I just saw something truly new: a movie by a Mormon, about Mormons, and for Mormons (and non-Mormons too) that is not only good, but very good.
"God's Army" is a feature film that depicts the struggle of a young Mormon missionary in downtown Los Angeles adjusting to an alien city and the rigors and rewards of a new spiritual life--and the struggle of his older mentor, who has a terminal disease, to adjust to the end of his own mortal life.
It premiered this weekend in 13 theaters in Utah. After its Utah run, the filmmakers are planning to take "God's Army" to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, major American cities, especially where there are temples, and then Latin America.
The writer and director, Richard Dutcher, a devout Mormon, grew up in Mapleton, Utah, went to Brigham Young University, then became a Hollywood screenwriter. He did "Girl Crazy" for HBO and "Eliza and I," about the poet convert who became a wife to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, for PBS. But his love of movies was constantly filled with the regret that he could never see the life he knew as a present-day Mormon represented on the screen.
As he said in a recent interview, "I've always been irritated that Mormons are always portrayed so one-dimensionally, if at all. We never see real, true, flesh-and-blood Mormon people in a film."
Dutcher took a chance on his faith that both Mormons and non-Mormons would respond to a film about such "flesh and blood" Mormons, wrote a script, raised $1 million, and directed and produced a fine movie.
I went to a preview, I admit, with rather low expectations. I left, however, impressed and anxious to see more from this fine young film-maker. He achieves that extremely difficult task of narrative art, taking us into a new world, a seamless whole where we can live believably awhile and learn important things.
The background details of scenes (from Spartan missionary digs to the impervious moral chaos of Sunset Boulevard) are convincing. The fast-paced dialogue, often very clever, always rings true. The clear action is motivated by interesting characterization (especially of the older missionary, played by Dutcher, whose intensity as a mature convert knowing he will die soon sometimes leads him to press things too far).
The restrained, unsentimental, but convincing score is by Miriam Cutler, a Jewish composer, who told an interviewer, "If people can get past their own prejudices, they will quickly forget that these are Mormon missionaries and just see them as young people struggling with big questions."
One of my favorite scenes is one where Dutcher and Cutler have the courage to hold back from the tendency, especially in religious films, to try to create or overplay the intended emotion with some expected cliche of music.
The "greenie," Elder Allen, spends an entire night reading, praying, struggling in the spirit to gain the faith he came on his mission without. There are no words, no music, just the occasional outside sounds of the struggling city--a car's horn, a cry, a siren--as a subtle reflection of and then contrast to the young man's inner journey whose completion is seen only in his face.
Dutcher also has the courage to take us out to the edges, both positive and negative, of Mormon cultural life.
As a teacher and critic of Mormon literature, I have watched Mormon writers struggle for 20 years to measure up to Mormon President Spencer W. Kimball's 1977 call in "The Gospel Vision of the Arts" for Mormon artists to move out of the safe middle ground and include the full range of our experience, from the "struggles and frustrations, the apostasies and inner revolutions" to the "rapture." In his first effort, Dutcher has done that.
One missionary reads anti-Mormon literature obsessively, neglects the study and attention to duty that could balance that, and leaves for home--but not until after facing the Elder Dalton in a harrowing scene where Dalton, who has been through the same struggle as a new convert, loses his temper and says things he will regret. And one scene has a pair of elders, one a young black convert, trying, without much success and against a lot of hostility, to convince a black couple that the Church is not racist, given its earlier exclusion of blacks from the priesthood.
But there is also a remarkable scene where the young black elder tells how he came to his own spiritual peace about that issue and another that matter-of-factly records Elder Dalton giving a priesthood blessing and its miraculous results.
The new thing here is Mormon filmmaking that takes Mormon religious culture seriously and explores it for understanding both Mormon and universal concerns. He noticed that other groups, such as black and gays, who objected to the way they were portrayed in mainstream films, eventually created low-budget films for their own community, which then appealed to a larger audience. Now he has done it, too.
As I have pointed out to many young Mormon writers worried their non-Mormon audiences won't understand the details of Mormon culture, there are now over five million American Mormons who can make up an adequate and appreciative audience, so why not write well for them?
Dutcher is wisely going to that audience first, but I believe "God's Army" will gradually gain a wider audience as well. As Dutcher told another writer, "I think the 'inside things' in the movie, instead of pushing the audience away, will fill the audience in. The more specific the characters are, the more universal the film becomes."
Great writers from Chaucer to Faulkner to Chaim Potok have realized this and have written specifically about relatively small cultures.
Go see this film, and tell others to go. Richard Dutcher has great talent and energy and can make more and better films with the success we can help provide him. He is already planning some sequels: the black elder as a schoolteacher in St. George, Elder Allen and one of the somewhat feminist sister missionaries who gives him a particularly hard time, married students at BYU. He has shown he can write and direct and produce and act. He knows the current trends in good movie-making. And he can put together an effective working crew of Mormons and others (the film editor, score composer, and most of the actors are non-Mormon).
Let's be part of that crew and help him give wide distribution to this major new achievement in the Mormon arts.
Who says it's impossible to make a serious, entertaining, profoundly moving religious movie? A renegade filmmaker named Richard Dutcher has done it with this startlingly strong low budget effort.
In terms of its origins, the movie is Of the Mormons, By the Mormons, but not just For the Mormons - in fact this decidedly non-Mormon critic (yeah, among the LDS faithful I get to be a gentile for once in my life) found it fascinating, riveting, and emotionally satisfying.
The story focuses on a year in the life of a young Mormon missionary, sent out from Kansas (and some painful problems with his parents) to spread the word of Latter Day Saints to Hollywood, California. The film knowingly portrays the culture clash of emphatically clean-cut young 'Elders' walking through gritty urban neighborhoods, with friendly greetings to two (impossibly pretty) local prostitutes, getting doors slammed in their faces, trying to find someone who will listen to them talk about life, death, revelation and eternity.
These young missionaries aren't two dimensional cardboard heroes - they're goofy and occasionally immature (playing tricks on each other, involving salt in a cereal bowl or embarrassing candid photos snapped over a toilet bowl) and even wracked by doubt about what they are doing.
Part of what makes the film so much richer and more convincing than you'd expect for an official church-produced project is the inclusion of one character who begins to doubt the whole Joseph Smith story which provides the cornerstone of Mormon truth. He struggles over leaving the church and the mission, and the movie never simplifies his problems nor wimps out on his sympathetic portrayal. Faith remains a choice for these idealistic characters.
The senior member of this particular Hollywood mission is the 29 year old 'Pops' (played by writer-director producer Richard Dutcher himself), a former medical student who hides a painful secret about his own medical condition.
All the performances are superior-some of them superb-with a level of acting that most mainstream releases could rightly envy. The portrayal of a miraculous healing, of a tortured prayer answered with an unheard divine voice, and other spiritual matters never seems cheap or manipulative.
Yes, the movie wants to make a case for the Mormon faith though it does so in a surprisingly subtle, balanced, sophisticated way. Dutcher leaves unresolved questions, refusing to wrap up his gripping story in a neatly-tied, beribboned package.
One middle aged Mexican-American who resists the Mormon message ('But I'm Catholic!' he pleads repeatedly to his insistent young missionary friends) draws closer to the Mormons, but never does convert. The picture, in other words, displays some dramatic integrity.
You leave the film feeling the same way I've always felt about the LDS members I know well in real life: whatever my doubts (and they are big ones) about their theology, you can't help liking these people. Zion Films, the operation behind God's Army, plans further movies on religious themes and I await these releases eagerly.
This picture avoids crude language or graphic sex (of course), but the intense and serious content should discourage kids below the age of 10 from seeing it. If you've ever encountered some of those fresh-faced LDS youngsters (and who hasn't?), in their white shirts and skinny ties, riding their bicycles two by two as they make their rounds or come knocking at your door, this amazingly accomplished effort may give you some idea what they go through. Their motto in the film is 'Let's Do Some Good Today.' Whatever your faith, the picture has the odd impact of filling you with the same resolve.
THREE AND A HALF STARS.
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
What LDS filmmaker Richard Dutcher has managed to accomplish with the earnestly likable "God's Army" is nothing short of a cinematic tightrope act.
Admittedly, there are a few wobbles along the way and perhaps even a stumble or two. Yet, considering what's waiting for him below should he fall, this independently produced drama is nothing short of a triumph. Mission accomplished.
After all, the very idea behind the film is extremely risky: It's an obvious attempt to undo years of Hollywood insensitivity and spite toward members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly young men in the church's missionary program.
However, there is always a possibility that such a film could offend the core audience if the material is too sensationalized. On the other hand, if the movie is too authentic, it could easily turn off non-Mormon audiences.
But somehow, Dutcher, the film's writer, director, producer and co-star, avoids falling off his self-imposed high wire without incurring too much damage to himself or the members of his relatively unknown cast.
One who comes off particularly well is Matthew Brown, who stars as Elder Brandon Allen, newly arrived in Los Angeles. The product of a broken home, this "greenie" missionary is having trouble explaining just why he's there in the first place. In fact, he nearly goes back to Kansas after his first day and probably would, if not for his companion, Elder Mark "Pops" Dalton (Dutcher), a 29-year-old convert with enough passion for the work for both of them.
Under Pops' watchful eye and encouragement, Elder Allen begins his missionary work in earnest, which includes trying to convert a Catholic family, as well as resist temptations and doubts.
That's not such an easy thing to accomplish, especially with the lingering presence of Elder Kinegar (Michael Buster), a fellow missionary who's been studying Mormon-critical and downright anti-Mormon literature, and who keeps trying to grow seeds of doubt in Elder Allen's mind.
If that's not enough, there's also the perplexing question as to why Pops dropped out of medical school to serve a mission, as well as Elder Allen's attraction to a sister missionary, Janine Fronk (Jacque Gray).
It's in this final third that the movie falters a bit, as Dutcher begins to use easy storytelling shortcuts and resorts to cheap sentimentality that undercuts some of the more realistic and moving human drama that is going on. (The same goes for the "where are they now?" ending. Not only is it a cliche, but it also eliminates the need for a sequel, which would probably be welcomed.)
But even those problems can't undo the picture, which also benefits from good performances. Brown makes a sympathetic lead, and as Pops, Dutcher is stern but compassionate. The real surprise of the cast, though, is DeSean Terry, who plays Elder Banks, a black missionary. A last-minute replacement in the cast, Terry commands attention every time he's onscreen, and he does so without committing the acting errors that newcomers sometimes make (such as mugging for the camera).
Of course, that's not meant to slight Dutcher, who has made a first-class production on a shoestring budget. He's clearly a talent and could have a bright future in filmmaking, even mainstream filmmaking if given half a chance if he even wants such a career.
"God's Army" is rated PG for brief violence (a scuffle), vulgarity (some juvenile practical jokes) and use of a few mild profanities (much tamer than what's on TV these days).
Every Mormon who serves one has a moment during their mission when they think, "Whoa, this would make a great movie."
For some, it's a breathtaking jungle panorama or an emotional moment with a poor urban family. For me, it was watching Elder Mutz fall off a speeding train. That was a Kodak moment. A lot of them, in fact.
The possibility of someone making a real Hollywood movie about Mormon missionaries has always been, well, non-existent. Especially if the idea was that even non-Mormons would pay money to watch it.
The problem is that missionary movies have always been shot by the church's own film company, "Cardboard Cut-out Productions," which is eternally plagued with insurmountable casting, script, plot, location, director, producer, soundtrack, union and caterer problems.
This explains why many of us wish we couldn't remember such LDS films as, "I'm Special Every Day" and "You're Special Every Day," and "They're Not Special At All."
Mercifully, times have changed. I attended the premiere showing of "Army of God" Wednesday night, an actual big screen movie about Mormon mission life. I liked it.
Before we do the review thing, I'm not saying that "Army of God" is bound for the Oscars. I am saying, "Finally, a missionary movie that isn't a complete waste of time." And considering the history of Mormon filmmaking, this is a quantum leap.
The premiere was held at Jordan Commons, where we were told the movie would start promptly at 8 p.m. But since it was a movie about Mormons, it started at 8 p.m. Mormon time, or about 30 minutes late.
Maybe that's because there were "a few announcements" first. Anyone who has been to a Mormon ward knows that there is no such thing. It's always "a lot of announcements," and possibly even a testimony or two. "Army" is essentially about new missionary Elder Allen (played very well by actual non-Mormon Matthew Brown). Allen is sent to serve in Los Angeles, Calif., where he gets assigned to work with Elder Dalton, a typical mission fire-breather.
Dalton is played by director and producer Richard Dutcher, whose own mission experiences probably helped him nail down the archetypal district leader character, who is sort of a cross between an apostle and a Nazi.
While wrestling with their own personal shortcomings, Allen and Dalton try spreading the gospel in downtown L.A. Supporting characters include other missionaries, local LDS members, potential converts, hookers and a few outright lunatics.
What I liked about "Army" is the reach for honesty. It was an accurate portrayal of my own mission. Specifically, what it was like to live with a bunch of other servants of the Lord, who, if we couldn't love each other, we at least tried not to maim each other.
Rather than taking the usual (and tired) "good always wins if it says its prayers" approach, Dutcher focuses on a human message that Mormons have long needed to face publicly. In the struggle between good and evil, forget Satan. The first problem is always yourself.
"Army of God" is rated PG. While there is no nudity or profanity (at least none bad enough to register on the likes of me), you might want to leave the kids home. The sight of two missionaries punching each other out may put a different spin on the Primary song "I Hope They Call Me On A Mission."
Finally, "Army of God" isn't just for Mormons. It's also a good way for non-Mormons to find out what the whole white-shirt-and-tie thing is like outside their own one-dimensional view of it.
Only about 500 people e-mailed or called Saturday to let me know that I got the name of the film "God's Army" wrong. I had it as "Army of God."
I would like to apologize to the readers, but I'm not going to. What happened is nothing more than the natural result of trying to report the news while:
A) Not paying attention.
B) Being heavily intoxicated.
C) Suffering severe abdominal cramps.
D) Thinking about Al Gore becoming president.
It's like the time I told you that the Second Coming had already occurred, that we were already dead, and this was hell. Remember? Back then, many of you rushed to correct me without first checking with your ecclesiastical and government leaders.
I did apologize to "God's Army" guy Richard Dutcher. After all, he was the offended party. I tracked him down at a promotional appearance for his film in Provo. I think my exact words were, "Bummer."
Richard was highly gracious. Not at all like Gov. Mike Leavitt was when I warned you about his mind being controlled by a cat. After that story ran, UHP troopers circled my house for weeks.
Even worse was the time I revealed that noted Utah philanthropist Jon Huntsman owned all of the money in the universe, and that he just let us hold it for him. My next paycheck was exactly eight rubles.
When I apologized, Richard said, "Hey, no problem. Just, um, don't let anyone see you standing next to me, OK?"
The point is that we in the newspaper business, being mostly human, make occasional mistakes. And when our attention is drawn to the mistake in a manner that allows us to continue breathing, we try to correct it.
Everyone makes mistakes, including, believe it or not, the federal government. Like the time they tried to make a soldier out of me. Didn't work, and they never apologized. Jerks.
Not only should you apologize and correct the mistake when you offend someone, you should also give people the chance to apologize when they offend you. A good way not to do this is to leap up and down while screaming insults about their mother.
Life is full of opportunities to take offense. Yesterday, while purchasing a certain beverage, I was asked to show some identification. I know what you're thinking. "No way. Aren't you, like, 70?"
I'm 47. And unless I was Dick Clark, this is plenty old enough to not be mistaken for a teen-ager. Not this time. The cash register would not finish processing the sale until the embarrassed clerk entered my date of birth.
What's really outrageous is that I was trying to buy a bottle of Tremendously Tangerine Fruitopia, which, for the serious prohibitionists among you, contains the same amount of alcohol as a lima bean.
So, in front of all the people waiting behind me in line, I had to break out my ID and prove to the clerk that I was old enough to buy fruit juice. I was nervous. What if there was a waiting period?
Just to be sure that I had every right in the world to be offended, I went back and bought another bottle. Same thing happened. There was just one more hurdle to clear before I was legally entitled to become abusive.
In an effort to find out what was dangerous about fruit juice -- so as to warn the rest of you -- I talked to the manager. Thirty minutes and she wouldn't quit apologizing for the horrible and thoughtless inconvenience I had suffered. Finally, I ran away.
I never did find out what was wrong. You're on your own in a heartless world. Sorry.
I was talking with my sister and her husband just the other day and I thought they would be interested in hearing about God's Army. The conversation went something like this:
Jonathan: There's a new movie out about missionaries in L.A.
Jonathan: Yeah, it's done by a member of the church.
Brother-in-law: It's a documentary?
Jonathan: No, a fiction film.
Sister: Our missionaries?
Jonathan: Yeah. Mormon missionaries.
Brother-in-law: Is it put out by the Church?
Sister: On video?
Jonathan: No, in the theaters.
and Sister: Really?
By the end of the conversation, I was sure they didn't fully understand. They couldn't wrap their brains around the fact that there could be a film by Mormons, about Mormons, and for Mormons in theaters.
Frankly, I expect that reaction from a lot of members of the church. We don't yet have a precedent for telling our stories from our own point of view. Some people who see the film won't know what to do about it. Are they supposed to take their non-member friends? Are they supposed to take their teenage son? Are they supposed to condemn it?
God's Army isn't a fireside address. It isn't an example of model missionaries. It isn't an exposé. It isn't sensationalized. It isn't boring. In short, God's Army isn't a lot of things. And that may be its saving grace.
God's Army starts out as Elder Allen (Matthew Brown) gets picked up from the L.A. airport by the office elders of the mission. As a Midwesterner, outer Mongolia wouldn't be more foreign than the back streets of L.A. A drill sergeant Mission President assigns him to Elder Dalton (Richard Dutcher), a twenty-eight year old missionary who has a fire for the work. The rigors of mission life don't prove to be an easy transition for this nineteen year old. Elder Allen learns a great deal from working with investigators, interacting with other missionaries, and overcoming his own personal struggles.
The characters are not types, symbols, or examples; they're people. If we fall into the trap of feeling like they should in some way be examples of how missionaries should act, we can forgive ourselves. In the past, missionaries in film have constituted only two groups: the reprehensible non-member representation (a la Orgasmo) and the church endorsed characterization (as in Called to Serve and Labor of Love). We are wise to generally ignore the former and the latter is meant to be instructional. For the first time, we are invited to see a film about Mormons not as an attack, nor a misrepresentation, nor a teaching opportunity. We are meant to see the characters for what they are and enjoy the story for just that, storytelling.
The film looks and acts like a Hollywood picture, with good directorial decisions, effective filmmaking, and good acting. Richard Dutcher (the film's producer, writer, and director) chooses a hands-off approach to the directing. He calls it "directing like a writer." He avoids unnecessary cinematic devices and camera movement. Doing this, the emphasis falls on the characters and the drama of the story. This focus proves effective because the acting is so believable.
For all its proficiencies, this is no Hollywood film. Dutcher makes particular care that he does not shy away from portraying the spiritual struggles and experiences of the missionaries. He deals with this part of these character's lives as comfortably as he does the moments of comedy or drama. Those moments are so "at home" in the subject matter that their exclusion would have been a reprehensible oversight.
Even with the treatment of spirituality, Dutcher goes to great pains to assure that the film doesn't look or sound like church-made films. He consciously avoids some of the conventions that are common to church-made productions like swelling music, warm cinematography, and didacticism. The effort is so good, and in many ways so beyond expectation, it seems futile to find fault with the film at all. Nevertheless, if there are faults in the film they exhibit themselves as too much talking in the third quarter of the film and too much information as a wrap-up at the end. However, if I had to make a prediction, more people will have critical things to say about the representation of Mormonism than about the filmmaking.
Members of the church might have some concern over a couple of aspects of the story. The elders play more pranks on each other than some may feel is appropriate as missionaries. There may be too much activity during nighttime hours. There may be too much interaction between the missionaries. What's important to remember as you watch God's Army is that this is not a documentary about mission life. This is a fictional story about people in unusual circumstances in a context familiar to members of the church. God's Army may not tow the party line, but it walks it pretty close.
God's Army probably couldn't have been made any earlier than now. God's Army's audience is meant to be primarily Mormon. Dutcher is gambling that there are enough interested Mormons to support their own small film market. Such a scenario isn't out of the question. And, if we truly continue to seek positive, uplifting films, having a stream of niche Mormon films will come sooner rather than later. When that happens the durability of the movement will probably depend completely on the quality of the films produced. If others of God's Army's ilk follow, they will surely find an audience.
If, when you see this film, you're not sure what to do with it, just enjoy it. It's not meant to be the means of converting the world, sending more young men on missions, or answering the recent LDS missionary misrepresentation in films like Orgasmo. This is a film that tells a Mormon story. It may be harder to accept it as a film than if we watched Robert Duvall's The Apostle, but that's because we are so unaccustomed to seeing ourselves as subjects of fictional filmmaking. I suggest you get used to it. Richard Dutcher is planning to do it some more.
"When I saw God's Army I wasn't sure what to expect. Would this be like a seminary film where I was supposed to learn something? I soon learned it was about real people, only unlike most movies today, these were people I recognized-people like me. I went with my mission-age boyfriend, and we both laughed and cried during the film. I I really felt like a knew the people by the end of the show. It's the best film I've seen in a long, long time." Rachel Proctor, age 17
Sometimes it's not until we see something for the first time that we realize how much we've missed it.
Starting way back in 1911 with A Victim of the Mormons and reaching a new low point last year with Orgazmo, the Mormon people (or Latter-day Saints, as they prefer to be called) are often portrayed in the movies as dangerous fanatics, hypocrites and/or simpletons.
As a people, they've repeatedly taken a cinematic beating at the hands of non-Mormon filmmakersand why not? They're an easy target. They don't fight back. Until now.
With God's Army, which hits movie theaters this March, a young Mormon director finally enters the ring. But instead of throwing a punch at well-deserving Hollywood, Richard Dutcher turns the other cheek. He points his camera instead toward his own people and, for the first time, shows us what flesh-and-blood Mormons are really like.
He doesn't take us down the wide streets of Salt Lake City. Instead he pushes us through the front door of an apartment full of missionaries in present-day Los Angeles. There of all places, he leads us on a journey deep into Mormonism.
The main character is young Brandon Allen (MATTHEW BROWN) a newly-ordained missionary struggling with a tragic history and with his own infant faith.
His companion is 29-year-old Marcus Dalton, the oldest missionary in the L.A. Mission, played by Dutcher himself.
Dalton is a harsh mentor, and life as a missionary is not the sugar-coated experience that Allen (and the audience) expects.
These days, when so many young directors view independent filmmaking a merely a springboard to big studio budgets and the cover of Premiere magazine, it's refreshing to hear a truly independent voice, a voice thick with the vocabulary of a peculiar people, revealing characters that we've never before seen.
Richard Dutcher is not talking to the studios. He's so engaged in a conversation with his own faith that you get the feeling he truly doesn't care if all the non-Mormons out there even like this movie.
For non-believers, watching God's Army is like entering a foreign country and eavesdropping on the natives' most private conversations.
For believers, seeing God's Army is like getting the best toy for Christmas, a toy you didn't even know existed.
Dutcher is not the first and only cinematic voice of his culture. Yes, there are other Mormon filmmakers out there, but they're all telling Hollywood stories. In true Mormon fashion, Richard Dutcher has found an unwanted piece of the landscape and claimed it as his own.
It's always a danger to talk up a film. Moviegoers may expect too much. You won't see explosions or car chases or gunfights. But unlike most multiplex fare that passes through your mind without a snag, God's Army will stay with you. It is a quiet and a powerful film. Don't be surprised if you find yourself thinking about it days later.
In these jaded times, you may think you've seen it all. You haven't. Admittedly, if you're not a Mormon, you may or may not miss it. But if you are a Mormon, as 11 million of you are, you'll wonder where this Dutcher guy has been for the past 89 years, and when is he going to make his next movie?
These days, you seldom hear an audience react at the end of a movie. On March 10, turn an ear toward Salt Lake City and expect to hear the sound of applause.
"God's Army" is a tour-de-force film not to be missed.
Covering topics as diverse as reluctant companions, cancer and missionary humor, it packs a wallop that the director hopes will strike a chord with LDS and non-LDS audiences alike.
Filmmaker Richard Dutcher, a graduate of BYU's film program, and his production company, Zion Films, have crafted a film which takes a look at humdrum but life-altering everyday missionary life.
Following the first days of Elder Brandon Allen's mission in Hollywood, California, "God's Army" focuses on the education of one new missionary.
Allen confronts discouragement, fear and despair as he learns from his companion, Elder Dalton, how to be a missionary and an adult.
But this is not "A Labor of Love." "God's Army" was not sponsored or funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The film takes an honest look at the less glamorous sides of missionary work, such as companions who leave the Church, death, families that fall apart and poor living conditions.
Dutcher hopes that these universal themes, not the doctrine, will draw people to the film.
"I don't want this film to be a tract," he said. The film focuses on the missionaries' humanity, which does involve their faith, but not the faith alone.
The cast and crew, Dutcher said, were largely non-LDS.
"In films made by the Church, when a certain emotion is wanted you hear a certain kind of music," he said. "And there's a certain kind of cinematography that comes along with Church films -- very warm and beautiful and perfect. I didn't want any of that."
Dutcher doesn't make any apologies about the movie's religiosity and he hopes that both LDS and non-LDS audiences will relax and enjoy the film.
The theology is handled tactfully and gracefully, even as it tackles subjects such as blacks and the priesthood and families that don't want to be together forever.
"God's Army" was shot on location in Los Angeles and has an intense feeling of reality.
The atmosphere of the piece is established early in the movie as Allen is driven through Los Angeles and shown the sites, including the unpleasant ones.
The film's conflicts come from characters meeting and changing. Strong characterization is the driving force of this movie. The missionaries are not perfect. Their shirts are not ironed, the apartment is not clean, and they fight and threaten each other.
The actors' performances are laced with nuance. Matthew Brown, who plays Elder Allen, conveys the nervousness and fear of new missionaries with great power. There is not a weak performance in the large ensemble cast of more than 40.
The original score is used effectively to heighten emotions and even emphasize the occasional irony of tracting and street-contacting.
"God's Army" opens in Utah theaters March 10. It is rated PG for adult themes.
The movie God's Army is all about missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Richard Dutcher wrote, produced, and directed the movie specifically for Latter-day Saint audiences.
"I made it for Latter-day Saints. There was no ulterior motive. I wanted to tell my own story to my own people," Dutcher said.
Dutcher decided to make a movie about and for Latter-day Saints for several reasons.
"I was very aware of our lack of representation in media and especially motion pictures," he said.
"There is never an accurate portrayal of Mormons on-screen. We are misrepresented, even if intentions are good," Dutcher said.
He said he wants to show what Latter-day Saints are really like and this movie was a chance to "tell my own story."
In Utah, God's Army is doing very well. After three weeks of playing, it will have paid for itself, Dutcher said.
The movie was filmed in 18 days because that was all the budget would allow.
"It's not my method to do it quickly, but I was working according to the resources I could get," Dutcher said.
Dutcher, who received his film degree from Brigham Young University, has made two other feature films, but he wanted to make a movie about something he knows: Latter-day Saints.
"It's not an inaccurate portrayal. They prefer I don't tell the truth," Dutcher said in response to the comment that some Latter-day Saints people are offended .
"If I omit stories, it's not the truth. Some people would prefer Mormon propaganda and an idealized version of missionaries. (God's Army) is not intended to be the definitive point of view on Mormon culture. This is the way I see things," he said.
But he said he is concerned that his way of seeing this is all that's out there.
"There are no other voices. I want to encourage other artists to share their stories," Dutcher said. "I'm hoping other LDS filmmakers will try to make better films than God's Army."
Dutcher said he is planning on releasing another movie next February.
He wouldn't give any hints about the plot or title, but he said it should be another movie with a Latter-day Saint theme.