God's Army
review by Gregory Avery, 2 June 2000

"Alright, let's do some good." It is very early in the morning, but, after having already done two hours of study, Elder Marcus Dalton (Richard Dutcher) is right and raring to embark on another day of work, going from door to door and asking complete strangers if they have already, or would like to, hear something about the L.D.S. Church which might help their lives for the better. Working in relative anonymity, less for himself than for a greater good, Dalton, at age twenty-nine, has devoted almost the entirety of his adult life, foregoing the experience of being a husband and father, to this effort. The five young men who share a house with him, in a Los Angeles suburb, while devoting their selves to several years of missionary work, and to whom Dalton is a friend, a colleague, a mentor and, sometimes, a supervisor, call him "Pops."

God's Army -- the most compassionate film about religion to come out in years -- primarily concerns Elder Brandon Allen (Matthew Brown), who, at the beginning of the film, is shown tumbling out of Kansas and into L.A. International Airport and a waiting Volkswagen van, where the two missionaries who meet him look at him askance and with knowing complicity, as if Allen hasn't any idea what he's letting himself in for. Allen has been assigned Dalton as his companion in missionary work, and no sooner does he disembark from the van than he finds out that he and Dalton are to walk the rest of the way to his new home. "We're going home," Dalton assures Allen, "one door at a time." (Just like in John Cheever's The Swimmer, I thought.) You can practically feel Allen's growing horror at the realization that he's going to have to start to "work" right here and now, without any time to catch his breath, and that he'll probably bungle it, which will only make it worse. (although, as with anything, one can only learn through trying.)

With a slender, sparrow-like face and round-rimmed glasses, Dutcher's character, Dalton, beams with a beautiful sense of benevolent piety and friendliness. He strives to stay on pleasant, open terms with everyone, whether they're fellow L.D.S. members or two girls who are working the streets (they flirt with him gently, and he always responds to their testing his armor for flaws by asking if they read "that book" that he gave them, yet). The picture never condescends to taking us on a tour of the iniquities of Los Angeles -- "Oh, look at all this awful stuff these guys have to put up with!" On the other hand, it shows that Dalton is not an ever-flowing spring of patience and virtue -- he issues reprimands which go unheeded, loses his temper, puts hard demands on himself. The result is that he emerges as one of the most fully-realized, and moving, characterizations of a man of faith since Robert Duvall's The Apostle. Even from a completely objective point-of-view, Dalton's trials and efforts are affecting.

Initially, Allen's character seems a little underwritten -- there are many instances when we would like to learn more about his reactions to certain situations, and we don't. This turns out to be intentional: Allen gradually fills-up within after he is faced with having to find his own reasons for being a missionary, or ultimately end up failing in the attempt. How far can get simply by being competent in one's church activities, doing everything that is expected of you, by rote, and simply being content in coasting along? When does the Word stop being just a set of instructions and becomes something more? At such moments as when Allen must find his own, intrinsically personal, reason for believing, God's Army achieves something extraordinary and touches the strata of films, such as Diary of a Country Priest, that are also fine documents about faith.


Click here to read Gregory Avery's interview with Richard Dutcher.

Written and 
Directed by:

Richard Dutcher

Starring:
Matthew Brown
Richard Dutcher
DeSean Terry
Michael Buster
Luis Robledo
Anthony Anselmi
John Pentecost
Jacque Gray

FULL CREDITS

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