Reviewed by Bill McKeever
There is no doubt that many people will be caught off guard when they sit down to watch the Hollywood film “The Other Side of Heaven.” Several media outlets have touted this as good Christian entertainment. However, it should be known that this is a Mormon film based on the memoirs of John Groberg, currently a Seventy in the Mormon Church who served an LDS mission in the 1950s.
The promotional pieces do not hide the fact that this is the story of a missionary to the Tongan people. At the same time, they do not easily give away the plot about how this is a story of a Mormon missionary. A photograph advertising the film features the young Groberg (played by Christopher Gorham) arriving by boat on a Tongan island back in the 1950s. The fact that he is wearing a traditional business suit might give away his Mormon identity, for who but Mormons would wear something so out of place in a tropical climate? He wears no traditional black name badge, but that didn’t become standard attire until years later. One might also wonder about his companion since the promotional picture shows him arriving alone, or so it seems. Actually, the dark-skinned young man standing behind him in the boat is his companion, a young Tongan named Feki (played by New Zealander Joe Folau) who served with Groberg for much of his three-year mission. Also featured in the film is Anne Hathaway (Princess Diaries) who plays Groberg’s girlfriend back home in the states.
Even a visit to the movie’s website does not easily make Groberg’s church identity known. The synopsis merely says that this film is a “romantic coming of age story” based on John Groberg’s memoirs “who served as a missionary in the remote Tongan islands in the 1950s.” One has to click on “Press Room” and the scroll down to a 12/01/01 PDF file entitled “Frequently Asked Questions” to learn that Heaven “is only a Mormon movie in the sense that the main character in the film is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The film was not produced, funded or endorsed in any way by that Church. However, because John Groberg is a current leader in the Church, he did consult with the leadership before allowing his life’s story to be told. His leaders raised no objections.”
The web site features several quotations in the upper right-hand corner from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Psalms, another from the writings of Buddha, and still another from “B. Young,” which is obviously a reference to Brigham Young, Mormonism’s second president. Why just an initial?
Though produced on a frugal Hollywood budget of $7 million, Heaven has its share of behind-the-scenes heavy hitters. Co-producer John Garbett, a production executive with Dreamworks and producer with Amblin Entertainment, also worked on such films as Shrek, Father of the Bride, and Three Men and a Little Lady. Gerald Molen, a producer with Amblin, is credited with films such as Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Lost World, Hook, and Twister. Writer/director Mitch Davis, a creative executive with Touchstone, has participated in such pictures as Rocketeer, White Fang, Dead Poet’s Society, and Newsies.
While there is no mistaking this for anything but a Mormon film, there is not a barrage of unique LDS teachings. About the only doctrine unique to Mormonism receiving prominent mention is the LDS teaching that marriage is for eternity. There are also a few LDS buzzwords scattered throughout the film as well as a shout credited to Brigham Young as he and Heber C. Kimball were leaving on a mission to England (Hurrah, Hurrah for Israel!). However, it appears that only Bible verses are quoted. While I did not personally remember seeing it, I understand that there is a Tongan edition of the Book of Mormon in one scene. Joseph Smith is never mentioned. And only the person who knows LDS Church history would have recognized a photograph of former LDS President David O. McKay hanging on the wall of the hut-like meeting place.
Groberg is depicted as a prime example of sedulity, and except for a few language and cultural gaffes, the young man from Idaho can virtually do no wrong. He survives having the soles of his feet chewed by rats as well as a storm at sea that rivaled the one that swallowed Captain Billy Tyne and the Andrea Gail back in 1991.
There is no doubt some of the scenes were purposely meant to show God’s divine pleasure with Groberg’s efforts. In one scene a man comes running to him with the limp body of his son in his arms, explaining that he fell out of a mango tree. When Groberg delivers the news that his child is dead, the father is undaunted and urges the young man to do something. Obviously perplexed, he takes him into a hut and lays him on the floor, beginning to massage his side and saying “Out with the bad air, in with the good” over and over again. The scene seemed to almost be comical though it surely was meant to be quite serious. The child was merely unconscious, not drowned, and after several hours of this incantation, the boy finally revived. This helped Groberg gain credibility with the locals. His gallantry is also depicted during a hurricane when he and his companion brave the elements to find a lost little girl.
Such a film would not be complete with at least one bad guy, so this film utilizes a Christian “minister” who tells his people to stay away from the Mormon missionaries because they are teaching false doctrine. What exactly it is that would cause the minister to say this is not explained. He even orders some local thugs to “rough up” Groberg, but he is spared when the large local drunk comes to his aid. The film also implies that this minister was somehow responsible for the death of a young Tongan who developed tetanus when his foot was accidentally cut by a machete. The minister refuses to allow Groberg to give an LDS “blessing” as the young man goes through spasms commonly associated with this infection. Moments later, he dies. The minister later finds out that Groberg is not such a bad guy after all, and he ends up apologizing for his behavior.
It is this good guy image that the filmmakers certainly wanted to get across to the viewers. A vast majority of people will walk away thinking, “Gee, Mormon missionaries are such nice people.” There is no doubt that John Groberg was, and is, an exceptionally nice person who sincerely loves the Tongan people. However, this is not a trait only found in Mormon missionaries. In fact, most committed people who have served missions on a foreign field tend to fall in love with the people whom they serve. I know that has been my experience when I have spent time in a foreign country. Having grown up with many LDS friends, this is also what motivates me regarding the Mormon people.
Emotionally charged films like this tend to overlook weightier things. In this case, we cannot forget that John Groberg was a Mormon missionary who, in real life, was and is spreading a terrible heresy. There is no escaping the fact that he is partially responsible for the exceptionally high LDS population in Tonga. Today this constitutional monarchy is about 40 percent Mormon. In actual numbers that accounts for 43,000 people trusting in a works-oriented salvation that tells people to believe in a God who was a glorified man and in a Jesus that 15th LDS President Gordon Hinckley said is anything but “traditional.”
While I would defend anyone’s right to produce a film that is favorable to his or her worldview, there is a problem with how this film is being marketed. As demonstrated earlier, whoever was in charge of the promotion of the film was very determined to make it difficult for the general public to know of its Mormon theme. Some might call that good marketing strategy; however, knowing how the LDS Church continually deals with its image in the public arena, I just can’t help but think that this was a bit of, for lack of a better word, deception.