Sincere, limited-vision pioneer drama
Few stories in the important history of the Latter-day Saint western migration from the Midwest to the Salt Lake Valley that began in 1846 are more inspiring than that of pioneer Ephraim Hanks, the primary subject of the film “Ephraim’s Rescue.” The film clearly caters to the Mormon audience, and while the film is sincere in its depiction of the truly miraculous events that have been passed down through pioneer journals, issues with the script and a painstakingly methodical pace yield a tribute that feels like a missed opportunity.
Earnestness in filmmaking does not necessarily equal excellence in filmmaking.
By all accounts, Ephraim Hanks (Darin Southam) was an incredible frontiersman. When the call came in 1856 to rescue the members of the Martin Handcart Company who were suffering the immeasurable effects of ghastly winter weather, scarcity of food and meager supplies, Eph needed little prompting. The film also features the story of one of the many British immigrant families who took part in the trek, focusing on teenager Thomas Dobson (James Gaisford), who, owing partly to his youth, is not exactly thrilled to be part of the onerous ordeal. (Clearly, not everyone was a happy camper.) Hanks’ determination and faith help him save and even resuscitate lives, while the terror surrounding Dobson eventually leads to a softening of his heart.
As he did in his previous and better-executed film “17 Miracles” (which broached the trek from a different perspective), writer-director T.C. Christiansen relies on excellent camera work and impressive makeup effects to drive home the reality of the suffering along the trail.
However, an overly deliberate and literate script includes far too many slow motion elements and reduces the storytelling down to a (dare we say it) handcart-in-snow pace. A stylistically antiquated voiceover narrative detracts from the tension that should exist in a story about a life or death struggle. Christiansen and crew use a more-is-better approach when it comes to showing the tears of those involved, as though that were the only way to extract emotion from the audience.
Sure, these technical deficiencies won’t likely bother the target audience. But why shouldn’t this incredible story be seen and fully appreciated by audiences beyond the already converted? Outsiders may wonder about the (too) frequent depiction of consecrated oil being used for anointing, for example. And the film assumes the viewer understands the motivations of these obviously faithful followers who put themselves in dire straits for a higher cause. Was it persecution, polygamy or simply a desire to find the “right place”?
It is unlikely the inspiring events depicted in “Ephraim’s Rescue” will get another major motion picture treatment. So, while this adaptation has some good things going for it, a bigger budget, and more importantly, a bigger vision, could have done more justice to the legend of these brave pioneers.
Rated PG for graphic scenes of hardship and suffering.