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LDS Cinema Gets Better and Gets a Bum Rating
By Thomas Baggaley

Several people have written to ask me why, with the recent releases of Pride and Prejudice and Halestorm's latest feature The Home Teachers, I haven't written any reviews of these films. The fact is that I have been sequestered from the world in preparation for some very important exams that are just around the corner for me, and it would take something extraordinary to bring me out of my cocoon right now. Well, actually it took TWO extraordinary things.

The Best Two Years

The first of these is the release of a wonderful little film called The Best Two Years. No, this film isn't the second coming of It's a Wonderful Life, but as far as making a film for the LDS market, I think this film hits it right on the head. In fact, I would not hesitate to say that of all the various LDS-market theatrical release feature films (including those from Richard Dutcher and the relatively high-budget The Other Side of Heaven), I personally enjoyed watching this one most of all.

The Best Two Years was written and directed by Scott Anderson and is based on Anderson's play "The Best Two Years of My Life," about his experiences as a missionary in Holland. It centers on the lives of four missionaries sharing a small apartment in Haarlem, a city west of Amsterdam. The film stars Kirby Heyborne as Elder Calhoun, the epitome of the nerdy greenie missionary, and KC Clyde as Elder Rogers, his less-than-enthusiastic trainer. Cameron Hopkin is Elder Van Pelt, a self-obsessed missionary who has at least three different girls waiting for him at home, David Nibley plays district leader Elder Johnson and Scott Christopher puts in a nice, restrained appearance as Kyle Harrison, an American visitor to Holland who Elder Calhoun keeps running into and keeps trying to give him a Book of Mormon.

Although at first glance, the film relies on stereotypical LDS missionary caricatures, the script and the performances are strong enough to overcome this potential weakness. Many return missionaries watching the film will feel that it reflects mission life more accurately than any of the previous mission-based films, and although the filmmakers did not go out of their way to try and attract a crossover non-LDS audience (which would probably have ended up weakening the story), the themes and interpersonal relationships depicted are universal enough that any person who happens to watch the film should be able to engage in the story, regardless of their religious background and despite some story elements which would be unfamiliar to most outside of the church.

With outdoor scenes being shot in Holland, director of photography Gordon C. Lonsdale captures the beauty of the multi-colored Dutch landscape. Well-known LDS songwriter Michael McLean adds his talents to the production, and all in all, it's just a feel-good movie about faith and just plain getting along, with just a few corny moments along the way.

The Best Two Years combines good storytelling with an excellent understanding of its target audience. It doesn't aspire to be anything more than what it is, a low budget film catering specifically to Latter-day Saints, yet within those parameters, Anderson and producers Fred Danneman and Michael Flynn (who appeared as Laban in last year's The Book of Mormon Movie: Volume 1) have put together a charming little film that manages to entertain audiences without (I believe) offending even the most conservative of church members.

Incidentally, after the box office performance of recent LDS market films, if this film doesn't turn a profit, it will not bode well for the future of the LDS Cinema in general. I think this film will be a pretty good indicator of the financial health of the genre, because I just can't see anyone making a film that is better suited for the LDS market than this one.

By the way, in case you haven't been counting, The Best Two Years is the 15th LDS Cinema feature film (not counting The Legend of Johnny Lingo, which is not technically LDS Cinema, although a large portion of its audience has certainly consisted of members of the church familiar with the original Brigham Young University-produced short film).

Saints and Soldiers

The other extraordinary event that has brought me once again to the reviewer's desk is the recent announcement that Saints and Soldiers, the next scheduled LDS Cinema release, was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Of course, the filmmakers appealed the decision (the appeal was denied) and have since been working with the MPAA to see if it would be possible to somehow edit the film in such a way that will maintain the integrity of the story and yet meet the association's requirements to at least receive a PG-13 rating.

This is shocking news, especially with the many films that Hollywood releases each year that somehow get a PG-13 rating when it seems quite obvious that they should be rated R. It would seem that by the MPAA's own standards, there is no possible way that Saints and Soldiers deserves an R rating. It is also quite a blow to the film's financial prospects, meaning that the ever-elusive crossover audience becomes all the more important, because regardless of whether the film's content actually deserves that rating or not, there are many Latter-day Saints who will choose not to see it.

I saw the film at the Gloria Film Festival last fall, and I was stunned to hear about the rating. It did not strike me as a particularly violent movie (most of the movie is completely free of violence actually) but of course, being set during World War II, there is some violence involved. You do see some blood, but the subject matter is handled about as tastefully as war can ever be handled, and it certainly isn't a gory film. There is also a little bit of profanity and some of the non-LDS characters smoke in the film, but if this film deserves an R rating because of its violent content, then OBVIOUSLY the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, every single James Bond film and superhero films like Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Batman films should have received R ratings as well, because they are far more violent than Saints and Soldiers. What's more, every single war-themed film in which someone actually dies should receive an instant R. Giving these films a PG-13 and Saints and Soldiers an R seems tantamount to giving Saddam Hussein a slap on the hand and then sending a jay walker to the electric chair.

At a recent film festival, 400 audience members were polled as to what rating they thought Saints and Soldiers would receive. Out of these 400, only 5 people (just over 1%) felt it deserved an R rating. 395 felt that it deserved a PG or PG-13 rating. I don't know. Perhaps the ratings board gave it an R rating because they felt teenagers couldn't possibly handle the sight of seeing Kirby Heybourne, who previously has played squeaky clean LDS characters, holding a cigarette in his hand. The fact is that I shouldn't have been too surprised; not after that same ratings board made The Book of Mormon Movie: Volume 1 the tamest PG-13 movie since that rating was added to the system back in the 1980's.

This is how messed up the system is: By the implication of the wording of the PG-13 rating ("Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13") and according to the ratings given to a number of films, the ratings board apparently believes that it is appropriate for teenagers (13 and older) to see nudity, to be exposed to be repeatedly crude and vulgar language including limited use of the word that used to be known as the R-rated word, and to witness multiple acts of violence where the violence is glorified and free of consequences for anyone except for the characters designated as "bad guys" - even when the behavior of the "good guys" is sometimes as crude as that of the "bad guys." At the same time, according to this same ratings board, apparently a film that tastefully shows that war is not a party, that there are often good people on both sides of war, and that recognizes that there are consequences for violent acts and that in war, sometimes people you care about get hurt, even killed, is not appropriate for those same teenagers to see without an accompanying parent or adult guardian. What's more, this same film has very little profanity, no nudity and no sexuality. Whatever. To me this seems like a blatant inconsistency.

MPAA Ratings Are Inconsistent

The MPAA ratings board does not base their decisions upon the morality of a given film. Their entire function is to try to inform parents about the content of films so that parents can decide if the film is appropriate for their children to see. In fact, their web site ( states "If you are 18 or over, or if you have no children, the rating system has no meaning for you. Ratings are meant for parents, no one else." Yet to read their description of what content is permissible under each of the ratings, it is clear that the 8-13 people who at any time are members of the board probably do not have the same standards for their children as most LDS parents.

According to the MPAA web site, in a G-rated film "Some snippets of language may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions. No stronger words are present in G-rated films." It wasn't that long ago that we used to speak of a film having an obligatory swear word so that it could avoid the G rating and get a PG. Now, apparently, that isn't enough.

In the MPAA description of PG, emphasis is placed on the fact that since PG means parental guidance, there are some things present which "parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, but the parent must make the decision. Parents are warned against sending their children, unseen and without inquiry, to PG-rated movies." According to the site, this material may include, "profanity, ... some violence or brief nudity. But these elements are not deemed so intense as to require that parents be strongly cautioned beyond the suggestion of parental guidance."

As for PG-13, the MPAA site describes it as a film which "leaps beyond the boundaries of the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, or other contents, but does not quite fit within the restricted R category ... If nudity is sexually oriented, the film will generally not be found in the PG-13 category. If violence is too rough or persistent, the film goes into the R (restricted) rating. A film's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, shall initially require the Rating Board to issue that film at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive must lead the Rating Board to issue a film an R rating, as must even one of these words used in a sexual context. These films can be rated less severely, however, if by a special vote, the Rating Board feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents."

MPAA Is Not Independent

Of course, that the MPAA ratings board does not share the same values as the average Latter-day Saint, or even with mainstream America in general, is not a new revelation. This is a battle of words that has been going on for years. The PG-13 rating was originally created two decades ago to try and silence the complaints of many who felt too many films that should have been rated R were sneaking through with a PG rating. What many Latter-day Saints may not realize, however, is that the image of the MPAA ratings board as an independent entity handing down sober and impartial judgments is not completely true.

Quoting the MPAA web site yet again: "The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) serves its members from its offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. On its board of directors are the Chairmen and Presidents of the seven major producers and distributors of motion picture and television programs in the United States. These members include: Walt Disney Company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., Paramount Pictures Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Universal Studios, Inc. and Warner Bros." There is nothing independent about the MPAA. It is controlled by Hollywood's major studios. Furthermore, the official title of the motion picture rating system is the "Voluntary Movie Rating System." It was created as a system whereby the studios would advise parents of the content of the films they released. In other words, the studios are essentially rating themselves. The potential for a conflict of interest is obvious - even though the ratings board is not paid directly by any of the studios. Could it be that this possible conflict of interest is in part responsible for the inconsistencies between ratings assigned to Hollywood-distributed blockbusters and independently produced and distributed films like The Book of Mormon Movie and Saints and Soldiers?

Of course, it would be ridiculous for the ratings board to give a G rating to a film that deserves an R. That would shut down the whole system. But isn't it conceivable that there might be some incentive to let major studio releases slide by with a PG-13 rating and increase the potential audience and income of the film? And wouldn't that lead to the general slipping of the scale and lowering of standards that seems to have happened over the years?

It seems apparent that if Hollywood cannot apply a consistent standard to its rating system that applies equally to studio distributed and independent films or if even in applying the ratings system the board has lost touch with the value systems of the average American family that perhaps a stricter, more independent ratings system might be appropriate. In any case, Latter-day Saints are certainly becoming more aware that we cannot rely on any ratings system alone to guide our theater-going decisions. It is up to us to become more informed, using whatever resources we can find (for example - a site which gives detailed information about the content of every major film) as we seek out those films which are "of good report or praiseworthy" and try to avoid those influences that would tear our society apart.

© 2004 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:

About the author - Film composer Thomas C. Baggaley received a master's degree in music from UCLA, where he studied film scoring with highly regarded composer, Jerry Goldsmith. He recently released a CD of inspirational music titled "Spirit of the Sabbath", which is available at Deseret Book and Thomas is also the co-webmaster of, a research web site about LDS films and filmmakers. He is currently working on his next CD release, "Healing Showers: Music for a Rainy Evening" which is scheduled to be released in July. Thomas is a husband and father to three wonderful children and serves as the teacher development coordinator in his ward.

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