LDS film captures miraculous pioneer journey

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By Kristi Smith

Hollywood movie magic can’t compare to the real-life 17 miracles brought to life in a new LDS film about the Willie Handcart Company of pioneers.

The film “17 Miracles” follows the unbelievable, historic trek of the Willie Handcart Company pioneers. Following the counsel of the prophet Brigham Young to gather at Zion, these Latter-day Saints left Liverpool, England, in May 1856 and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley that November after enduring some of the harshest trials experienced by the pioneers.

The company took as few possessions as possible, daily rations were constantly reduced and resources were extremely limited along the trail. Traveling by handcart, plagued by the winter season and constantly threatened by wolves, the pioneers often had to slowly watch their loved ones die as they suffered from hardships such as starvation, illness and freezing temperatures.

Latter-day Saint filmmaker T.C. Christensen, who has directed many films such as “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration,” “Praise to the Man” and “Emma Smith: My Story,” along with familiar shorts like “Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story,” said he spent hours personally researching journals and records to best depict the severe but miraculous experiences of the pioneers. Many of these journals were at the Harold B. Lee Library on BYU Campus.

“We are without wagons, destitute of clothing and could not carry it if we had it,” wrote Levi Savage, who was portrayed in the film as an extremely humble and faithful leader of the pioneers. “We must go as we are.”

Actor Jasen Wade said he enjoyed studying Savage’s journal accounts to get a true sense of who he was.

“It becomes very real to you, very personal,” he said. “It’s not just about making a movie, it’s about being a part of this history.”

Wade said he hopes the film inspires people to learn about church history, or just history in general.

“To me, the film is about finding hope no matter how hard it is,” he said. “You’ll gain a real appreciation for what they might have gone through.”

Christensen said while it is important to show what the pioneers endured, his focus for the film was to relay the great strength and hope of redemption they possessed.

“After I started writing and compiling, I was hooked,” he said. “They’re true stories we’re telling and that makes it so much more powerful.”

For the scenes portraying the grueling winter of 1856, the actors and extras momentarily experienced the pioneer’s trials.

“When it’s zero degrees, and you don’t have a coat but maybe a shawl, it’s miserable,” Christensen said. “Those actors and extras were so terrific, they stuck with it.”

Christensen was also able to contact descendants of the Willie Handcart Company. These descendants were often able to provide additional resources and many added a unique aspect to the film by performing as extras.

“When we would film the miracles, there was this electricity in the air,” Christensen said. “I would have people who hadn’t read the script come up and say, ‘Did that really happen?’ I can’t say I saw it with my own eyes … but we told the stories as they were told by the people they happened to. And that’s rewarding.”

Christensen said he hopes the film helps audiences realize if people have enough faith and perseverance, they can retain a Christlike goodness through trials and hardship.

“We have a very rich history as members of the Church,” Christensen said. “There are so many great stories that have not been told that deserve to be. There are so many wonderful people who very often weren’t the greatest of leaders in any sense — they were just people trying to do what’s right. They deserve the honor, and we deserve to be exposed to their stories and learn from them.”

Student Michael McCain said he recommends seeing the film because the depiction of the miracles are incredibly moving, but not overbearing.

“They felt like real events,” McCain said. “It wasn’t like they had burning testimonies with hallelujahs every step of the way. They were faithful, but not cloyingly so.”

“17 Miracles” premiered on Friday and is now playing in select Utah theaters. More information about the film can be found at 17miracles.com.

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