A few weeks ago, I participated in the April 2022 FIRM Foundation Expo where I was able to watch an unfinished version of “The Oath,” originally marketed as “Reign of the Judges.” I’ve been following Darin Southam (Darin Scott) and the Reign of the Judges movie project since it first went up on Kickstarter 4-5 years ago. I’ve donated and received mailing list updates since at least 2018.

I spent almost the entire day talking about the movie with Darin and he and I have spoken repeatedly since, so I think I have a unique perspective on his intention with this film. Because of that, I think I’m a bit more open-minded than I might have been otherwise.

Having anticipated this movie for several years, I was very excited to finally watch an unfinished version earlier this month. This is my honest review.

Summary

For those who don’t have time to read and need a bullet summary:

  • It’s not what I was expecting. I still loved it, but for very different reasons than I had anticipated.
  • This is not about Captain Moroni fighting for liberty. It’s about Moroni at the end of the Book of Mormon preparing the gold plates during his 35+ years of wandering alone, his valiant efforts to keep his oath and covenants, and the love he finds along the way.
  • It’s not a war movie with elements of love. It’s a love story with elements of war.
  • The Oath is designed to be an engaging introduction to The Book of Mormon for non-LDS audiences. This movie was not written to be perfectly historically accurate. It’s more like The Chosen than The Bible Videos in its narrative approach. It was primarily designed to introduce non-members to the story of the Book of Mormon in an engaging, relatable way—not to represent Moroni’s story exactly as described in scripture. Some of those who watched it with me were deeply offended by the artistic license taken in the unfinished version that we watched, and I can appreciate their concern. But I also understand that the target audience and intention are different than what they were anticipating.
  • This movie strengthened my resolve to keep and cherish my covenants, create a consecrated and faithful marriage, and study my scriptures.
  • I don’t really blame anyone who didn’t like it (considering general expectations that I’ve been aware of and shared for the past few years), but I think some of the criticism is unnecessary.

If you hated the movie or have already decided how you feel about it, this review isn’t for you. I’m not here to change anybody’s mind. I simply want my readers to know why the movie was so powerful to me.

SPOILER ALERT

I’m going to lightly reference some scenes and other elements of the film. If you haven’t seen it yet and want to be fully surprised, wait to read this until after the movie comes out later this year.

My Review

Based on the emphasis on Captain Moroni, I was expecting a Braveheart/The Last Samarai type of war movie. Both Braveheart and The Last Samarai had a love story, but the plot of these movies leaned much more towards the conflict with elements of love intertwined. That’s not what you’ll see in The Oath.

This movie was not what I was expecting, which was a little disappointing because the story of Captain Moroni and the Reign of the Judges still needs to be told. But I was not disappointed in the movie itself. I absolutely love liberty (I aspire to be a prominent scholar of the Constitution). I look forward to the story of Captain Moroni being told on the big screen. But I honestly think The Oath changed me more than the Captain Moroni story would have changed me.

With budgetary limitations and the difficulty of producing movies during COVID-19, I imagine Darin was forced to rewrite a lot of the storyline. I honestly think he did a great job considering his resources and circumstances.

Thankfully, I was able to spend a really good chunk of time speaking with Darin before watching the movie and he told me it was a love story. So I went in prepared to have my expectations turned upside down. Darin also said he knew writing a fictional love story about Moroni would bother some people, but that he felt inspired to do it this way. After watching the movie, I will say I believe it was inspired.

If you’re reading this post, it’s probably because you, like I, have already found several negative reviews of The Oath. I was recently sent this post:

*Trigger warning* WHY I WILL NOT BE WATCHING ‘THE OATH’ MOVIE: This post may be controversial among some of my friends but I say this with utmost love for all of my dear co-workers who may disagree with me, as well as the producers who I know mean well! I have been extremely disturbed for several weeks regarding the new movie “The Oath”—and feel I cannot remain silent any longer but must speak in defense of the character and honor of a man whom I respect, honor, and love—the Nephite prophet Moroni. First, I am not opposed to historical fiction and I believe passionately that we NEED high-quality films retelling the stories in the Book of Mormon and our Church history. However, this film denigrates one of the greatest men and his legacy of sacrifice and honor to a fictional story of lust. I realize our culture has become completely desensitized to sexual media but scenes in this film should NEVER cross our movie screens—let alone be glorified and written into the Book of Mormon. When my 19-year-old brother and 24-year-old sister went to see a preview a few weeks ago, they stood up and walked out close to the beginning. Brothers and sisters, this is far from “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.”

I realize this may be unpopular to say but we will NEVER build Zion if we, who claim to be God’s people, condone and even cling to inappropriate media. This is the very reason ancient Israel was destroyed. The Lord will not protect or preserve us as a people if we do not do better. Criticizing the Westminster College “porn” class raising a stir right now, and at the same time supporting this kind of portrayal of Moroni is nothing less than hypocrisy. Speaking to conservatives, we have no right to point our fingers at ecclesiastical leaders, criticize liberal politicians, or complain about sex education in public school if we don’t have the discernment and courage to stand for pure, righteous and holy entertainment within our own homes. God will never bless our nation, our communities, or our children until we fall on our knees in repentance. I’m speaking boldly but please know that I do not condemn the producers, not anyone who supported the film. I’m only pleading that we re-evaluate how desensitized we have become and how far we have lowered our standards. The vast majority of men (and many women) in the Church are enslaved to pornography, our youth are losing their faith, and we are losing our freedoms as a people. The plagues we suffer are consequences of our own sin. But we can do BETTER than this! My dad would often say, “The Lord has told us that we live at the most wicked time on the most wicked earth. In other words, if we feel comfortable or at ease with the modernist culture (movies, music, diet, fashion, language, literature, parenting philosophies, schools, etc. etc), we must think again. . . .” Please reconsider what kind of entertainment the Lord would support. THE TIME IS NOW to stand and build a culture of beauty, refinement, purity, and honor.

I stayed for the full movie, and I believe this Facebook post misrepresents the essence of the film. I do understand the concern and agree with some of the points made. But we also need to appreciate the fact that Darin allowed us to view an unfinished version of the film and that the production and edits are ongoing. So I feel like it was completely out of line, if not outright illegal, to condemn a movie so publicly in its unfinished form.

In the version we were shown at the FIRM Foundation Expo, there is a swimming scene where Moroni is tempted by a woman who he had previously saved. The purpose of the scene was to show that there was some chemistry developing between the two and that Moroni was developing feelings for her. Critics call it lust; Darin intended for it to be the innocent beginning of a beautiful relationship. There are other scenes where the woman attempted to seduce Moroni, but he resisted her temptation and instead taught her the importance of chastity.

I loved watching this woman experience a mighty change of heart because of Moroni’s charitable, valiant, and patient example. I was moved by seeing her change from being a Lamanite concubine to making her own sacred covenants with God.

To me, their relationship was not lustful. It grew into something very sacred. I wish they had seen the way Moroni knelt next to her in reverent respect. I wish they had seen Moroni explaining to her why he could not be intimate with her outside the bonds of covenant marriage—explaining that his oath and covenants meant everything to him. I wish they had watched Moroni and Bathsheba develop a relationship of trust and commitment. I wish they had watched him scream her name in desperate agony, illustrating his deep and sincere, true love for her.

In this fictional depiction of Moroni’s love story, Moroni cherished her. He treated her beautifully. He was gentle and kind and tender. I don’t know how Moroni spent those 35+ years until he died. I don’t know if he fell in love in the way that Darin has fictionally illustrated. But to be honest, I really don’t care. In some dramatic and deeply impactful ways, watching their relationship develop and mature into a covenant-focused marriage was extremely powerful to me as a 29-year-old bachelor.

I love almost all of the second paragraph of this critical post. I do believe that we need to raise our standards. We need to work hard to avoid becoming desensitized to an over-sexualized culture in the media. I’ve been a bachelor for over a decade and I’m disturbed by the standards of what seems to be a majority of young women in the Church. I often feel largely alone in believing that the “For the Strength of Youth” standards are still relevant today.

I come from a very conservative home where any kind of sexual tension would make us incredibly uncomfortable. I’ve walked out of mainstream PG-13 movies over innuendos. To be honest, I’m still super uncomfortable during the innuendos in movies like Wonder Woman even when there’s not actually a “sex scene.”

I’m not claiming to be some paragon of virtue. But I do believe a mature viewer can watch the relationship between Moroni and Bathsheba develop without being triggered. On the other hand, those who wrote and promoted the critical Facebook post say that PG-13 movies should be appropriate for 13-year-olds, and I think there might have been too much sexual tension for young teenagers.

As mentioned in the critique quoted above, there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie where the woman goes swimming at the base of a waterfall. She invites him in and he steps towards the water before seeing at least some of her clothes near where she jumped in. He hesitates and then chooses to join her. That part bothered me because it left me wondering what actually happened. I don’t believe Moroni would have joined her if she was naked. I really wish it wasn’t in there. Since I was shown an unfinished version, it may be trimmed or removed entirely from the final version.

I think Darin could have eliminated these concerns by making it more clear that Moroni wasn’t actually seduced into adultery in that scene. I think the point of the scene was to show that 1) an interest was developing between the two, 2) that as a former Lamanite concubine, Bathsheba probably initially had the wrong intentions while Moroni maintained his purity of heart, 3) that Moroni may have felt very alone during his 35+ years of wandering and could have been excited about the potential of having love again, and 4) that Moroni had the moral fortitude to remain virtuous in spite of feeling so alone.

One of the mantras of filmmaking is to never say what can be implied. Darin seems to have taken that to heart because a lot is implied in this movie and the dialogue is relatively limited. There are times when what is being implied is unclear, leaving room for viewers to be bothered by what could have been implied.

One of the criticisms levied against the film is that Darin showed too much build-up in the love scene which could have been implied. I remember three scenes in The Oath with sexual tension; one of them being the beginning of a reverent but slightly revealing honeymoon-ish sex scene. I can agree that this level of intimacy is too sacred or triggering to be portrayed at all. After watching it a second time I can agree that more implication should be used and that the scene can be cut down to keep the intimacy sacred and private. I do know that some trimming has occurred since the version that we saw at the Expo.

Couldn’t Hear & Volume Issues

(The speakers were terrible at the event center…)

It may have been the speaker system (which was causing problems throughout the entire 3-day conference), but the dialogue was way too quiet compared to the music. I honestly probably only understood half of what was said throughout the whole movie. There was a lot of quiet whispering and mumbling—at least that’s how it sounded on that speaker system. I’d be curious to listen on my laptop to see if it was just a problem with the room. I fully expect to only watch it with subtitles when I buy it later.

There were parts where it felt like the music was more epic than the actual scenes. In those places, I think the volume of the music could be reduced to make it proportional to the intensity of the scene. But the music really was beautiful.

(Update: I was able to watch the film in my personal theater and the sound was MUCH better.)

Couldn’t Read

My doctors have said I have extraordinarily good eyesight, but I really struggled reading the statements on the big screen at the very end of the movie before the credits. The combination of font choice, font size, and the rate at which the words changed made it almost impossible for any of us to read what was said at movie theater distances (I overheard comments by those around my date and me. None of us could read them towards the back of the room). The words were also in uppercase and the letter spacing was too close to the size of the word spacing so it was difficult to visually distinguish words from each other at any real distance.

To be fair, I watched an unfinished version so this may become a non-issue in the final version.

Fight Scenes

At least one of the fight scenes was sped up, probably to make the fighting feel more intense. Honestly, it just looked goofy to me when someone is kicked and they fall down at high speed. If it’s not too late, I hope Darin can find other ways to make the fighting scenes feel fast and epic without relying on speeding the scene up so much. If it does need to be fast, maybe not make it so fast? I’d prefer 1.25x over 1.5x speed (pot-shot guess at actual frame rates).

Typos?

My date believes she saw a major typo in the credits. Regardless, there’s certainly some polishing up left to do before it’s officially launched.

Final Thoughts

I thought the cinematography was pretty good. It didn’t feel like a cheesy Church film. It felt like something that belongs on the big screens. Without getting into specifics, I was very impressed by the quality of the movie relative to the budget Darin had to work with.

I think this story should be told. I’m comfortable withmost of the artistic license taken, and I’m open to exploring what Moroni’s wandering years could have looked like for what was possibly more than half of his life.

More importantly, this movie helped me take my covenants more seriously. If that was my only takeaway, it would have been worth it. I believe The Oath is one good step toward making this world a better place. Thank you for making this movie, Darin.

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