Video Renter, Caveat Emptor!

While on a brief vacation with my parents in Door County, Wis., we dashed into the small-town grocery store to select a video appropriate both for them and my 13-year-old daughter. The pickings were dismayingly slim.
Sabrina couldn't make up her mind, we had a long ride back to the cabin, and it was getting late. So when I spotted a new release ballyhoo'ed by Walt Disney Home Entertainment as an "adventure" story starring Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries"), I promoted it. I was in such a hurry I barely scanned the description and didn't even notice the title, "The Other Side of Heaven." Sabrina, to her future credit, balked a bit but I talked it up and we checked it out.
We started watching the video, with fond expectations of an adventure starring a young man and woman in a wilderness survival film, as promised by the photo on the cover.
The movie, set in the 1950s, began on a jarringly maudlin note: we find out the main character, John, played by Christopher Gorem, is from . . . Idaho? Then a little bomb is dropped. He and his girl friend Jean (Hathaway) are attending . . . Brigham Young University? Next he announces that he has to go away on a three-year "mission"!
We turned to each other in astonishment. It dawned on me that somehow I'd managed to inflict a Mormon movie upon my freethinking family! I didn't even know this genre existed, much less that I should beware of such films at the "new release" rack.
Finding it hard to believe that Walt Disney would put its name on pure proselytizing pablum, I held out hope a few minutes longer for some redeeming plot twist: the Mormon missionary has a faith-shattering experience, or maybe his girlfriend has to come to his rescue. He gets eaten by a South Pacific version of a crocodile, hopefully?
There was no plot twist.
No, it turns out I had chosen a movie based on "the actual experiences of Elder John H. Groberg," and his laughably inflated memoir, In the Eye of the Storm, published by a Mormon book company.
John is sent to the Pacific island of Tonga where he meets his companion Mormon missionary, an ever-smiling young local man who knows the ropes and who speaks the lingo, but who servilely follows his fish-out-of-water colleague around as if John were a young god. (John certainly acts like he thinks he's God.)
This missionary is insufferable. He goes so far as to "forbid" a convert who is twice his age to do something. No matter what is happening--typhoons, near starvation, jungle temperatures, surviving the night in the ocean after a tidal wave, resurrecting a "dead" boy, you name it (he does everything but deliver a baby)--his white-shirt-and-tie wardrobe almost always stays clean and pressed. Now, that's a miracle!
Life on Tonga brings few wrinkles, no sweaty stains to his Mormon uniform, nor does Tonga culture penetrate his vacant commitment to preaching "the Gospel" at them. They obviously know nothing they can teach this 18-year-old "Elder." Actor Gorem's empty righteousness is almost too convincing; I half-expected his character to suddenly do something perverted, or go off the deep-end.
Perhaps the most ridiculous moment comes when the island teenage temptress, Mariama, gamely drops her skirt (off-camera) for John. He virtuously averts his gaze, while coaxing her to come to the beach to learn about "eternal love," pulling out his handy bible! (I wonder if he mentioned the Mormon polygamy and eternal spiritual baby-making awaiting her in "the other side of heaven"?)
By the movie's improbable end, he's converted the entire island, even taking out little skiffs into the vast ocean to missionize other islands. The multitudes are converted. Like transplanted plantation "darkies," the islanders tearfully turn out to sing him a harmonious farewell (with John and Mariama exchanging significant goodbye glances). They ought to have branded a giant "M" on John's Mormon underwear, because this movie is clearly introducing a new action figure: "Super-Mormon."
Hathaway's role was mere window-dressing. They used her name and very pretty face to suck in viewers, even delaying the release of the movie until after her hit, "The Princess Diaries," came out and she could give the film name recognition.
I had assumed the Mormon Church must have somehow bribed Disney into releasing it directly to home video. It turns out it was released theatrically, "in locales such as Salt Lake City."
But it was skewered by the critics, according to the reviews posted at Rottentomatoes.com:
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a Mormon family movie, and a sappy, preachy one at that," wrote Jeffrey Bruner, Des Moines Register.
"The film's implicit premise is that the faith of the Tonga people is in every way inferior to that of John."-- Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel.
"Although based on a real-life person, John, in the movie, is a rather dull person to be stuck with for two hours." --Gregory Avery, "Nitrate Online."
"Its appeal will probably be limited to LDS Church members and undemanding armchair tourists."--Ken Fox, TV Guide's Movie Guide.
"Much of what is meant to be 'inspirational' and 'uplifting' is simply distasteful to audiences not already sharing the movie's mindset."--MaryAnn Johanson, Flick Filosopher.
"There's a disturbing 'Great White Hope' undertone to 'The Other Side of Heaven' that subtly undermines its message of Christian love and compassion."--Al Brumley, Dallas Morning News.
"Insufferably naive."--Harvey S. Karten, Compuserve.
"Your stomach for 'Heaven' depends largely on your appetite for canned corn."--Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post.
Well, you get the idea.
* * *
First-time writer/director Mitch Davis is (surprise, surprise) an alumnus of Brigham Young, who had wanted to make a movie about Mormon missionaries since serving his own mission in Argentina. He modestly described his movie as "swashbuckling and romantic and epic." He added: "There wasn't a lot of door-knocking going on." (Oh boy, we'll rent that one next.)
In investigating how Disney's name ended up on this Mormon movie, I did some sleuthing on the internet. I still haven't figured out how the filmmakers persuaded Disney to distribute the video, thereby ensuring some financial success and that many unsuspecting parties will be duped into renting it. I did learn that Davis was hired by Disney after college, and also worked at Columbia Studios. A Mormon website revealed that Davis obediently put his movie career on hold when he was "called as a Bishop" for five years, but he's obviously back with a vengeance.
Producer Jerry Molen, also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints formerly known as Mormons, counts "Schindler's List" in his co-producer credits. The Mormon website reports that Molen supposedly wanted to "tell the story of Mormonism in the same way 'Schindler's List' tells part of the story of Judaism." As Dave Barry would say, I am not making that up.
Watching "The Other Side of Heaven" was such an unexpectedly silly and incongruous experience that it has now entered the family freethought lexicon. Sabrina is still periodically entering the room singing out "Super-Mormon!" I haven't belly-laughed so much during a movie in years. But, you had to have been there.
Video renter, beware!

P.S. Promoters of "The Other Side of Heaven" heavily recommended an earlier movie by a Mormon filmmaker, "God's Army," released in 2000. The promotion graphic says it all--it shows a row of white-shirted boys invading Los Angeles.
That would be enough to scare any gangs!
Annie Laurie Gaylor is editor of Freethought Today day and the anthology Women Without Superstition: No Gods - No Masters.

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