Set in the volatile world of Missouri in 1838, 16 Stones follows three LDS twenty-somethings on their quest to find the sixteen stones touched by the finger of Jehovah, as described in Ether, chapter three in the Book of Mormon. They think that if they can find those stones, it will definitively prove the Book of Mormon (and by extension, the LDS faith) true, and that the Missouri mobs attacking Mormon settlements will therefore stop the violence.
That’s not the silliest premise I’ve ever seen for a movie. The notion that our Founding Fathers put a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, or the idea of an archeologist digging around for the Ark of the Covenant, so he can use it to defeat Hitler, both strike me as sillier. But National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark are fun. They’re entertaining because they don’t either of them take themselves very seriously, and because they feature rollicking action sequences and plenty of humor. 16 Stones, on the other hand, is painfully, excruciatingly earnest. Earnestness isn’t a bad thing. It’s not, however, very aesthetically enjoyable.
I just suggested that the premise of the movie is ‘silly,’ when a better word perhaps should have been ‘naive.’ I can see some LDS audiences enjoying the movie, and finding it faith-affirming. That was not my reaction to it. I found that I had plenty of leisure and brain-space to pick it apart. And so I did.
The movie begins in Far West Missouri, in 1838. But it doesn’t exist in any actual historical Missouri, but in the Missouri of Mormon myth-making, in which the Saints were innocent and gentle, and the Missourians a scruffy and vicious bunch of thugs, with yellow teeth. (The bad guys in this film had uniformly ugly teeth). James Delford (Mason Davis) is an LDS blacksmith, chastely half-pursuing a romance with Elaine (Aubrey Reynolds), whose brother Thomas (Ben Isaacs), James’ best friend, is expected home shortly from his mission. A Missouri attack, however, results in James’ mother being shot in the back and killed, and James is distraught and angry. At first, he wants to hunt down his mother’s killer, but Joseph Smith (Brad Johnson) talks him out of it. Instead, James decides to go on his search for the 16 stones of the film’s title. And Thomas and Elaine agree to go with him.
What follows is not so much a plot as a string of increasingly preposterous coincidences. Thomas, on his mission, met an Indian who told him of his tribe’s mythology, involving ‘turtle boats’ crossing the ocean. This strikes James as suitably Jaredite-ish, and the Indian, Kitchi (Rog Benally), even gives them a handy map to follow. (I’m not kidding, the Indian character’s name is ‘Kitschy’). The map leads them to some metallic plates, inscribed with ancient Hebrew letters. They can’t, of course, read ancient Hebrew, but they rescue a Jesuit Priest (Andy Jones), who is being beaten up by Missourians, and who can read Hebrew, and who leads them towards their next clue. And so on. Meanwhile, they’re apparently supposed to be traipsing their way across Missouri, to just outside Chillicothe, Ohio, then back to Indiana, then back home to Missouri again, all on foot, Missourians having stolen their horses. That’s a heck of a walk, honestly. In real life, their trek would take months. But our heroes stroll along unhurriedly, and manage the whole trip without experiencing so much as a change in seasons.
They are pursued all the while by two more Missouri scalawags, played by Jarrod Phillips and Allan Groves. Although these villains were portrayed as a couple of bumbling idiots, they are also heavily armed, and greedy, and apparently much better at tracking than Our Heroes are at noticing they’re being tracked.
And this leads to one of the film’s biggest problems. Isaacs, Davis and Reynolds, the three leads, do a nice job with their badly under-written heroic roles. Davis is asked to play James as alternatively stalwart and doubting, and he handles both well, though he never does quite manage to turn those contradictions into a fully-realized dramatic character. Reynolds fares better, giving Elaine a courageous edge to balance her character’s doubts and insecurities. Isaacs is an energetic and appealing film presence, despite his character being given the least to do of the three of them.
But the poor actors forced to play bad guys in the film (and their numbers are legion) are uniformly dreadful, painting every Missouri bounder as both ferocious and dumb. The result was not just a film without nuance, it was a film that depicted most of its dramatic characters as subhuman. I do not see how this accords with my understanding art as an expression of the gospel. Art embraces our common humanity. It treats all human beings, even ones who embrace violence, as our brothers and sisters. When a narrative reduces all humanity to black and white, good and evil, then that narrative itself embraces falseness. That’s okay in an action movie, which isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But the earnestness of this film urges us to take it very seriously indeed. Which, for me, turned out not to be possible.
This is because of the amateur clumsiness on display. The movie never could seem to keep straight who had guns or how many of them, let alone nuances like what sorts of guns the characters might plausibly have owned in 1838, or how likely those guns might be to misfire. At one point, Elaine casually lets her canteen (the one canteen owned by the three of them) dribble water onto a rock, despite it being the only drinking water available for three people on a long cross-country hike. The water on the rock ended up revealing an important plot point, but I was honestly more concerned with dying-of-thirst issues at that point, and I rather think they would have been too. Plus, it was never clear to me what these characters intended to eat on their journey. They certainly weren’t carrying much food, nor had they money to purchase any. Aside from one early pork-and-beans dinner (cooked, of course, by Elaine; why else would you bring a woman along?), I don’t think they bother with food at all the whole movie.
Of course, they end up finding the stones. And then James is persuaded by Joseph Smith not to show them to anyone. You can’t prove the gospel true, Joseph sagely tells him. Faith doesn’t work that way. And it turns out the point of the whole journey was to teach James a Valuable Life Lesson. Not Proving the Gospel True.
Fair enough. But that’s actually the point of the entire movie. The whole reason for making the movie is to not just to bear testimony, but to Prove the Gospel True. The movie asserts as matters of provable fact that Indians had legends of turtle boats, that they wrote on metallic plates, that they worshipped a pre-Christian Jesus, that they wrote in ancient Hebrew. Plus, of course, that there really were stones that glowed. That it’s all literally, provably, factually true.
But as a believing, practicing Mormon, I found every assertion of the movie unconvincing. The reason is context. I find arguments made in good movies more persuasive than arguments made in bad ones. I don’t actually find faith difficult to maintain, but I do find naivete unsustainable. And so I tended to consign 16 Stones to a brand new category–“movies sort of like National Treasure, but nowhere near as fun.” I did not find the sincere expressions of testimony made by these characters risible. I cannot say that about the film in which they appeared.