I didn't think Handcart was really as bad as most of the reviewers said it was. I can think of a lot worse LDS films. This low budget LDS movie certainly had its share of problems though. The acting wasn't great, and contrary to what Kels Goodman (director) said, the beautiful Utah mountain shots that were supposed to portray the Iowa flatlands were in fact annoying. Nonetheless, I took an interest in the unfamiliar story for historical and religious reasons.
The story is told through the eyes of Sam Hunter (Jaelan Petrie) as he looked back at what happened to the ill-fated Edward Martin Handcart Company that he belonged to fifty years ago as they crossed the plains to immigrate to Utah in 1856. The basic problem was that the team left too late in the season to have any reasonable chance of making it into the Salt Lake Valley safely. Yet the elders of the Lord said, "[T]he Lord would safely bring them to Zion" (emphasis added). So Handcart is another one of those "test of faith" stories.
The journey begins in Iowa City, Iowa. Sam and his uncle Tom (Johnny Biscuit) run a local store, and they persecute the Mormons by not allowing them to buy anything from them. But Sam falls for one of his new customers, who turns out, unbeknownst to him, to be a Mormon convert from England. Abigail (Stephanie Albach) later tells Sam that she is with a team that is headed to the promise land. Sam ends up getting baptized, and ends up going to Zion as well. But he tells his uncle that he only did it to demonstrate to Abby the error of her ways.
Just before the next track of the trip, a trapper in a saloon tells Sam that it's going to be an early and harsh winter. Sam relays this to the leadership, and they take a vote amongst the team members to decide whether to press on or wait for the next season. Abby tells Sam that she'd rather put her trust in the Lord than in the arm of flesh. Sam lashes back at Abby that he thought her God was flesh and bones. And Abby retorts, "And I thought he was your God too!"
What is interesting here is that this may be an anachronism. From 1835 to 1921, the Doctrine and Covenants contained the Lectures on Faith, which categorically stated that God is "omnipresent" (2:2b, 12 [1835 edition]) and is "a personage of spirit" quite unlike the Son who is "a personage of tabernacle" (5:2c-d, 53). Joseph Smith's supposed revelation in 1843 that God did have a body of flesh and bones (now 130:22) was not added to the D&C until 1921. So it may very well have been that most LDS actually believed that God was a spirit without flesh and bones, and not a man with flesh and bones as the movie indicates.
Now Abby finally admits that Sam was right all along about staying put for the winter season, but by then it's too late and they are forced to carry on. Brigham Young receives word about the plight of this team and another (the Willie Co.), and he sends a search and rescue team out after them. But by the time the rescue team finds them, 150 of the 500 people in the Martin group had succumbed to the bitter cold and starvation. Among those was Abby, who had married Sam along the way.
Sam loses faith. Why would God allow these team members to perish when they were only trying to do His will? Sam decides that he isn't going to press on to Salt Lake, but then he finds a letter from Abby which encourages him to press on. The letter intimates celestial marriage for "time and all eternity," so what else could he do? He had to meet Abby again. This motivation was even reinforced by Sam being reunited with his long lost brother Tanner (Lincoln Hoppe) right after Abby was buried. His brother, who was alienated from his family due to becoming LDS and moving to Utah, had joined the search and rescue team sent by Brigham Young.
Fifty years later, Sam tells a Sunday School class in Utah that none of those pioneers had lost their faith in God. But one's got to wonder what God Sam was really following. Is the God of the LDS an end in Himself for Sam, or is God simply a means to an end of another god, viz., Abby?
Finally, for more reviews and information on Handcart, click here.
R. M. Sivulka
Salt Lake City, UT
July 7, 2004