Poly-wood! Mormon Polygamy in the Movies

By Randy Astle

Randy Astle is a writer and filmmaker in New York City. He has written numerous articles, and is nearly finished with a book on Mormon film.



Released during the Smoot Senate hearing, A Trip to Salt Lake City (1905) was both the first Mormon fiction film and the first film to depict Mormon polygamy. Lasting two minutes, it comically shows a beleaguered Mormon trying to put his prodigious family to bed aboard a Pullman railroad car. This short is available on YouTube.


The Danish film A Victim of the Mormons (1911) helped initiate a wave of films that either challenged the Church’s alleged cessation of contemporary polygamy or dwelled in its lurid nineteenth-century past. In it, a Mormon missionary converts (seduces) a young Danish girl and takes her back to his harem in Utah where she is saved by her faithful fiancé.


A Mormon Maid (1917) represents the apex of the silent “anti-Mormon” film. The plot deals with a girl who lives among the Mormons in early Utah and who is threatened with a forced polygamous marriage at the hands of senior church leaders and their mysterious Danite henchmen. A massive prestige production released as America was about to enter the World War, A Mormon Maid was based on the recent success of The Birth of a Nation but didn’t replicate that film’s success.


By the time Wagon Master was released in 1950, cinematic depictions of Mormons had left off harsh critiques of polygamy. This John Ford western about a Mormon pioneer wagon train in southern Utah was one of the most sympathetic portrayals the faith would ever receive on the screen. Due to the Hays Production Code polygamy could not play a major role in the film, but when it was mentioned it was as a unique belief of a highly moral people. Throughout the 1930s–50s polygamy played a minor but uncontroversial role on the screen.


Paint Your Wagon (1969) represents how polygamy was depicted after the rise of the American counterculture and introduction of the MPAA film rating system, which allowed for more adult material. Adapted from a stage musical, this film shows how a cast-off polygamous Mormon woman falls in love with two non-Mormon men and brings them into a long-term common law polyandrous household. Polygamy was once again a subject of scandal and fascination, if not direct attacks as in the 1910s.


An international example of this can be seen in They Call Me Trinity (1970), a spaghetti western produced in Italy with dubbed English dialogue. Riffing on the motif of the lone gunman, Trinity shows how a comically laconic drifter saves a Mormon settlement from greedy land grabbers. Trinity is enticed into this act of bravery by the offer of marrying two nubile blonde Mormon girls. But when, having defeated the bad guys, he learns how austere pioneer life can be he instead turns tail and heads off into the sunset—and a pair of sequels. With the sexual revolution, polygamy could now be depicted as actually desirable rather than reprehensible.


Television took another tack, however. The rise of salacious pulp fiction on Mormon fundamentalism, combined with high-profile acts of violence like the LeBaron murders and Hofmann bombings, yielded a perfect environment in the 1980s for made-for-TV films that showed contemporary polygamists as dangerous, lecherous villains—just as they had been depicted seventy years earlier. Child Bride of Short Creek (1981) is one of the best examples of this problematic genre, showing a young girl’s escape from a fundamentalist compound to avoid an unwanted marriage.


Big Love (2006–11), a high-profile HBO television series, represents the high point of depicting Mormon polygamy on screen, and it is the only successful TV show to ever feature Mormons—mainstream or fundamentalist—as its principle characters. The show revolves around the husband of three wives, closeted polygamists trying to live normal lives in suburban Salt Lake City. The show depicts the family’s conflicts with their fundamentalist compound counterparts, their stereotypical Mormon neighbors, and each other in their strained familial relationships. Ultimately Big Love is about the ability of any people to form a family; hence it served as a platform to legitimize same-sex marriage, a controversial topic in the United States during its run.


Sons of Perdition is a 2010 documentary that deals with a peculiar component of modern American polygamy: the expulsion of unwanted teenage boys from FLDS communities into lives of homelessness, addiction, and drifting in the outside world. The film follows a group of boys—and local residents who work to help them—in southern Utah as they attempt to adjust to life outside the compound and connect with their family that is still inside. Many dozens of documentaries, historical and contemporary, have been made about polygamy in the past thirty years; Sons of Perdition is a superlative example of the form.


Abide with Me (2012) represents an entirely different conception of polygamy. Produced by LDS filmmakers and released straight to video (its medium length precluded a theatrical release), it interestingly sets its action during the raids following anti-polygamy legislation in the late 1880s. The main action depicts a plural wife fleeing from U.S. marshals in order to avoid testifying against her husband, who she ironically does not truly love. In 1967, Spencer W. Kimball asked for films about the Saints’ sacrifices during the raids, but to date Abide with Me is the only film that has tackled this subject—and one of the only films to ever focus on a woman in a committed polygamous relationship.


With Electrick Children (2013), Mormon polygamy enters the world of postmodern feminist magical realism indie film Bohemian chic. It takes the well-worn motif of a girl in a compound being forced into an unwanted marriage and stands it on its head by having her first get pregnant by listening to a forbidden cassette tape. Her escape from the compound, achieved with a male friend, occurs in relatively quick order and the majority of the film deals with the pair’s wide-eyed immersion into rebel youth culture in Las Vegas as the girl searches for the singer on the cassette who must, she assumes, be her baby’s father. With Electrick Children, the patriarchy of polygamy is exposed to one of its most searing indictments, but without delving into polemics: the story, as dreamy as the out-of-focus lights on the Strip, stays center stage throughout, leaving the door open for future films to tackle polygamy in wholly new ways.