'17 Miracles' brings to life demanding pioneer trek to Utah

'17 Miracles' brings to life demanding pioneer trek to Utah

Steve Salles, Standard-Examiner movie critic - June 3rd, 2011
2.5 stars

I’ve always felt uncomfortable when people describe something as a “miracle.” After all, it does suggest some type of divine intervention, and most of the people I know — let’s face it, they don’t have that kind of access.

So when I see a film that boldly claims “17 Miracles,” I’ve got to be somewhat skeptical. But, hey, if half the tales told in this film are true, I’d say a few may qualify.

This is the story of the ill-fated Willie Handcart Company, a group of 500 Mormon pioneers that got a late summer start in 1856 on the 1,200-mile trek from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Salt Lake Valley.

Against the advice of one of the company’s subcaptains, Levi Savage (Jasen Wade), the pioneers decide to trust their faith and set out for Zion.

In fact, Levi gets publicly called to repentance not once, but twice, during the journey, which felt a little harsh considering he was simply trying to save lives.

Levi’s fears were based on a previous experience with the Mormon Battalion in the disposition of the remains of another ill-fated group called the Donner Party in the Sierras in 1847. He and we know that didn’t go well. He wants to avoid a similar experience with the Willie Handcart people.

So they set off with high hopes and even higher expectations, as the booming narrator’s voice explains. I think he also serves as the miracle announcer, but some, I have to admit, are a little dubious.

For example, when a couple of the pioneer girls, playing along the trail, run into a pathway littered with so many snakes you’d think Indiana Jones must be nearby, they stop to pray.

Here’s a thought. How about turning around and heading back to where the rest of the company is walking? Instead, they sort of hopscotch their way over the rattlers to safety. That’s not a miracle. That’s just blind dumb luck.

As the story progresses and food becomes scarce, the Saints regale incidents where pans of food appear out of nowhere or a couple of biscuits and water turn into a pot full of bread. Those are pretty interesting.

My favorite is the woman who comes upon a stranger who encourages her to follow him back to a remote cave. Has she not heard of stranger danger? He proceeds to give her an apron full of jerky to share with her fellow travelers. When she goes back to thank him ... well, you’ll see.

As group members start dying off from starvation or exposure, it becomes fairly moving, to the point where you can’t help but tear up at the determination and suffering.

I’ve read and heard stories about difficult pioneer treks over the years. This “17 Miracles” brings it about as close to home as any before. So in that regard, full appreciation is the most important aspect of this cinematic experience.

It may feel a little hokey at times, especially early on, but as the situation becomes more dire and deadly, you’d have to be a soulless hump not to feel something. And for that, “17 Miracles” is worth seeing.

blog comments powered by Disqus