Ken Burns' influence on docus has never been more evident than in Lee B. Groberg's dedicated account of the Mormons' mid-1800s cross-country trek from Illinois' Nauvoo to Salt Lake City. Story of the courageous, unstoppable Latter-day Saints, who worked their way across the Great Plains, forded rivers and climbed imposing mountains to reach home, is impressive. But a wider selection of incidents and more personal revelations about religious practices would have catapulted "Trail of Hope" into Burns' realm; at least there's that occasional lonely fiddle. Scripter Heidi Swinton efficiently covers the stark road experiences that followed the high drama of the Latter-day Saints' Eastern struggles. The script doesn't dwell on individuals but on the overall travails of the group as they made their way to Nauvoo, and beyond. Though this approach weakens any shot at identification with the travelers, the progressive study does draw a cohesive portrait of the Mormon movement.
Using skillful re-enactments, diaries, letters and notes (read slightly unconvincingly by several of the voices), photos, helpful maps, drawings and paintings, “Trail” pictures the misery of the journey and the up spirits of the pioneers — and the upholding of standards: Clothes were not only washed but also ironed. One of the women accidentally dropped her flatiron into a river; from then on, she borrowed.
The Mormons left Nauvoo after the brutal deaths of founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum and because of gentile — as non-Mormons are tagged — persecution. Among the gentiles’ complaints were the group’s polygamy, clannishness and its Nauvoo Legion military presence. The travelers left their houses empty, or sold them for next to nothing; it was time to hit the road.
With an admirable sweep, “Trail” follows the pilgrims’ westward route under their new leader, Brigham Young. Described as “an American Moses,” Young led his people through the worst sort of conditions, adamantly declining to mingle with gentile pioneers.
But, as a talking head notes, “No other westernizing groups that I know of performed the services for other people which the Mormons did. All along the way from Nauvoo across Iowa, Nebraska, into Salt Lake, they were building, improving roads, putting up signposts.” They were making life easier for their immediate followers.
Covered wagons, daunting handcarts and walking were the major forms of transport, and producer-director Groberg sure-handedly captures the agony of the trip. Just how the people passed their free time isn’t clear, though at Chimney Rock in Nebraska territory, the stern Young put down the law about “profanity, card-playing and checkers.”
Nothing’s said about religious services along the way or about dangers, although it is noted that Indians were friendly, probably because they felt that, like themselves, the Mormons were being pushed farther and farther into the West, and “were much more likely to help than to hurt them.” After all the struggles, and with 6,000 dead along the trail, the Mormons reached Utah, and Young spoke his historic words: “This is the right place.”
The Mormons compare their westward movement into freedom to the Exodus of the ancient Jews, and Groberg doesn’t discourage the analogy. The documaker has traveled the Mormons’ difficult trip many times, twice by chopper, and obviously has a feel for their suffering and courage. And faith.
Visually, the docu’s a wonder. T.C. Christensen’s camerawork is terrif, and Mark N. Goodman’s editing gives the production a good, steady pace. Whole project’s helped along the way by Sam Cardon and Merrill Jenson’s score.