‘The Oath’ Shows LDS Movies Still Have Growing To Do

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(REVIEW) “The Oath” has its heart in the right place, but ends up falling prey to the same flaws of writing and filmmaking that have always plagued faith-based films in the past.

The Church of Jesus Christ of The Latter-day Saints (a group known as Mormons) has its own, often overlooked, film industry within the subculture of Christian Films. While evangelicals and Catholics have produced such movies as “Fireproof,” “I Can Only Imagine” and “God’s Not Dead,” Mormons have (so I hear) “The Best Two Years” and “The Other Side of Heaven.” 

Darin Scott is writer, director and star of “The Oath” – a movie adapted from a story from the Book of Mormon which sees Moroni, a Hebrew, in 400 AD America, where he fights to preserve the traditions that God passed down to him against an evil king while developing a relationship with the king’s runaway abused mistress.

READ: ‘The Prince Of Egypt: The Musical’ Is A Triumph Of Faith And Art

Scott sees a lot of similarities between the LDS faith-based industry and the wider Christian faith-based industry, particularly in where they started and where they’re going.

“It comes down to leading with the message before the story,” Scott said “And both in Latter-day Saints cinema and Christian at-large Cinema, they’ve both done this, where they come, and see they’re supported. And people buy tickets, because they literally want to go to church, and watch the movie. But the production quality has always been subpar, the script has always been, and really, what you’re asking the audience is to forgive your lack of filmmaking skill, because the message is so good.”

Scott said he hopes that there will be a time people will go see these movies because they want to, not just because of the message.  

“I’m waiting for the faith-based movies that people are beating down the door to see. Not because they’re evangelizing it, but because they just want to see it,” he said. 

In addition, he said he is hopeful this movie can be a part of that. 

“I feel very, very good about The Oath that we’ve created, and I’ve seen the audience’s reactions,” Scott added. “You can’t please everybody, but by and large, I’m very happy with what we’ve got that we’re finally, I feel like trying to breach this … or asking the audience to forgive your lack of storytelling prowess, in the interest of the message.”

Where he sees the biggest differences between LDS and Christian cinema is the greater emphasis on humor in LDS films.

“In the LDS cinema community, at least, especially in the beginning of that community, when that started, there’s this sense of almost making fun of ourselves, and self-deprecation took place, in the LDS cinema community,” Scott said. “It’s like, “Hey, look at how dumb we are. Look, we do this.” And it’s kind of like, poke fun at church culture.” 

He makes an excellent point. I previously wrote about the difficulty Christians have embracing films that poke fun at themselves before, with dramas being the movie of choice and comedies — particularly ones where Christians themselves are the source of jokes, being largely avoided, as seen with the lackluster successes of movies like “Believe Me” and “Church People.” 

While I haven’t dipped my toe much into watching LDS films, I have enjoyed the work by the original cast of Studio C (the team behind one of my favorite movies I reviewed earlier this year), who all met at the top LDS school BYU. And they are excellent at making fun of themselves. Perhaps that comfort with making fun of yourself is something that the wider Christian culture can learn from the LDS community’s entertainment audience. 

Scott’s Mormon faith is front and center in his new film, a historical epic in the vein of “Gladiator” or “Braveheart” based on a story from the Book of Mormon. Most people making Biblical epics pick a story from the Christian Old Testament (like Moses or Noah since those stories are accepted by everyone from Jews to Christians to Muslims to Mormons. However, given that the LDS membership is so small compared to those communities, making a movie taken directly from a text that only that community would see as true is a bold move.

Scott said he knows this movie is risky, but it’s one that he’s willing to take because he’s so passionate about the story. 

“I’ve had members of my own faith tell me, ‘Why are you doing that? There’s not a big audience for that.’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to show you there is’ because I am not saying that arrogantly at all.” 

He added: “What I’m saying [is], that they’re just powerful stories that really relate to our time. I mean, we’re talking about the struggle of good versus evil, the struggle of freedom versus tyranny, the struggle of morality, versus anarchy and licentiousness. We need that today. We need to get back to the moral compass of learning how to treat each other, and learning how to talk to each other, and that’s what this movie’s about, and that’s what these stories are about. So that’s why I picked this. It picked me. It wouldn’t leave me alone, in spite of many attempts to, I just have to not do this anymore, because it’s leading me down these paths that it was a rigorous struggle. And in spite of that, I still stuck it out, and did it.”

Scott said even people who don’t believe that the events that happened in the story are real history can enjoy it as a myth akin to “Lord of The Rings.” 

“I’m saying, ‘If you don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is authentic pre-Columbian history or Scripture, that’s OK,” he said. “I’m not here to change your mind about that. I’m not here to convince anyone that the Book of Mormon is true.”

Like many Mormons, the distinction between Christian and LDS is one Scott objects to and one he finds “hurtful.” 

Asked that same question, Scott replied, “Which is interesting because the name of the church should indicate to people that we are Christian. But the greatest misconception is that we are not. And not only is it hurtful, in a sense, I don’t want to say, “Oh, I’m the victim here,” I hate the victim … mentality, but it’s hurtful.”

He added: “I put it this way. C.S Lewis, who was an atheist, as you know, and who converted to Christianity, he was the one who said, ‘It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, or who is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and indeed are forbidden to judge.’” 

Many Christians often push back on that argument. Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith, who claimed he prayed to God to tell him which denomination of Christianity was the true one. He claims, according to Mormon teachings, that an angel told him they were all false and the true Christianity was the one taught to him, which became known as Mormonism. 

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has evolved,” he said, “as I think every church has, and we’ve arrived at a place that I think that people are coming to the realization that if we do not come together and stop this pointing of fingers, that ‘I’m the truth and I’m the truth.’ If we don’t just stop that and say, ‘You know what? If we do not unite on [a] common principle, we will be destroyed because the world is shifting so fast.” 

Even so, Scott said he believes that if people put aside their prejudices and just watch the movie. 

“I want it to be for everyone. But the problem is that there’s some people in this world who are, whether they’re brainwashed or just to a point where they just cannot take more knowledge, they will not hear other opinions besides their own,” he said. “They may not like the movie, right? But if you go into it with the sense that, ‘Hey, maybe this is something new,’ and just any type of openness, which, I think, it’s the essence of wisdom, where you acknowledge that, ‘You know what? I don’t know everything in the universe.’ As long as that’s your mindset, there’s no way you can’t watch ‘The Oath’ and not feel … deep things in your soul.”

As a Christian, I do not consider Mormonism to be Christianity, but I do value people of different faiths, from Jews to Muslims to Mormons to atheists (yes, I called atheism a faith) and getting to have high-quality expressions of their beliefs in film. I think everyone benefits when we feel seen and understand each other better. Having high-quality presentations of what different communities believe on screen helps us feel seen and helps us to better understand each other. 

I also really love stories of heroes fighting against evil. Since I’ve spent the last 20 years watching most of them have a deeply secular and even anti-religious bias, I welcome movies that are able to combine faith and heroic action – even if the faith isn’t mine.

Sadly, “The Oath” shows us that the LDS faith-based movie industry — just like faith-based movies generally — still have a long way to go.

There is clearly a love in this movie for the source material as well as classic “sword and sandals” epics from the early 2000s like “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” as evidenced by how many of its archetypes and tropes you can find throughout the movie. These were a genre of film which combined spirituality and masculine heroism that hasn’t really been replicated since in Hollywood.  

I — particularly as a religious man — definitely get the appeal of trying to capture that magic. There are times where that works, such as certain trippy moments when Moroni prays. When you imagine the glee of the filmmakers getting to play in the sandbox of this kind of world, there is charm to that.

Unfortunately, the execution is largely a parade of cheap cliches of the genre rather than a transfer of its spirit. You have the stoic noble hero, the lady love, the nasty villain, the wide open spaces, the savages, the fights, the tragic/noble deaths and the spiritual imagery. But most of it is flat and cardboard in execution. The dialogue is dull and lifeless and even preachy. The characters never dig beneath their archetypes. There’s very little even of the cheap thrills associated with the genre. If you’re here for the action, there’s only one fight scene. If you’re here for the romance, the two leads have no chemistry. If you’re here for the wide open spaces, it’s shot in a way that will largely just remind you of movies that did it better. In fact, much of the film can be summed up by saying “it reminds me of better films.”

Nevertheless, “The Oath” is a testament to the power of faith stories and the need for all people to have them represented. But it’s also a reminder how far all people of faith have to go to live up to that power and those needs.





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