered the valley in 1847, of course.

"Brigham Young" is part of the Classic Film Series at Jordan Commons in Sandy, showing twice daily through next Thursday.

And if you're down in Utah County next week, Brigham Young University, appropriately enough, will offer a free screening of the film on Thursday, July 27, at 7 p.m. in the Lee Library auditorium. The Lee Library is also being used to showcase an exhibit of material connected with the film throughout July and August.

Among those materials are publicity items, behind-the-scenes photos, scripts, etc.

In 1940, the film was sold not only as a Western but both a romantic and dramatic one.

The most common posters for the film show large close-ups of Darnell and Power, to play up the romance between their characters. Lower and smaller is a picture of Jagger as Brigham Young, his fist clenched with rage, to give the impression of action and perhaps a desire for revenge.

Another poster shows Brigham surrounded by 12 women, obviously meant to be his polygamous wives — though the movie never shows him with more than four women around him, and only one is specifically identified as his wife.

The film makes only vague allusions to polygamy, most prominently in a scene that depicts the wagon train stopping at Fort Bridger, where Brigham rides up to a well and encounters Jim Bridger himself (played by character actor Arthur Aylesworth).

After they introduce themselves, Bridger's eyes widen and he asks, "Say, how many . . . ?" Brigham quickly cuts him off and says, "Twelve!"

OK, it's not history. It's Hollywood.

But, 60 years later, "historical" movies haven't changed all that much.


E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com