The Avenging Angel—Tom Berenger, James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Kevin Tighe, Jeffrey Jones, Fay Masterson, Leslie Hope, Andrew Prine (MfTV 1995; Dir: Craig R. Baxley)
“They trained him to shoot. To ride. To kill. He was the hunter. Now, he’s the hunted.”
Conspiracies and counterplots among the polygamous Mormons of Utah in 1872 drive this made-for-television (TNT) account of Mormon assassin/bodyguard/security agent Miles Utley (Tom Berenger). Historical figures such as Brigham Young, Porter Rockwell and Bill Hickman are mixed with fictional ones like Utley in an environment that has some historicity but was probably not as overheated as depicted here.
Young Miles Utley is headed west with the Mormons in 1847 when his father dies. Brigham Young (Charlton Heston, playing the American Moses) assigns Bill Hickman (Tom Bower) to care for young Utley and raise him. Hickman and Utley are shown as members of the Mormon militia that slowed down Albert Johnston’s army invading Utah in 1857. Fast forward to 1872: By this time Utley is a kind of security agent for the Church, reporting to Milton Long (Jeffrey Jones), its head of security. He is shown dispatching dissident Jonathan Parker with a bowie knife to the throat, so he is not exactly a good guy. He is also shown frolicking with Young’s daughter Miranda (Fay Masterson), so we know he takes political/spiritual chances, too.
Long assigns Utley to shadow a couple of suspicious newcomers in Salt Lake City, and he follows them to the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. Elder Benjamin Rigby (Kevin Tighe, playing a fictional character) preaches fire and brimstone against outsiders. Brigham Young arises to espouse more restraint and less violence against non-Mormons. As he does so, a hooded figure approaches him and pulls a derringer; Utley intervenes and shoots the supposed assassin first and is himself attacked and rendered unconscious. When he starts asking questions about the person he shot, he is again hit (he should be suffering from multiple concussions by now). He awakens on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Apparently his assailants intended that he should drown, but he floated in the salty waters.
He is retrieved by Eliza Rigby (Leslie Hope), who doctors his wounds. She is an estranged polygamous wife of Elder Rigby, who she says was more interested in her sister Sarah. As Utley heals, the two develop an interest in each other. He is about to leave when Rigby himself shows up, with Alpheus Young (Daniel Quinn), Brigham’s son. Young leaves and Rigby is heard hitting Eliza, with Utley restrained by the pleading of her young daughters.
Miles Utley: “You know, Alpheus, the problem with polygamy is that when you’ve had 27 wives and 56 children [a reference to Brigham Young’s extensive family], one’s just bound to turn out as dirt-stupid and pig-ugly as you.”
Still investigating the deceased assassin, Utley finds apparent grave robbers digging up her body. Yes, it was a woman—Eliza Rigby’s sister Sarah, a disaffected former Mormon. Put in jail, Utley is sprung by his boss Milton Long; both Long and Miranda Young smuggle him guns. He warily heads south, looking for his long-time friend and mentor Porter Rockwell (James Coburn, with long hair and beard wigs). He visits his sister’s family (with daughters played by two Berenger girls). As Utley departs, he is attacked by and forced to kill Alpheus Young. He stops to see his disaffected, alcoholic foster father Bill Hickman in Kanab and is given Jonathan Parker’s diary before heading into wild country. As he leaves, he is attacked again, and joined by Miranda Young, who is wounded. He fights the attackers off and sends Miranda back with their remnants. He reads Parker’s diary and finds that he was simply an honest dissident and was doing nothing for which he deserved killing.
Utley and Rockwell join forces to fight a conspiracy led by Elder Rigby to take over the Church and Utah. Brigham Young is reported to have headed to his winter home in St. George, threatened by the conspirators. Rockwell creates a diversion without killing any of Young’s faithful bodyguards and Utley enters the house, to find that Milton Long is part of the conspiracy and he is now captured. Brigham Young slips him a gun, which he uses to take out Long. He heads back to Salt Lake, to the Assembly Hall, where he finds an unhinged Rigby speaking to an imaginary audience, now that his conspiracy has fallen apart. Eliza persuades Utley not to kill Rigby, and he hangs up his guns.
The title refers to the Danites, a supposedly historical group of thugs and assassins who did the Church’s dirty work, of which Utley is supposed to be one. To the extent they were real, they existed principally in the 1830s; by 1872, they were long gone. Porter Rockwell was the most prominent of those said to have been Danites, and he was an actual lawman and frontiersman well into the Utah period, dying about the same time as Brigham Young in 1877.
Elements of the cast are very good. Berenger is sympathetic as Miles Utley, although he sometimes seems confused in his religious environment. His character could have used a bit more subtlety in the writing of his motivations. He made this between appearing as Gen. James Longstreet in Gettysburg and as Lewis Gates in Last of the Dogmen. His production company played a role in getting this made. Aging actors Heston and Coburn are fine in their roles. The casting of Jeffrey Jones and especially Kevin Tighe telegraphs that their characters are not to be trusted, however. The female parts are not strongly written.
The sometimes autocratic Brigham Young, ca. 1870, about 69 years old; and the aging Mormon lawman and frontiersman Orrin Porter Rockwell.
The polygamous Mormon church, with its secrets and undercurrents under Brigham Young and his successors, would make a fertile environment for mysteries and action films for a generation after the time depicted here, until the church gave up the practice in the early 20th century. This is based on a novel by Gary Stewart, who apparently has a Mormon background, and, while enjoyable enough, it’s not particularly memorable. Mormons may enjoy watching it for what strikes them as historical and what seems misplaced. It was written by somebody who likes guns; when Utley is smuggled guns in jail, they are described in loving detail (a Smith & Wesson .44, said to be just like Jesse James used; a .36, said to be light but effective) as they are slipped to him.
The screenplay won the Western Writers of America 1996 Spur Award for Best Drama Script (Dennis Nemec). Not to be confused with another made-for-television western, Avenging Angel, with Kevin Sorbo (2007). For another western featuring Brigham Young, see Dean Jagger in 1940’s Brigham Young, with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. For historical background on Young, see Brigham Young, American Moses, by Leonard Arrington (1985) or John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (2013). The definitive biography of Porter Rockwell, an authentic western character, is probably still Harold Schindler’s Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God, Son of Thunder (first edition, 1966; go with the revised edition, which is easier to find).