Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Danites Are Coming

March 9th, 2010 · 7 Comments

While we’ve always been vaguely aware of the Mormon film industry, we never realized that its history could be traced back to the very dawn of popular cinema. Nor were we particularly familiar with the brief silent-era vogue for movies that cast Mormons as archvillains, which BYU film historian Gideon Burton identifies as part of the industry’ s “First Wave.” The full knowledge on cinema’s Mormon exploitation movement can be found here, via BYU Studies. (Warning: Massive PDF file.) Our favorite snippet, regarding this over-the-top gem:

Anti-Mormon films reached their zenith with the 1917 A Mormon Maid. Produced by Famous Players-Lasky, the film opened on Valentine’s Day at New York’s Strand Theater. It ran sixty-five minutes on five reels and was described as the most advertised film in the history of cinema up to that time. Such a high-profile production, with a familiar plot featuring Danites and polygamous intrigues, could no longer be justified by anti-Mormon sentiment; rather, motivation now came from within the industry itself, as the film was a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation two years earlier. The connection between the two films cannot be overemphasized, particularly in the fabricated connection between the Ku Klux Klan and the Danites; one intertitle even tells us that the Danites’ hooded costume (historically nonexistent) was the direct predecessor of the KKK’s. The strategy worked, as critics lauded the film and audiences flocked to it across the nation.

The trailer for another infamous Mormonsploitation film, Trapped by the Mormons, is available here. Back then, it must have seemed terribly unlikely that a Mormon-made film could ever snag a bigtime Hollywood star. But Anne Hathaway eventually proved the conventional wisdom wrong.


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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    I find that my feelings about Mormons are directly correlated to how long it’s been since I last read “Under the Banner of Heaven”.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: As always, +10 for any mention of Under the Banner of Heaven on this site. Love that book.

  • The Original Mormon Mauler

    […] Though Mormonism was already more than 100 years old by the time of Detton’s heyday, the faith was still regarded with tremendous suspicion outside Utah. The tabloid press was quite fond of portraying Mormons as sinister weirdos, while Hollywood did its best to stir up anti-Mormon sentiment with a series of seedy exploitation films. […]

  • monkeyball

    “Mormonsploitation”? Really? How in the name of Ba’al do you not use “LDSploitation” there?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @monkeyball: Well played, sir. And an extra +1 for name-checking Ba’al.

  • Banner

    “Under the Banner of Heaven” was a great book, but since I actually know some of the the people in the story (my girlfriend’s Aunt is one of the people killed) as well as many mormon people, I can say for certain that Krakauer added a few “facts” into the book which make it more interesting but are not a 100% accurate portrayal of the mormon history or the mormon people. I also LOVED “Into the Wild”, but again, he added things to the story to make it more interesting that were not factual. Don’t take his books as textbooks, although they are very interesting and enlightening to read.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Banner: Thanks for the comment. My edition of “Under the Banner of Heaven” includes Krakauer’s response to the LDS Church’s criticism of his factual accuracy. To be honest, I just skimmed that section; maybe I should go back and give it a closer read.

    As a nonfiction writer myself, my natural sympathies are with Krakauer. I know how hard it is to parachute into a topic for a few months or years, when other people have dedicated a lifetime to the subject matter in question. That said, no writer should be exempt from pointed criticism simply because their job is hard.