Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold (DVD)
Covenant Communications, Inc.
Reviewed by Trevor Holyoak for the Association for Mormon Letters
Joseph Smith is one of my personal heroes, and when I first heard that
this movie was coming out, I have to admit I was worried. I was afraid
it might turn out like a certain attempt a few years back at turning the
Book of Mormon into a movie. But then I found out it was being made by
Christian Vuissa, who had recently made what I consider to be some of
the better movies in modern Mormon cinema (such as The Errand of
Angels), and I expected that he would probably do a good job. I didn't
make it to the theater when it was playing, so I was excited when the
opportunity came up to review the DVD. As it turns out, I am mostly
happy with how it was done.
The movie is well-acted, using Dustin Harding as Joseph, who also
appeared in the newer film about the First Vision made by the church,
and has aged appropriately in the time since then. Michael Flynn, a
veteran actor perhaps best known for his role as Pilate in the
church-made film, The Lamb of God, does splendidly as Isaac Hale. An
unknown, Lindsay Farr, also did well as Emma.
Where I feel the movie falls short is in short-changing history for
drama. There are many scenes (and even a semi-prominent character) that
are fictional, yet there are elements I feel are important that were
left out. The fictional parts serve the purpose of helping us relate
better to such things as Vuissa's version of Joseph and Emma and their
relationship, and I appreciate that Joseph was made much more human in
this film than he is usually portrayed, but as my 14 year old daughter
put it, "it showed a lot of stuff that really didn't matter."
The director chose to have the characters tell about supernatural
experiences, rather than showing them. He gave his reasons in the
Director's Commentary (this is how people actually found out about them
from Joseph Smith and others, for instance), but unfortunately some of
the scenes where this is done seem rather staged. The experience of the
eight witnesses is shown, but according to the commentary that was
because there was not an angel involved. (There is also a brief scene of
the initial baptisms of Joseph and Oliver among the Deleted Scenes, but
John the Baptist is not shown.)
Also in the Director's Commentary, he explained that he wanted to avoid
voiceovers, but this means that a viewer that does not already have much
knowledge of the story is left with only place names and dates given on
the screen at transition points from which to try figure out what is
happening (and this may even be a challenge for those more familiar with
it). The commentary helps - if one is interested enough to listen to it
- but a few explanatory voiceovers would have made a big difference.
The main thing that I looked for in this film in terms of accuracy was
how the translation was portrayed. I was happy to see that the Urim and
Thummim were used during the dictation of the first 116 pages (although
much smaller than they should have been). However, instead of also
showing the use of his personal seer stones, at that point Joseph begins
reciting with his eyes closed, at times even pacing the room, as if
doing it from memory (my daughter even asked me if that was what he was
doing). It was disappointing how close the film came to being as
accurate as possible, yet fell short.
My daughter appreciated seeing how the Book of Mormon was printed (which
included a press that appeared to be the actual kind that was used) and
learning how the pages were folded together and bound. She was also
intrigued to learn how the sacrament used to be administered, with a
single cup of wine being passed around.
Besides the previously mentioned Director's Commentary and Deleted
Scenes, there is also a "Making of," and trailers for this and other
movies. Closed Captioning is available, and it is in a 16:9 widescreen
format. The music was composed by James Schafer, and it is appropriately
uplifting. In fact, I would probably enjoy listening to it on its own,
and may have to look into getting the soundtrack CD.
In spite of its flaws, I believe this is the best movie yet made about
the life of Joseph Smith, and is definitely worth watching and having in
your family's movie library. The director hopes to make a follow-up in a
few years, ostensibly so that the actors portraying Joseph and Emma will
have aged appropriately, and I look forward to seeing it.