At the beginning of "Ephraim's Rescue," a grizzled frontiersman comes thundering up to a farmhouse on a madly galloping horse, restores health and vigor to a woman who's been presumed dead for hours, and then rides back out the way he came in. Throw in the William Tell Overture and the self-contained prologue could almost be a lesser known incident in the life of the Lone Ranger.
"Ephraim's Rescue" has more reverent subject matter and a more subdued tone than what's suggested by that comparison, but attributes a similarly heroic, near mythic stature to its rough-and-ready protagonist. As seen here, Mormon scout Ephraim Hanks, an early Utah settler who, in 1856, played a dramatic role in rescuing emigrants delayed in reaching Salt Lake City by early winter storms, is a little like a Mormon pioneer superhero.
Written, directed, filmed and produced by T.C. Christensen, "Ephraim's Rescue" is a companion piece, though not a sequel, to "17 Miracles," the Mormon handcart drama that Christensen sent into theaters in 2011. The two films cover some of the same ground along the Mormon trail from Illinois to Salt Lake City, and there's at least one character who appears in both, sweet-natured Albert (played by Travis Eberhard), a hardy handcarter whose large spirit belies his small stature.
Yet while the new film devotes substantial screen time to the hardships endured by the handcart companies, the focus is much more on Hanks, who spent his late teenage years in the Navy before following his brother into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845. After eventually winning the trust of early Mormon leader Brigham Young, Hanks was ready to take immediate action in the fall of 1856 when Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City received word of settlers trapped in the mountains by snow.
When the film does stick to the handcarters, events are filtered mostly through the eyes of Thomas Dobson, a young English pioneer nursing a healthy portion of regret for having left his old life behind.
"Ephraim's Rescue" has some of the same problems that "17 Miracles" did. There's an over-reliance on sonorous music and slow-motion photography to punch up the drama of certain scenes. It's almost comical in some spots, like when a mob of angry hooligans appears at the scene of a Mormon baptism in England. There's surely no shortage of hooligans in England — ask any soccer fan — but there's nothing to ground us even a little bit in the persecution of Mormon converts abroad.
Baptism, rejoicing — blam. Cue slo-mo hooligans.
The film's sense of humor is also hit-and-miss. An attempt to weave in a running polygamy joke mostly falls flat, while a more organic chuckle neatly arises from Thomas comparing notes with pretty Esther about the romantic attachments they've each left behind. Esther, who's been making a steady (and steadily amusing) play for Thomas' affections, is apparently aiming to trade up. "He was quite plain, actually," she says of her former sweetheart. "I just tried not too look at him too much."
Certain scenes come across as forced, with characters shoehorned into this or that predicament for the sake of faith-promoting drama. When the handcart company crosses a river in high summer, a pioneer mother, apparently without consulting anyone else in the group, decides that her only means of getting to the opposite bank is to wade the deep water with her young son on her shoulders.
Whether or not it really happened that way (we're told that it did) is beside the point — the filmmakers' job is to suggest why it would have, or might have, happened that way.
Instead, the film has her simply struggle across in full view of any number of people who could have — and, more importantly, would have — rushed to her assistance.
One thing that's conveyed powerfully from start to finish is Ephraim Hanks' uncanny ability to give miraculous healing blessings employing Mormon priesthood rites. Hanks apparently manifested this remarkable gift early in life and Christensen gradually shows him put it to use, carefully and respectfully building to scenes that contain nearly the entire ritual. Especially tender is Hanks' humble insistence on washing his hands before every blessing.
As the film's frontier savior, Darin Southam is both suitably meek and appropriately rugged, if occasionally somewhat inscrutable. Christensen might have served his star better by giving Hanks a little more human frailty. When Hanks says at one point that his personal failings are too numerous to be counted, Southam makes it sound sincere. Aside from a humorous flash of temper at the expense of two ministers, on the other hand, we haven't seen much to suggest that "Eph" was anything but courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent and so forth. A Boy Scout before his time.
Even viewers familiar with the handcart tragedy may not know about Hanks' role in responding to it. Despite its own shortcomings, "Ephraim's Rescue" is a worthwhile tribute to a forgotten hero.