Return with Honor: A Redemptive Story?

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Released in September 2007 by the company that produced The Other Side of Heaven and God’s Army, Return with Honor was named Best Picture and lead actor Javen Tanner won Best Actor at the 2007 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. The film also received the Gold Remi Award for Dramatic Feature Film at the 40th Annual Worldfest International Film Festival in Houston.

In a nutshell—and you might want to stop reading right now if you think you’re going to rent it at the video store—Return with Honor begins with missionary Rowe McDonald (Tanner) successfully completing a two-year tour of duty in Sin City, AKA Las Vegas. In his exit interview, Rowe tells the mission president that his goal is to convert his single Gentile Mom (Tayva Patch), whom he later finds out has lost her respectable job at the local drug store and is now living in sin with a bar owner who is her employer. Tragically, however, Rowe is seriously injured when the cab taking him home from the Salt Lake City airport is involved in a crushing accident.

In an apparent out-of-body experience, Rowe makes a surreal deal with God and is given 60 days to finish his life, allowing him a final chance to convert his Mom. Waking up out of a three-day coma, McDonald realizes that he can’t talk to anyone about this heavenly experience, including his fiancée Ally (Joey Jalalian) or best friend Corbin (Raymond Zeiters).

While counting down the days that he has left to live, Rowe relentlessly pursues a relationship with Mom, who does her best to ignore her son and evade what she feels is his judgmental attitude toward her. Despite seeing his relationship with Ally deteriorate and his wedding date cancelled, Rowe doesn’t give up his missionary quest and finally gets Mom to agree to have a pair of sister missionaries visit her. Although her live-in boyfriend objects and causes the missionaries to flee, Mom begins to comprehend how spiritually malnourished she really is. So, as Day 60 comes ever so close, a miracle takes place as Mom asks Rowe if she can be baptized. One can almost hear the Mormon Tabernacle warming up a sweet rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus.

But time is now short for Rowe. Preparing to meet his Maker on the evening of Day 59, Rowe tells Corbin to get to his house the next morning before she finds him dead. When Corbin does race over the next day, it is Rowe who greets him at the door. Perhaps the 60-day timeframe didn’t begin with the crash but later into the coma, Rowe theorizes. So, like a good son, he makes Mom breakfast and delivers it to her bedroom. While the camera is focused on Corbin sitting at the kitchen table, the tray from the bedroom clatters to the floor. Although we fully expect to see Rowe sprawled dead on the floor from a heart attack, there is an ironic twist because Mom has passed away. After the funeral, the rest of the movie turns Pollyannish as Rowe gets back together with his fiancée and they elope to (out of all places!) Las Vegas. Certainly this story of redemption is complete. Or is it?

Of course, this is the way the producers want the viewer to feel. According to Randy Davis, vice president of Excel Entertainment Group, “The film is like no other. It has emotional content that affects you long after you see the movie…. It sets out to be a powerful movie about love and tolerance; it accomplished its mission.”

But is this mission really “accomplished”? After all, consider the background: The non-LDS Mom lives in sin, completely contradicting LDS teaching. Deep down, she admits that she always knew the Mormon story was true, but she believes that she could never join the church because of a perpetual lie she told about how Rowe’s father was dead even though he really was still alive. But once the secret is uncovered by a genealogist, Mom apparently feels freedom to accept the LDS gospel. The underlying message (at least strongly implied) is that she is safe and secure in the hands of her Heavenly Father.

If told in an Evangelical Christian context, the meaning would have been restored. After all, a sinner who is lost in her ways is found through the patience of a son who discovers what it means to love another person unselfishly. With her belief, she is completely saved by His grace. In fact, she would be saved even before she went into the baptismal waters, for it’s what a person has become, not what she has done, that makes her right with the Almighty God of the universe. The result is what Paul called in Philippians 4:7 the “peace that passes all understanding.” Jesus really is there at the end awaiting Mom’s homecoming.

However, the gospel of Mormonism is different. The possibility of rejecting God throughout one’s entire life while receiving this “peace” by merely accepting the Mormon Gospel or even getting baptized into the LDS Church is not the message I usually get from Mormon laypeople. How many times have I heard Mormons refer to Evangelical Christians as “gracers” as they quote from James (“faith without works is dead”). Too often Mormons ridicule the notion that it is possible to receive justification merely by acknowledging Jesus and accepting Him into one’s heart. Going down to the front aisle of the ward and asking Jesus into your heart is just a foreign concept in Mormonism.

While it is true that Rowe is able to restore his relationship with his mother before her death, I don’t believe her baptism into the LDS Church should make anyone assume she’s headed for Paradise. For instance, isn’t getting married for eternity in a temple a pretty important requirement? This is a doctrine many LDS prophets and apostles have continually taught in general conferences. A Mormon might respond, “Well, this work could be done for her after her death.” Granted, that’s true and would fit Mormon theology quite nicely since this religion practices vicarious work for the dead in the religion’s 100+ temples throughout the world. But if this is the case and her heart really was in agreement with the LDS message before she was baptized, couldn’t her acceptance of Mormonism itself have come just as easily after her death?

The heart of this story is violently ripped out, leaving the audience who understands the Mormon context with nothing other than a frigid corpse. Quite frankly, it didn’t make much difference in Mom’s eternal destiny whether or not her son returned to life after his accident. There just is no real redemption in Return with Honor, no matter how nice of a story is portrayed on the big screen, because the polluted Mormon gospel ruins what otherwise could have been a beautiful message. And, really, this is what makes Return with Honor more of a tragedy than anything else.