Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
For this week’s column I’ve decided to leave the stark world of late 1960s LDS cinema behind for a new era in church films. Between 1990 and 1992 the church produced The Prodigal Son, A Labor of Love and On the Way Home. These 30-minute films featured missionary themes and church-related scenes, characters and branding. There are no credits. Just an opening title and an end church logo that seems so dated compared to the new branding that prominently features Jesus Christ.
The films were released to VHS and distributed in the US through the media referral program. The church aired television commercials featuring the film and invited viewers to call in to get a copy of the film to be delivered by full-time missionaries or by mail if preferred. The program existed for many years and even extended to offers for the Book of Mormon and a King James version of the bible.
I will admit that as a missionary who served in the 90s in the United States (Texas Fort Worth Mission 95-97, Spanish speaking) these films hold a special place in my heart. I watched them with many members and investigators in both English and Spanish to “help others feel and recognize the spirit.” Humorously quoting them also provided a much needed break to those slow days of door knocking and missed appointments.
This week we focus on the first of the three, The Prodigal Son. Spoiler alert: this is a modern retelling of the classic parable but set in modern day Utah.
The film opens on a father sitting in a darkened room. He is dressed for bed but is troubled and kneels by the fireplace to offer a prayer for his son, Tom. His heartfelt prayer narrates various scenes of the son involved in actions that are a direct contradiction to the desires expressed in the father’s prayer. We see the son in question as a high-powered photographer, drinking, taking drugs and ultimately hitting rock bottom both personally and professionally.
Two years later we meet Jim, Tom’s older brother, as he picks Tom up from a rehab facility. As the nurse walks Jim to Tom’s room she comments on how much he has changed in his time there. His father sent Jim with the hopes that they would have plenty of time to catch up in the car, but as we see from the long underscored montage neither not a lot of that happens. There are moments where they glance at each other and then look away—neither one willing to break the ice.
Jim uses the time to reconnect with some of his memories of Tom. Apparently his “riotous living” extended even before he left home. Receiving energy from a great synth soundtrack, Jim remembers when Tom had stayed out all night before a debate tournament but Tom didn’t care because he could “talk his way out of anything. He won the tournament.
They arrive at home but Tom enters with hesitation. Jim calls for their father and he comes down walks right past Jim and embraces Tom. Tom repeatedly says “I’m sorry,” and they share a tearful embrace. Jim looks on and seems to wonder if he really means it.
Flash forward 6 weeks and we see Tom working at the family business. Jim hands out his paycheck but then playfully (or passive aggressively) pulls it away from him as Tom tries to take it and encourages not to spend it all in one place. Later that same evening Jim and his wife Joann swing by the store on the way home—surprised to see the light on at the late hour. Tom is there paying bills. Joann questions “You’re a single man in a one-bedroom apartment. How many bills could you have?” Tom alludes to his past mistakes and offers a check to Jim to be put into a trust to restore the funds he took when he left (his share of the inheritance—parable remember?). Jim again doubts Tom. “At this rate you’ll be 112 by the time it is paid off. Joann looks away with embarrassment and Tom simply says he hopes to live a long time.
At fast and testimony meeting Tom is the first one up. He clearly speaks about the parable of the prodigal son and his own journey home through addiction, rehab and even attempted suicide. He spoke of how the scriptures urged him to “press forward with a perfect brightness of hope” and change his life so he can one day be welcomed to his heavenly home. It is a heartfelt and sincere testimony with a warmth only dimmed by the sour expression on Jim’s face. It is like he was King Agrippa saying “almost thou persuadest me.”
Another day at the family business Jim is really excited to show his father the great position the business is in as a result of Jim’s leadership and marketing strategy. His father is impressed, but Jim’s moment doesn’t last long as dad moves the discussion from Jim’s success to Tom’s recovery and positive steps at home. Dad proposes a party for Tom but Jim can’t hide his disdain. Dad questions “Don’t you think he deserves it?” Jim stops short of saying yes and is just looking out for his dad whom he doesn’t want to get hurt again.
We move to a wintry celebration that could appear in any Hallmark Holiday movie. Festive food and well-dressed people fill Jim and Joann’s home. We just need a few more sweaters and a romantic snowball fight. Jim’s complaining continues to build as he posits that his dad could retire on the amount of money spent on this party for Tom. Dad stops the festivities to formally celebrate Tom’s welcome home and his promotion at the company. He speaks about his late wife and how happy she would be to have Tom back with them. Jim sourly wonders when Tom became an only child.
Tom thanks his dad for the kind words and offers a song he plays and sings himself. “There’s no telling how much a sunrise means / to the one who had a terrible night. And there’s no telling how much a hand to hold / means to one who’s being led to the light.” The words and beautiful melody by Michael McClean continue on and reflect Tom’s journey and his appreciation for having someone who believed in him. The crowd and Tom’s dad respond positively to the song.
Joann also comments on the song, and as Tom comments on the piano making a big difference in the performance Jim cuts him off. “Mom wanted you to have it but you didn’t bother to leave a mailing address.” Jim walks off as Joann tries to apologize for him. Tom brushes it off, recognizing his own faults and actions that are at the root of the comment.
As Jim and Joann clean up, Jim wonders why he’s getting the silent treatment but then answers his own question. She’s mad because he didn’t fall and kiss his brother’s feet like everyone else. Joann tells him to grow up—they are not in high school anymore—but Jim persists. He tried to expose how he cheated his way from kindergarten to high school only to be dismissed as being “too hard on him.” Joann counters with her reality. “All I’ve ever heard of was Tom the loser, Tom the louse, the thief, the drug addict. I don’t know that person. I only see someone who is trying to put his life back together. Don’t kick him when he’s down.”
“What should I do?” Jim says. “Just baby and coddle him like everyone else…and throw him a party? No one has ever thrown a party for me. And I’ve been the good guy. I’ve been the good guy!” He storms off to sit at the very piano symbolic of his parents’ love for Tom.
It’s this line I remember the most. But I always hear it in Spanish. ¡Yo he sido el bueno aquí! ¡YO HE SIDO EL BUENO!
After a moment, Joann walks over to the piano. “What do you mean you’ve been the good guy. Because you haven’t made the same mistakes he has that you are that much better than him?” She then goes on to say that everyone needs the atonement. The only difference between Jim and Tom is that Tom is doing everything he can to repent and take advantage of the atonement. Jim is not. Jealousy and bitterness are destroying Jim as much as cocaine and drugs nearly destroyed Tom.
The film then moves to Jim running into the ER. He confronts his father who is already there and is sure that it is an overdose or something from Tom’s former life come back to exact more pain on the family. Dad wants to give the benefit of the doubt but Jim won’t hear it. He shouts at the doctor to tell him what Tom took. The doctor just looks at him and tells him Tom’s appendix burst. Awkward. For Jim.
At Dad’s house Jim offers to stay with Dad but he just wants Jim to offer a prayer. This time it is Jim who offers the heartfelt prayer in the darkened room. His halting prayer asks for healing for Tom and himself. He asks for help forgiving and loving Tom and acknowledges he can’t do it alone.
We then see Dad taking Tom home from the hospital to find the piano in his front room with a note from Jim. “I think a piano really makes a home. Welcome home, Love Jim.” The film ends with flash forwards of a reconciliation between Tom and Jim. We see them at the piano joined by a woman who is Tom’s wife. The birth of Tom’s first child and children for Jim and Joann, The montage builds to the theme by Michael McClean “There is hope for every soul that’s lost / There is a way back home / no matter where you roam / His love will heal you, will lead you there. There’s a place for every heart in pain / a place where there’s no hurt / and there’s no shame / let His love reach you, and teach you every hour.”
The film ends with some of Joann’s earlier dialog: “The bottom line is no one can make it half way through this life or into the next without the Savior.”
Because of my nostalgic bias I will admit I don’t find a lot of fault with this film. The Prodigal Son is an effective retelling of a classic parable. It is well-written and well-acted with a special emotional punch from thoughtful music. You understand the pain of the prodigal, the inner conflict and frustration of the brother and the all-encompassing love of the Father. It helps you realize that at various stages in life we each play every role in the story.
Thoughts, Musings & Trivia
- The Prodigal Son was initially released in October 1990 via the church satellite system. Stakes organized open houses with displays about our faith and invited members and their friends to come and see the new film.
- The Church News called the video production as a continuing call to less-active (I guess they are returning members now?) to come unto Christ.
- The original broadcast included an introduction by then President of the Twelve, Howard W. Hunter.
- Sources differ on the director. IMDB cites Christopher Charles Murray, and an LDS Video lists Michael McClean, who did songs for the film.