Before ‘Banner’ and ‘Book of Mormon’ musical: A brief history of Latter-day Saints in entertainment
Even before ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ and ‘The Book of Mormon’ musical, Latter-day Saints were the subject of several films and shows
When Mitt Romney traversed onto the national political landscape, it seemed like a spotlight shone down on Latter-day Saints.
This moment, the so-called “Mormon Moment” as one contributor to The New York Times called it, is sometimes seen as a pivotal moment — one where Latter-day Saints stepped from relative obscurity into the public. While the burgeoning frontier religion had already evolved into a global faith, it seemed like the public finally caught wind because of Romney’s campaign for president.
Or have Latter-day Saints always been in the media spotlight?
Nowadays, Hollywood seems flooded with productions that depict Latter-day Saints, like “Murder Among the Mormons” or “Under the Banner of Heaven.” On Broadway, “The Book of Mormon” musical satirized Latter-day Saint religion and is now a staple on stage, perhaps bowing only to “Hamilton” in original hits of the past decade.
It may seem like these productions came out of nowhere and that suddenly, all of Hollywood was fixated on Latter-day Saints. But history tells us a different story.
James Cruze and the silent film era (early 1900s)
Scholars have documented that beginning in the silent film era, “scandalous films” about Latter-day Saints hit the screens. These films usually were in the form of an exposé and were often described as “anti-Mormon,” which inspired church leaders and members to take seriously the art of film and begin making their own productions. Latter-day Saints wanted to tell their own stories.
With a couple exceptions, these Latter-day Saint-produced films were not widely seen and the public viewed more of the other films. However, the most significant contributions came from James Cruze.
Gideon Burton and Randy Astle wrote, “Although he did not actively practice his religion, the most significant ethnic Mormon director of the silent era was James Cruze, whose career included titles like ‘The Covered Wagon’ (1923), ‘The Pony Express’ (1925), ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ (1933), and ‘Gangs of New York’ (1938).”
While Latter-day Saints did produce low-budget silent films, the first commercial film wouldn’t come until 1931. Knowing the content of silent films is difficult due to how many of them have been lost to history. The Atlantic reported that an estimated 75% of silent films are forever lost. Films like “A Victim of the Mormons,” which was considered controversial and spawned other films like it, do not remain in their entirety anymore — although the church owns clips of what remains of this film.
Latter-day Saints beginning to make their own movies (1931-2000s)
Latter-day Saints then decided that they would try to break into the commercial film industry. In 1931, Latter-day Saints produced one of the early films that included audible talking — “Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love.”
This film depicts a story from the Book of Mormon and theorizes that Corianton was in league with Korihor, the anti-Christ, and depicts Corianton’s journey back to righteousness. Times and Seasons described the film’s reception as having “disappointing reviews and a tepid public response.”
Even though this Latter-day Saint-produced film failed at the box office, Latter-day Saint media enjoyed success in other ways. Burton and Astle noted that the Hollywood-produced “Brigham Young” was seen as a turn from the tone and tenor that previous Hollywood productions had taken when approaching the Utah-based faith — even though the film was seen as a financial disaster. John Ford’s 1950 “Wagon Master” was also considered a more humanizing portrayal. Despite its relatively lukewarm contemporary reception, this film has become critically acclaimed.
In subsequent decades, films like “Pioneers in Petticoats” and “Saturday’s Warrior” gained traction among Latter-day Saints, but Hollywood’s attention drifted away — and not just from Latter-day Saints. Following World War II, productions slowed down. According to Digital History, the war changed the economy and Tinseltown was forced to produce fewer films. Simultaneously, television became more influential. Political influences also contributed to slowed film production.
While Latter-day Saint production companies did make various movies in the years following World War II, none of them made it to the box office. During this time, Latter-day Saint directors had some success. Richard Rich directed Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound,” while Don Bluth directed Fox’s animated film “Anastasia.” Kieth Merrill’s IMAX documentary “Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets” surpassed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office worldwide.
But since movies about Latter-day Saints were not making it to the box office, it seemed like that genre of cinema was a bust.
That is, until films like “God’s Army,” “The Other Side of Heaven,” “The R.M.,” “The Singles Ward,” “Church Ball” and others hit the screen in the early 2000s. This onslaught of Latter-day Saint content seemed to be a cinematic revival of sorts. “The Other Side of Heaven” was thoroughly a Walt Disney production with a Latter-day Saint producer, but the other films came from smaller, Latter-day Saint-owned companies.
These films still remain culturally relevant today in the Jell-O belt.
“God’s Army,” which featured the lives of missionaries in Los Angeles, was more than a $2 million box office hit — a rarity in Latter-day Saint cinema. Having a box office hit also legitimized Latter-day Saint productions in some ways — no longer were they only obscure films known only to church members, but they were viewed by a wider audience.
How ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ changed everything (2004-2013)
As these films circulated, perhaps the best-known Latter-day Saint-inspired film was released: “Napoleon Dynamite.” This film isn’t explicitly related to Latter-day Saints, but like Matt Bowman noted in the Deseret News, the film is based on notions that members will find familiar. This comedy, which was released in 2004, takes place in the town of Preston, Idaho.
Jeremy Coon told BYU Magazine that this film gave the church more exposure without being an explicitly Latter-day Saint film: “It’s not a Mormon movie, but it’s safe to assume Napoleon is a Mormon; he wears a Ricks College T-shirt, he’s up in Idaho. In almost every interview, being LDS would come up. It kind of gave the church exposure in a different area for a while. It helped people realize, ‘Oh, Mormons are real people and have senses of humor.’”
“Napoleon Dynamite” differed from other films in that it didn’t try to be explicitly Latter-day Saint. But at the same time, even little details like the tater tots signaled toward Western culture and Latter-day Saint influence.
After all, these bite-sized potatoes were created by a church member named F. Nephi Grigg from Nampa, Idaho.
The film had broader implications outside of the West. This indie comedy quickly became the model for how Middle America was depicted.
Preston, Idaho, has yet to break 6,000 people and hugs the border of Utah. “Napoleon Dynamite” not only brought this particular town to the forefront, but gave those who live in the suburbs or bigger cities a peek into rural life in America — offering a more complex view of the West to the U.S.
Around the same time that “Napoleon Dynamite” went from Sundance to Hollywood, the famous “South Park” episode “All About the Mormons” debuted. This episode was criticized by the church for inaccurate portrayals of Latter-day Saints and of church history.
And then, the creators of “South Park” embarked on a different kind of entertainment venture, “The Book of Mormon” musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2011. This musical has been the most visible satirical parody of Latter-day Saints to date.
Writing for The Deseret News, Hal Boyd observed that the critical reception of the musical was mixed, “While theater experts and media pundits have praised the musical, others have pointed out the play is not only profane and inaccurate, but actually an attack on faith more broadly.” He cited David Brooks who said, “Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.”
A Jewish writer for The New York Times urged others to avoid “bigotry” by not watching the show, but most reviewers did not comment on whether this Broadway play was prejudicial. The church famously took out an advertisement in the playbill with a picture of the Book of Mormon that said, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book!”
This last decade (2014-2022)
Exactly a decade after “Napoleon Dynamite” came the famous “Meet the Mormons.”
“Meet the Mormons” was different from previous Latter-day Saint movies in that it was a documentary. The documentary follows six different families and shows what life is like for the everyday Latter-day Saint. Filmmakers went to great lengths to find families that showed authentic lives and different experiences.
This documentary was self-aware of media portrayals from yesteryears and included clips from the infamous “South Park” episode, as well as the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” According to the Deseret News, the film intentionally began by showing awareness of pop culture perceptions of the faith and then transitioned into the reality that Latter-day Saints experience.
Besides “Meet the Mormons,” Latter-day Saint cinema had wins in other ways. The immensely popular Christian television show “The Chosen” used the church-owned Goshen, Utah, film set. This is the first show not affiliated with the church to use the film set according to The Deseret News. Two Latter-day Saints founded VidAngel, which was able to relaunch its platform and provide family-friend content to religious people everywhere.
More recently, Redbrick Filmworks partnered with the Interpreter Foundation to make a movie about the witnesses to the Book of Mormon called “Witnesses,” which was released in 2021.
Paul Wuthrich, who played Joseph Smith, told the Deseret News about the film, “It might not be trendy to have faith nowadays, you know, I don’t think it’s popular to have faith. But it’s a noble thing to believe in something and to commit to something higher than yourself. I think that’s OK.”
But now, especially in the last couple of years, Hollywood has shifted to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu for its content.
Netflix’s documentary series “Murder Among the Mormons” narrated how Mark Hofmann forged Latter-day Saint historical documents and murdered people to cover up his forgeries. Church historian Richard Turley was featured prominently in the series and Jared Hess, creator of “Napoleon Dynamite,” made the documentary.
Continuing on the true crime angle, Hulu’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” was a fictionalized portrayal of the real murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty and Erica Lafferty. The upcoming film “Sinner vs. Saints” has been announced as well, expected to tell the story of a woman who allegedly kidnapped and raped a Latter-day Saint missionary named Kirk Andersen.
Right now, to some Latter-day Saints, it feels like another “Mormon Moment” — another round of media attention like the church received when Mitt Romney entered the political spotlight. During and after Romney’s presidential run, Latter-day Saint journalists like McKay Coppins carefully explained the faith in major publications like BuzzFeed, which brought the faith considerable attention.
Latter-day Saints have continued to make other movies as well. Mauli Bonner produced “His Name is Green Flake” in 2021, which tells the story of Black pioneer Green Flake. “Jane and Emma” — which was released in 2018 — was also a successful film, telling the story of the friendship between Jane Manning James and Emma Smith. “1820: The Musical” also debuted in 2021, a musical about Joseph Smith that BYU professor George Nelson decided to make after watching “The Book of Mormon” musical.
This revamping of Latter-day Saints in media might seem at first glance like a resurgence of coverage related to the faith and an intense entertainment spotlight that wasn’t there before, but history tells a different story.
History tells that the “Mormon Moment” started long before Mitt Romney and hasn’t yet ended.