Utah has had an interesting past, but fewer stories send more chills up the backs of its historians than the ghoulish 1862 tale of Jean Baptiste — a man who is believed to have robbed as many as 300 graves in a Salt Lake cemetery. He was banished to the remote islands of the Great Salt Lake (first, Antelope, then Fremont) for his heinous crimes.
This film takes those gruesome details, but adds a “Les Mis” type of redemption story, which gives it a whole different twist.
And while I applaud the local filmmakers for taking on a subject entirely new (pretty sure no one will be comparing this to Napoleon Dynamite), it is disconcerting that they’ve turned it into a movie about forgiveness, when from all accounts, it was more like an act of quiet vengeance.
At issue is how much of an impact the great frontier lawman Henry Heath had on the banished prisoner Baptiste.
The film shows Heath rowing out to Antelope Island regularly to deliver food staples to the condemned man. The two develop an awkward relationship, as Lawman Heath protects Baptiste from angry family members who wanted him dead.
Historical accounts state only that the prisoner was delivered unshackled to the Great Salt Lake in early spring of 1862. He was tattooed with “For Robbing the Dead” on his forehead and had his ears cropped (like a cattle marking). Soon after, he dismantled a cattleman’s supply shack on Fremont Island, apparently constructed a makeshift raft and disappeared. Did he drown? Did he escape? No one knows.
“Redemption” suggests several encounters between Heath and Baptiste, in which they discussed the afterlife and how the soul leaves the body at death, which is why the grave robber had no qualms taking the clothes of the buried and chopping up their coffins for firewood.
The movie also suggests that Heath’s wife finds the burial garment of their own recently deceased daughter among Baptiste’s horrifying collection, but keeps it a secret from her husband out of fear of what he might do.
At this point, I’m thinking: What would I do?
As far as the movie itself, it was a surprise to see some fairly well-known actors amidst the local talent, including Barry Corbin of “Northern Exposure,” Margot Kidder of “Superman,” Jon Gries of “Napoleon Dynamite” and a brief cameo from Edward Herrmann of “Harry’s War.”
The movie is a decent production given the limited funds the filmmakers had. You could definitely see the difference in skills between the veteran actors and the others, though I must admit the men who played Heath (John Freeman) and Baptiste (David Stevens) were both quite good and believable.
I guess it just gnaws on me that the filmmakers took a gripping real-life story and turned it into a how-far-will-you-go-to-forgive-a-person, upbeat religious allegory.
Brigham Young himself said, “Killing is too good for him.” And “to shoot or hang (him) would not satisfy my feelings at all.”
You don’t think one of the 300 listeners of that speech didn’t think to themselves, “Don’t worry Brother Brigham, I’ve got this one.”
I liked the film and would have liked it more without all of the extraneous grandstanding. The man was a ghoul. He disappeared. End of story.