For almost as long as there have been movies, there have been movies about Mormons. The LDS film genre — which is enough of a niche to have its own Wikipedia page — got its start in the early 1900s with two movies financed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1940, 20th Century Fox jumped on board, distributing a biographical romantic drama centered on Brigham Young’s life, complete with well-known writers and actors.
But the truly memorable films were made decades later, with classics like “Johnny Lingo,” “Saturday’s Warrior,” “God’s Army” and “The Singles Ward.”
“It’s fun to hear our story told and see it on the big screen,” said Jacob Draper, chairman of the upcoming 13th annual LDS Film Festival. “The LDS community of filmmakers is a growing group. There are lots of LDS people who are deeply into films.”
The modern LDS cinema movement was born around 2000, when “God’s Army” launched a run of movies by Mormons and about Mormons. Next came titles like “The Singles Ward,” “The Best Two Years,” “Saints and Soldiers” and “Charly.”
“Those all shot out of the gates early on, following on the heels of ‘God’s Army,’” Draper said. “And after that our market in Utah was inundated with LDS movies. Everybody was trying their hand, but the vast majority were hastily made or didn’t have the budget or writing talent or resources to pull off an excellent product, so we were surrounded by mediocre movies.”
But excellent or mediocre, the LDS films keep on coming — and we keep on watching. Here are eight of the most memorable “Mormon” movies, including some of our favorite lines and scenes.
1. “Johnny Lingo”
This 1969 short film — complete with great characters and bad wigs — was produced by the Church and provides valuable lessons on self-worth and kindness to others. The classic line from this movie — “Mahana, you ugly” — has spawned both T-shirts and a live parody performance by the Salt Lake Acting Company. Ten years ago, a private studio produced an expanded update to the original film, calling it “The Legend of Johnny Lingo.”
2. “God’s Army”
Richard Dutcher wrote, directed and starred in this independent film about a group of Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles. The movie takes on the serious questions and sensitive issues missionaries face every day, with bits of LDS humor thrown in. One such moment comes near the beginning of the film, when Elder Sandoval jumps atop a wall overlooking the infamous Hollywood sign and shouts, “I am Sandoval the Lamanite! Oh Hollywood, the days of your probation are past; you have procrastinated the day of your salvation. … So repent, oh Hollywood! Repent, I say, for the day of the Lord is coming, for not your houses nor your mansions nor your movie deals will save you from the wrath of God.” Meanwhile, the other missionaries in Sandoval’s zone pelt pieces of their picnic lunch at him.
3. “The Singles Ward”
One of the first LDS films to land in local theaters, “The Singles Ward” is loaded with Mormon-specific humor and cultural references as it follows a recently divorced man who finds himself thrown back into the land of LDS singles. One of the great scenes in this film comes as Dallen Martin (played by Kirby Heyborne) opens his mission call and learns he’ll be serving in Boise, Idaho. While his buddies view it as a major disappointment, Martin’s reaction is a little more … positive.
4. “New York Doll”
This 2005 Sundance Film Festival documentary is one of a very few movies that features a Mormon but was not made for an LDS-only audience. It’s based on the life of former New York Dolls member Arthur “Killer” Kane, and it follows his life from the 1972 formation of his band, through the group’s drug problems and the deaths of several of band members, and on to his conversion to the LDS Church. Some of the sweetest scenes from this movie come during interviews with a couple of spirited elderly women at the LDS family history library where Kane worked. Mostly unfamiliar with the details of his history as a rock star — and his bouts with drug abuse, alcoholism, loneliness and poverty — their affection for him shines through as they jokingly offer to become his groupies for his band’s reunion.
5. “Emma Smith: My Story”
Featuring the lead actors from the LDS Church film, “Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration,” this Emma-centered story shares events from church history in a new light. While some members of the Church have misunderstood or second-guessed Emma Smith, this film seeks to express a more positive legacy and perspective, including Emma’s lifelong devotion of Joseph Smith’s claims and motives.
6. “Saints and Soldiers”
“Saints and Soldiers” is one of the brightest spots of Mormon cinema’s most recent decade. The film is based loosely around events that took place after the World War II’s Malmedy Massacre, when four American soldiers and a downed British airman struggled to return to Allied territory to relay vital intelligence. “Saints and Soldiers” opened at film festivals all over the country, winning 14 best picture awards. The film isn’t overtly “Mormon,” but its creators are, and in the commentary track it is mentioned that one of the characters is LDS. Interestingly enough, the film originally received an “R” rating from the MPAA.
7. “The Other Side of Heaven”
Another missionary-focused story, “The Other Side of Heaven” is based on a book written by John Groberg, an emeritus general authority. Breaking the norm of typical Mormon cinema, this movie boasts big names — its producer had won an Academy Award and worked on films like “Schindler’s List” and “Rain Man,” its director had worked on several Disney films, and its lead female role featured none other than Anne Hathaway. Groberg’s experiences are both humbling and entertaining, and his thoughts, like the following quote, leave plenty for the viewer to mull over: “There is a connection between heaven and earth. Finding that connection gives meaning to everything, including death. Losing that connection makes everything lose meaning, including life.”
8. “Saturday’s Warrior”
This film is the epitome of kitschy LDS cinema, complete with cheesy song lyrics and doctrinal inaccuracies. But it’s a classic Mormon musical just the same. The play was first performed in 1973, and it made its way to VHS — still set on a stage — in 1989. Lyrics from a few of the songs in “Saturday’s Warrior” best illustrate the movie’s motif — like the overconfident missionaries who belt, “bearing swords of truth we plunder, slicing wicked men asunder, we are something of a wonder, in our humble way,” or the young woman who quickly meets a new male “friend” after her betrothed leaves on a mission: “He’s a person I can talk to, he’s a person who shares, he’s a person who’s got a shoulder to cry on, while the boy I love is gone for two whole years.”