Hanks descendants featured in ‘Ephraim’s Rescue’

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She dangled over the cold water, her feet at the bottom of the Provo River. The production crew dragged her through the current while she struggled to gain her footing. Under the water, a camera filmed her feet as they scraped across the rocks and sand.

Sherry Smith starred as a “foot double” for a principal character in the newest movie from LDS filmmaker T.C. Christensen. Smith is one of many descendants of Mormon pioneer Ephraim Hanks featured in the film “Ephraim’s Rescue,” which opened in theaters Friday.

Ephraim's descendents,
Ephraim Hanks’ descendants — Ashley, Melanie and Emily Carter — on location filming ‘Ephraim’s Rescue.’ (Courtesy Sherry Smith)

Hanks was an early settler of Utah who rescued dying members of the Martin handcart company and guided them into the Salt Lake Valley.

Smith is Hanks’ great-great-great-granddaughter and served as the extras coordinator for the film.

“We had probably 180 extras, and about half of them were Ephraim Hanks’ descendants,” Smith said. “I liked my vantage point because I got to see the film every day and encounter new relatives. There are thousands of descendants, so it’s nice to meet new relatives.”

Smith began assembling the extras cast in May of last year. She sent a letter to family members informing them of the opportunity. Members who wanted to participate would have to comply with specific physical requirements.

“There were some really strict guidelines,” Smith said. “You had to have long hair. You had to have a beard. You needed to send a photograph, and you needed to respond within a certain time period.”

Requirements for the winter scenes were particularly hard.

“They had to be skinny,” Smith said. “The director didn’t want anybody that looked healthy.”

One family member lost 50 lbs. to be ready for filming. Cast members spent long days in the cold to capture the plight of the pioneers. Often they reported at 7:30 a.m. and would film until dark.

“They were cold,” Smith said of the extras. “But they didn’t dare complain because they knew what the pioneers had been through. It gave them a glimpse.”

Christensen, the film’s director, originated the idea to include Hanks’ descendants in the film.

“I found a few descendants early on,” Christensen said. “Sherry (Smith) just got in and found people for us, and they grew their beards, and they’d stand out in that cold river on a freezing day. They were really terrific. So often they would come and tell me how cold it was, but they knew their ancestor did this for real, so they could do it for a few hours.”

Months after filming, family members saw the finished movie at its red-carpet screening. Phil Hanks, the youngest grandson of Ephraim and one of six living grandchildren, was pleased with the portrayal of his grandfather.

“When we first heard that T.C. was going to do the movie, my hope was that he would capture the spirit of Ephraim,” Phil Hanks said. “I hoped that he would capture that spirit of willingness and obedience. I think he captured it really well. The movie touches the heart. It’s true, and it’s very well portrayed.”

Smith knew early on the film would be accurate. She received the script from the director and read it while traveling with her husband.

“Just as we arrived, I finished the script,” Smith said. “I cried because T.C. had done his research. He was historically correct, and there just wasn’t anything to change. That is the mark of a great researcher.”

Melanie Carter is a great-great-granddaughter of Ephraim and participated with her two teenage daughters. She was impressed by Christensen’s vision for the film.

“T.C. did a beautiful job,” Carter said. “He portrayed it just right. I was proud — proud to be a Hanks.”

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