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"Sacred Stone: Temple on the Mississippi," a new 90-minute public-television documentary about the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, premieres Sunday, Sept. 29, on KBYU-TV Channel 11 in Provo, Utah.
Created by prominent Latter-day Saint filmmaker Lee Groberg, with script and companion book by Heidi Swinton, the documentary is expected to have widespread airing this fall. Thus, millions of viewers will be exposed to the saga of the building of the original temple in the 1840s and its reconstruction over the past three years culminating with the dedication in June of this year by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
"It will be shown, we believe, in almost all markets across the United States through public television stations, which pleases us very much," said Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Seventy, president of BYU, at a screening Sept. 19 in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Viewers should check local program listings to see when the documentary will air in their locales.
The film is the third product in what has become a Church-history trilogy of PBS documentaries created by the Groberg-Swinton team. The others were "Trail of Hope" (1997), about the 1846-47 Mormon exodus westward; and "An American Prophet" (1999) about Joseph Smith. "Sacred Stone" is the first of their projects to be produced in cooperation with KBYU. Sister Swinton's companion volume was published last May by Covenant Communications (see Church News, May 4, 2002, p. 12) which is also distributing the film on videocassette and DVD through retail outlets for LDS-oriented products.
The film is not produced by the Church, but it did receive a congratulatory nod from President Gordon B. Hinckley, who attended the screening but did not address the audience.
"Thank you very much, Lee, and congratulations!" he said, as he was leaving the room after the showing, while the audience stood in respect.
Narrated by veteran Hollywood actor Hal Holbrook, the film begins with this prologue: "On a bluff overlooking a horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River stands a dramatic stone edifice facing the setting sun. The design and materials for this building are a near perfect match to the 1840s original that for less than 10 years graced this same piece of ground. The building was a phenomenon of its time, standing tall in the frontier town of Nauvoo, Ill. . . . .
The Mormons devoted five long years to the temple's construction and then abandoned it in a forced mass exodus west. By 1850 the temple had toppled, a victim first of an arsonist's torch and then a tornado. For nearly a century and a half that sacred ground hosted other purposes. In 1999, the same church that had shaped the first structure then fled for its life and the lives of its members, announced plans to rebuild, using the original plans and placing the new structure on the former's footprint."
The words of Col. Thomas L. Kane are then heard, telling of his visit to the city just days after it had been abandoned and the temple desecrated by mobs. With the story thus set up, the film recounts the construction of the temple, largely taken from journal entries of the period.
Brother Groberg said one challenge he faced was juxtaposing the parallel stories of the building of the former and the latter temple. He accomplished this by blending footage of modern-day construction with accounts of the temple in old Nauvoo.
"And to me it's very effective," he said, "because as I see the Legacy constructors in there with 100 men with cranes and shovels and lifts and trucks and backup beepers and all that is going on, it is a humbling thing to think that these saints in their poverty built this temple just as beautifully as Legacy built it this time."
Guided by the film's chief historical consultant, Glen M. Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art, the filmmaker incorporated the comments of a dozen or so scholars around the country regarding the Latter-day Saint experience in Nauvoo. Church members are in the minority among these scholars, but Brother Groberg said he thinks the expertise and perspectives of the other scholars will make the film more palatable for a PBS audience.
And footage is used from temples of antiquity in many parts of the world to put a historical perspective on the practice of temple building among the Latter-day Saints.
A highlight for Brother Groberg, he said, was the opportunity to interview President Hinckley within the walls of the newly completed temple.
In the film, President Hinckley's comments are placed just after the quoted words of President Brigham Young, which seem all the more dramatic in light of later events: "We shall come back to Nauvoo, and we shall build temples all over the continent of North America."
Brother Groberg said that such a plethora of valuable information was gathered in the making of the film that the decision was made to release a version on DVD. In addition to the documentary itself, the DVD includes an additional 90 minutes of material. Its segments include more of the President Hinckley interview, temple stone quarrying and carving, the making of the windows, the temple muralists, art glass, the concept of sacred space, the angel statue, building of the temple itself, the clock and bell, the oxen, ancient temples and behind-the-scenes information and footage. Brother Groberg said he feels the DVD will be a valuable learning tool.
Through it all, he said, he has felt the influence of William Clayton, the secretary to Brigham Young who kept copious notes and journal entries on the building of the temple and the subsequent exodus from Nauvoo.
"I felt William Clayton was speaking to me [saying], 'You've got to record this; you've got to tell the story!"