Its official website announces this new movie with the statement:
Based on unbelievable actual events, and brought to you by filmmaker T.C. Christensen (Praise to the Man, The Work and the Glory), 17 Miracles will open your eyes to the stories of the Mormon Pioneers as you have never seen them before. Something extraordinary is about to happen.
It’s probably never a good idea for a movie that claims to be based on actual events to introduce them as “unbelievable.” Just sayin’.
In countless interviews during the course of making this movie (a process heavily reported by the Deseret News as Googling quickly shows), T.C. Christensen cautioned potential viewers that his movie was not a documentary. I didn’t expect it to be. I knew, for instance, that for dramatic purposes the director had combined experiences from two distinct handcart companies – despite how often we refer to “The Martin and Willie Handcart Company,” these were two separate companies under separate leadership that left Iowa at different times, did not meet each other on the trail, and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley three weeks apart. As is common with historical fiction, I also expected that several real persons might have been combined into single composite characters, that events would be telescoped, and so on. No problem, really.
And truly, that dramatic license proved to be no real problem, even for the historian side of me that does worry how popular culture reshapes people’s views of history. I don’t think 17 Miracles will be a problem in that regard, except, perhaps, that some people will have a harsher view of company leader James G. Willie than is fair, and will certainly believe that the film’s hero, Levi Savage, participated in events in which he had no role. A key and recurring idea of the movie, for instance, is that Savage participated in disposing of the remains of the Donner Party, and his nightmares regarding Donner cannibalism fueled his fears for the most desperate days of the Willie Company suffering.
(In reality, there is no reason to think that Levi Savage personally participated in the burial detail. He was one of well over a hundred Mormon Battalion veterans strung out along the trail, traveling within a few days of each other but not as one body; Savage does not seem to have been a member of Kearny’s escort, and I can find no evidence that Savage was involved in disposing of the Donner remains.)
A prominent character in the movie was Brother Albert (a character based on Robert Pearce). Brother Albert was a very little Little Person. I know of no reason to believe that Robert Pearce was a dwarf or midget or other Little Person; rather, he is consistently described in the diaries and reminiscences as “crippled,” not small. (Fellow handcarter John Southwell describes him, for example, as: “one of the worst cripples I ever saw to be a traveler. His lower limbs were paralyzed and his body badly deformed but he was strong in the faith. He was able to propel himself with surprising speed with the use of crutches.”)
17 Miracles is a pretty movie, visually – the scenery and color and costumes and properties are all worth seeing. The actors were more than competent, despite the overwrought dialogue put into their mouths. And the music was lovely, although the director tended to use it as a club over the audience’s head – music always swelled to almost unbearable intensity and volume during significant moments in a blatant attempt to manipulate audience emotions. I often felt manipulated, frankly, whether by the music, or by flowery speeches that surely never came from the mouths of suffering travelers, or by the too many and too realistic prayers closing in the spoken name of the Savior (it jarred me to see and hear sacred names and practices exploited so openly in the name of commercial entertainment; your mileage may vary) or by the publicist’s repeated assurances that I would need my handkerchief. I didn’t.
The movie didn’t live up to the potential of its story, despite its dramatic material, despite its reliance on Mormon emotional responses to the suggestion that God and his angels were blessing the handcart pioneers every step of their journey. 17 Miracles just didn’t live up to its premise. Along with the friend who accompanied me and with whom I found myself giggling at inappropriate moments, I repeatedly found myself wishing I had kept track of the miracles as they were ticked off so that I could know how many more I had to endure before the closing credits.
I believe in the miraculous. (Who was it who said that Mormons don’t expect miracles, we take them for granted?) I also believe that God was aware of the pioneers of the Martin and Willie companies, and of all sufferers. If this movie justifies its existence, it will be not because of the particular story it tries to tell, but because of the personal meditation and the group discussions it may provoke concerning miracles, their reality and purpose.
Oddly, perhaps, the miracles depicted in 17 Miracles that I found most easy to believe were the ones with the least objective evidence to support them.
***SPOILER ALERT*** several of the depicted miracles are detailed below ***
Early in the movie, an English woman takes her two small children and leaves her alcoholic, battering husband to go with her fellow converts to Zion. The family is aboard the train, almost safely away, when the husband boards the train looking for his fleeing family. He reaches their seat; he puts his hand on his wife’s shoulder; they lock eyes … and yet somehow the man does not recognize his family and continues down the aisle and out of the car.
There can be no objective evidence of such a story. Only the woman (her children are too small) could have known or recorded the event. There is nothing tangible to point to in support of the story. Yet for some reason I can believe such a miracle happened – it fits my other-world-view of how the spirit sometimes works in times of great danger (even though I know of other instances where fleeing family members were in fact removed from trains and ships and returned to husbands and fathers who did not support emigration).
I have a harder time believing in other miracles depicted by the movie, due to the reported miracles themselves, not to any particular flaw in the film. Twice, for instance, starving handcart families were shown as receiving miraculous bread from heaven. One woman sits down in the wilderness and refuses to take one more step; her daughter, pleading with her to continue, looks down at her feet and finds a pan of bread or cake just sitting there on the desert floor. In another case, a mother puts two biscuits and some water in a bake kettle over the fire; when she lifts the kettle lid, she finds the kettle completely filled with perfectly baked bread.
Why do I find both miracles so much harder to believe than the first? I suppose because neither fits my idea of how the spirit works, my idea of “the economy of heaven,” as that phrase is now developing. If the Lord is going to provide miraculous food, why for only those two families, and why on only those two occasions? If such a thing happened, it might have boosted their spirits, but a single meal could have done little if anything to prolong their lives. Who could either family tell of their great blessing? Are you going to go running to some other starving soul and say that the Lord has fed your children but not theirs? Something about it just doesn’t ring true to me.
And the claimed miracle that should have had the most objective support, but does not, bothers me the most. In one instance a woman wanders away from the camp to hunt for buffalo chips. She encounters a strange “traveler” who takes her to a cave, has her gather her apron into a pouch, and fills it with dried meat for her to take back to the starving pioneers. Such an unlooked-for feast of protein at that critical moment would surely have been remembered by everyone who participated … yet there is no mention of it in any of the writings by survivors. That to me is simply incredible. (In an evident nod to this glaring problem, the text crawl at the end of the movie claims that this woman’s daughter, evidently the source of the story, had grown to doubt her mother’s report until at some unrecorded date in some unmentioned place, some unidentified person spoke in church and claimed to have witnessed the miracle. I smell folk legend in the making, not confirmation of history.)
17 Miracles could also spark reflection on what, exactly, is a miracle. Is it a miracle – or some hoky attempt at symbolism – that the two white wolves who have followed and harassed the handcart companies from the beginning of their journey are chased away from a small child before the wolves can attack? Is it a miracle when two small girls encounter a lot of rattlesnakes and pray for safety, then for some inexplicable reason go skipping and jumping unnecessarily through the snake bed instead of quietly backing up the way they had come? Was it supposed to be a miracle – or bad editing – when a scene of men complaining that their rations are too small to give them energy needed to pull their carts is immediately followed by a scene of two energetic young lovers dancing and skipping and splashing through ice water as merrily and as joyously as if they had full stomachs and not a care in the world?
Finally — finally — the pioneers see men on horseback riding to their rescue. Then abruptly, as if the filmmaker had gotten as tired of his tale as I was, we see Levi Savage jogging along the lane leading to his sister’s home in the Salt Lake Valley. The entire last month of the handcart trek, some of the hardest travel and most grievous suffering, is skipped over with the snap of a finger. Levi is home. All is well.
17 Miracles is not a bad movie; you might justifiably enjoy it as much as the senior missionaries sharing the theater with us did last night (their laughter was obviously from delight, in stark contrast to our laughter). But neither is 17 Miracles a great movie.
Leave your handkerchief at home. You won’t need it.