Just over a year ago, directors Lee Groberg and Mark Goodman were inspired to relaunch the 1999 PBS docudrama “Joseph Smith: American Prophet.” But, after getting the green-light from WETA (the leading public broadcasting station located in Washington, D.C.), Groberg and Goodman found the original 16-millimeter film was missing.
“We figured an angel must have taken it because it forced us to redo the film,” Groberg said with a grin.
The 86-minute film maintains the voice of Academy Award-winning actor Gregory Peck, but incorporates updated information and the latest interviews with religious scholars who have studied Joseph Smith’s life.
“Our scholars we selected had some incredible things to say. With the benefit of ‘Rough Stone Rolling’ and the ‘Joseph Smith Papers,’ we have new scholarship that is very enlightening,” Groberg said. “It’s a real blessing to us to have access to that.”
The new version features comments from Columbia University professor Richard L. Bushman; Joseph Smith Papers Editor Ronald K. Esplin; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard University; Washington University’s Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp; the late Robert V. Remini of the University of Illinois at Chicago; Messiah University’s Richard T. Hughes; John G. Turner of George Mason University; and Richard E. Turley Jr., director of LDS Church Public Affairs and former assistant church historian. A mix of believers and unbiased historians give the film adequate transparency and contribute to the credibility of the story.
The PBS documentary depicts scenes of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon using the seer stone placed inside a hat to block out sunlight, being tarred and feathered by the mob, speaking to Emma about polygamy, and being martyred at Carthage Jail.
“This is not your Sunday School version of the story of Joseph Smith,” Goodman told a packed theater audience at Jordan Commons last Friday. “Because it was done for PBS television, we have to be balanced. You will hear those who don’t believe and you will hear those who do believe. We were careful to tell the story in a balanced, accurate and fair way.”
The original documentary featured interviews from Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve. Elder Oaks, having co-authored a book titled “Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith” (1979), commented on Smith’s circumstances in the film, saying,
“He was a man without any political or administrative experience. He was a man without money. He struggled to support his family throughout his life. He was a man with no background to lead one to believe that he’d be able to found a church, establish a doctrinal foundation, assemble remarkable people to be leaders in that church, send missionaries to different corners of the earth and lead the church from one place to another under immense persecution.”
Production for the new documentary took 40 days of shooting, 70 cast members, 275 features, extras, and background, along with 55 crew members. They compiled 34 hours of footage, including 12 hours of interviews, before condensing it down to 86 minutes, according to Goodman.
Joseph Smith and Emma Smith are portrayed by actors John Foss and Anna Daines, both of whom had worked together on an LDS film shown at the Priesthood Restoration Site in Oakland Township, Pennsylvania.
KBYU will air the program on Sunday, Oct. 1, at 2 p.m. (all times MT); Monday, Nov. 6, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 12, 1 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 4:30 p.m. Check your local listings for more accurate showtimes.