Imagine that you have just completed a tour of Temple Square in the heart of Salt Lake City, Utah. The guide suggests that you walk across the street and view Legacy, a new motion picture shown exclusively at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. This building, formerly known as the Hotel Utah, now stands with its familiar outside walls and shape; but with the exception of some carefully restored areas, most of the interior has been newly built.
You decide to visit the building and view the film. As you walk into the 500-seat theater, sit down, and see the 31-foot by 62-foot screen before you, you suspect that Legacy will be no ordinary motion picture. And you are right.
The lights dim, and Legacy, produced under the direction of the First Presidency, begins. Original music, composed by Merrill Jensen and performed by the Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony, fills the theater on six-channel surround sound. The images on the huge screen before you are sharper and brighter than you have ever seen—the result of being filmed on 70-millimeter film at an accelerated frame rate. At the same time you are viewing the film in English, foreign visitors wearing headsets are listening to the film in any one of four languages—French, German, Spanish, and Japanese—via an infrared transmitter system built into the theater.
Soon you realize that the story and spirit of Legacy are as powerful and different as its technical advances. Designed as an extension of the Temple Square Visitors’ Center experience, Legacy depicts Latter-day Saint heritage in a way that does indeed touch your heart.
“Legacy gives us the emotional dimension of Church history,” says Kieth Merrill, Legacy’s writer and director. “Our goal was to capture the spirit of sacrifice, the spirit of faith, and the spirit of the people and make them real. Through Legacy we can be totally swept away in time and space as we meet early members of the Church—trek with them across the prairies, cry with them as they bury their dead, and rejoice with them as they marry and have children. These were real people who lived and breathed, who worried and cried, and who loved and laughed.”
In Legacy, we view history through the lives of composite characters. There is Eliza Williams, the film’s main character, a composite of several actual pioneer women. The same is true of all of the film’s leading characters. In fact, an effort was made throughout the film to be historically accurate in costumes, sets, and events. Most of the dialogue spoken by the main characters came from pioneer journals or letters. Everything the Prophet Joseph Smith says in the film is quoted from something that he actually said or wrote.
Legacy begins as eight-year-old Peter Walker watches a crew hoist the statue of the Angel Moroni onto the top of the Salt Lake Temple on 6 April 1892, the day of the capstone laying. He runs home to tell his grandmother, Eliza Walker, about it. As they talk about this event and Peter’s upcoming baptism, Peter asks his grandmother about her own baptism and testimony.
Eliza begins to tell Peter of her life and we see, in flashback, Eliza as a young girl in Fayette, New York, in 1830. She meets the Prophet Joseph Smith, and he gives her a copy of the Book of Mormon and tells her of the importance of establishing Zion. This sets the theme for the motion picture. Throughout the rest of the movie, we follow Eliza’s life as she strives to find Zion.
We are with her as she endures the struggles at Independence, Clay County, and Caldwell County, Missouri. “Is there no end to our suffering?” Eliza asks at one point. In Nauvoo, Illinois, Eliza meets David Walker, a young stonemason from Liverpool, England, who learned of the gospel from Eliza’s father, a former missionary in England. Eliza and David fall in love. “Remember,” says David, “that with pain, suffering, and patience, God also allows us joy.” Soon they marry and have a son.
We now follow the Walkers as they struggle to help finish the Nauvoo Temple before fleeing across the Mississippi River in the bitter cold of February 1846. “We left with the call of Zion in our ears,” says Eliza, “but the memory of Nauvoo in our hearts.” They move on to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where David joins the Mormon Battalion. As he prepares to leave, he kneels next to his son, gives him one of his masonry tools, and says, “Care for Mama. We have one more temple to build.” As David and Eliza embrace before parting, Eliza, fearing that David may be killed, says, “If we ever meet again, it will be Zion to me.”
Eliza and her family endure the bleak winter of 1846–47 at Winter Quarters, then go west with the Parley P. Pratt wagon train. We are with them as they cross the plains and when Eliza prays for the Lord to heal one of her oxen. As they reach Wyoming, some of the men from the Mormon Battalion, on a special assignment to escort General William Tecumseh Sherman back to Kansas, meet up with the wagon train. David is among them. After a joyful reunion, the Walkers continue westward and enter the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847.
As the aged Eliza finishes telling this story to her grandson, Peter, she gives him the Book of Mormon that the Prophet Joseph Smith had given to her and poignantly says, “Make sure that this legacy of faith may never die.”
As the lights in the theater come back on, you realize that Legacy is more than a review of historical facts—it is a journey of the human heart back through time, an opportunity to figuratively walk alongside the early Saints and, with them, discover our own legacy of faith.
The Making of Legacy
Torrential rain, wind, and mud pelted the covered wagon of David and Eliza Walker as the crew filmed the Latter-day Saint trek across the Wyoming plains for the motion picture Legacy. The wagon was rigged to slide so that one wheel would go over the edge of a riverbank. As the stunt began, something went wrong, and the wagon tipped completely over and threw the stunt doubles into the shallow but raging water.
“Though no one was hurt, everybody panicked,” says director Kieth Merrill. “I yelled ‘Time out!’ and told everybody to just stop, stay where they were, and take a deep breath. I immediately saw that I could redesign the scene using the footage of the actual accident. We continued shooting. It was really spectacular because the wagon fell into the river and the horses broke loose and ran away. It was one of those things. We wanted the scene to be realistic and exciting, but it turned out to be more realistic and more exciting than we imagined. And no people or animals got hurt.”
This is only one example of the real-life dramas that took place during the filming of Legacy. “Certainly there were some almost miraculous things that happened in the making of the film,” says Kieth Merrill. “I give full credit to the Lord and acknowledge his hand in those special moments when the Spirit comes through. We worked hard and prayed hard to be guided by the Spirit in the making of this film, but the Lord gets the credit.”
Filming began in January 1990. Most of the motion picture was shot in Nauvoo, Illinois, but filming was also done on site in England, New York, along the Mormon Pioneer Trail in Wyoming, and in Salt Lake City.
In Nauvoo, crews restored one section of the town to the way it might have looked when the Saints lived there. They added buildings and covered the streets with dirt to completely hide any signs of the twentieth century. Crews also reconstructed the foundation of the Nauvoo Temple. The original stone quarries for the Nauvoo Temple were not hard to find, but they were overgrown with trees and vines and bushes. Crews stripped out all of the overgrowth, rebuilt scaffolding, and brought in oxen and huge-wheeled carts so that the quarry scenes could be shot where the actual stones for the temple had been cut. In a field north of Nauvoo, crews reconstructed the main street of Independence, Missouri. Great effort was made to be historically authentic and accurate in all reconstructions.
The shots of the wagon train crossing Wyoming are among the most spectacular in the film. Breathtaking sunsets silhouette wagons and pioneers as they plod across the land. “We had only three days to shoot in Wyoming,” says Brother Merrill, “and we had the logistics of thirty-three wagons, hundreds of animals, and hundreds of people to deal with. I was anxious to get the right weather and light to make it beautiful, so we prayed hard. When you look at the footage, it is just spectacular. It’s hard to believe that those were the three days we happened to be in Wyoming. But I learned a long time ago not to demand what I wanted but to simply ask the Lord to give us what’s best.”
The morning they filmed the scene in which Eliza’s father, John, leaves for his mission in England, they had just such a change of events. Plans had been made to shoot the scenes in the warm, early-morning sunlight, but it rained. “About the middle of the shooting, I realized how much better it was to have the dark, brooding clouds,” says Brother Merrill. “It was a scene of good-bye and also of reconciliation between a father and a son. It was a marvelous moment.”
In historical films, where the environment has been so carefully reconstructed, a kind of time warp can take place for the actors and crew members. “Because of our affection for these people and this history, that time warp took place over and over again,” says Brother Merrill, who remembers just such an incident in England. The crews were filming a street meeting in a historic English community with old buildings, cobblestone streets, and lots of extras dressed in period costumes. In the scene, David Walker takes a copy of the Book of Mormon from Eliza’s father, John, who testifies that it is another witness for Christ.
When the crew stopped filming in order to change the setup, extras began to come up to Brother Merrill and ask him about the Book of Mormon. “So of course I began to explain it,” remembers Brother Merrill. “Suddenly I found myself surrounded by twenty-five to thirty extras, all in period costume, standing on a cobblestone street in a historic English village. I was overwhelmed in an instant. I felt almost as if a remarkable transportation in time and space had really taken place. There I was, preaching the gospel on a street corner in England in the early 1840s. All of a sudden, I identified with those early missionaries in a way that I can’t possibly describe or express.”
This attention to careful detail and to historical accuracy during the making of Legacy is what makes it possible for viewers to imagine their way into the past and join Eliza Walker in her journey to Zion.