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Utah Icons on Film




Brigham Young has three famous icons of Mormon legend, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Porter Rockwell. Two extraordinary and one rather ordinary actors play these roles. In this article we will rate their performances and compare them with other movie portrayals.

Vincent Price

Joseph Smith: Vincent Price assayed this most famous of Mormons, and to my knowledge, he is the only name actor to cover this role. It is a good thing too, because Price comes off the best of the three leads. Vincent’s version of Smith captures both the ethereal nature of the Prophet and his folksy backwoods charisma. Price admitted an admiration for Smith and lobbied for the role. It shows. It is hard to imagine anyone better suited for Joseph. After his murder in Carthage it is all down hill for “Brigham Young.” Rumor has it that actor Val Kilmer could assume the role in Richard Dutcher’s proposed bio of the Mormon founder. One can only wonder what an actor with Kilmer’s oddball reputation could bring to Peep-stone Joe. My mouth waters at the prospect.

Val Kilmer
Dean Jagger

Brigham Young: Brigham Young has been covered twice. Once, here, by Dean Jagger and once in the 1995 TNT movie Avenging Angel by none other than biblical specialist Charlton Heston. Jagger’s is definitely the weaker of the two. Though he would prove a capable actor in later roles, Jagger affects a salt-of-the earth backwoods look at the Brigham role that just doesn’t ring true. He tries to come across as a forceful leader of men but lacks the charisma it must have taken to hold together the Mormons after Smith's death. This Lion of Zion is one weak kitty cat. Heston wins out, not because of a fantastic turn of as Brigham, but simply by virtue of who he is. The guy played Moses for Christ’s sake. All the baggage that we carry from Heston’s past roles we associate with his Brigham Young. His performance is, pretty much, by the numbers, just another job so to speak. To date no one has given us a memorable Brigham, which is too bad. If there ever was a historical character with possibilities for a great performance it is Brigham Young.

Charlton Heston

Porter Rockwell: With four actors playing him, the lesser-known Mormon icon has seen more screen time than his more famous counterparts. John Carradine carries the chores in “Brigham Young,” At first glance this would seem to be ideal casting. Carradine is an actor who can add a shivery menace to a role and the shadowy Mormon gunman screams for true Carradine villainy. Sadly, Carradine plays the role pretty much for laughs, always ready with a quip to lighten the mood. He pulls his guns a couple of times, but doesn’t shoot anybody. This from a guy who tried to assassinate a Lt. Governor and has been tagged with a body count as high as 150 souls.

John Carradine

In “Avenging Angel” James Coburn picks up the reins as Rockwell. Once again, this seems like a good casting decision. Coburn was excellent as the hyper-confident gunman in “The Magnificent Seven” and many roles have demonstrated he can convey a roguish charm that would have suited Rockwell. However, he is handicapped by a truly bad longhaired wig and fake beard. And though he at least engages in some gunplay, Coburn, late in his career, seems too frail for the hell-raising shootist.

James Coburn

Utah actor, Gyll Huff comes off best in the 1993 cult movie “Plan Ten From Outer Space.” Though Trent Harris’ cult feature is played for laughs, Huff’s short cameo as Rockwell is a standout. Watching him menace a Mormon whistle blower, saying “I’m gonna shoot you, then I’m gonna stab, you” over and over again as he advances on his hapless victim is truly unsettling. Huff’s Rockwell is a psychopath who would kill a man easily with no qualms. It is ironic that the scariest Porter Rockwell comes from a comedy. The unknown quantity here is Randy Gleave who played Rockwell in the 1994 low-budget movie of the same name. Based on the life of Porter Rockwell, this movie is hard to find. With good reason by all accounts. Every review I have found on the web, and there weren’t many, has lambasted the film as amateur hour. The novelty casting of Jazz basketball star Karl Malone as Rockwell’s black buddy (oh come on) would seem to confirm this opinion. Once again, Porter Rockwell is a historical guy whose life would make a compelling movie role, but we are still waiting.