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Elder John H. Groberg remembers well the first time he saw “The Other Side of Heaven.”
Then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, Elder Groberg, along with director/executive producer Mitch Davis and their wives, were seated near the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and surrounded by other general authorities in a private screening of the 2001 film in Joseph Smith Memorial Building’s Legacy Theater.
As actor Christopher Gorham re-enacted Elder Groberg’s 1953 Mormon mission among the Tongan people and courted co-star Anne Hathaway on the big screen, there were laughs, sniffles and tears. Yet Elder Groberg and Davis couldn’t shake the nervous fluttering butterflies until final credits rolled and President Gordon B. Hinckley offered his critique.
“We were as scared as anyone. Is this going to be good?” Elder Groberg said later. Elder Groberg said that President Hinckley got up, poked Davis with his cane and told Davis that he liked it and that it would do a lot of good in the world.
“(President Hinckley) walked out, but that was all he needed to say,” Elder Groberg said. “We all breathed a collective sigh of relief.”
Based on countless letters, emails and conversations, Elder Groberg and Davis agree the faith-based movie has lived up to President Hinckley’s words. It really has done a lot of good in the world, Davis said.
“We have received countless reports of lives changed and burdens lifted by the experience of seeing the movie,” Davis said.
Now a new generation has the opportunity to be inspired by young Elder Groberg’s missionary adventures and the faith of the Tongan people. In commemoration of the film’s 15th anniversary, a high-definition version of the movie has been released on iTunes.
In recent interviews with the Deseret News, Elder Groberg and Davis reflected on the film’s success, fun memories and the movie’s impact over the last 15 years.
While serving as a mission president in Tonga in the late 1960s, Elder Groberg said he was encouraged by his supervisor, then Elder Thomas S. Monson, to write a book about his remarkable missionary experiences. A manuscript, originally titled, “In the Eye of the Storm,” was published in the early 1990s and later renamed “The Other Side of Heaven” to coincide with the movie. Looking back, Elder Groberg is grateful he followed President Monson’s advice to record that chapter of church history, he said.
“I had no idea it would ever be a movie, but that expands the ability of the story and the faith of the Tongan people to reach millions of people all over the world,” Elder Groberg said.
In 1999, Davis said the idea of a Mormon-themed movie was unheard of. Richard Dutcher’s “God’s Army” would come out in 2000, but the “idea of making a movie based on a living and serving general authority’s book was a far-fetched, crazy dream,” Davis said.
“There had never been such a movie. There was no such thing as Mormon cinema,” Davis said. “But with the support of Elder Groberg, his wife, Jean, and their family, we were able to sally forth and it turned out better than we could have ever imagined.”
As long as they stayed true to the book, they had the blessing of the First Presidency, Davis said.
The movie was filmed in New Zealand. It was one of Hathaway’s first films and helped launch her Academy Award-winning career. She and Gorham had a “magical chemistry” on set and “conveyed the tender beauty of the Grobergs’ courtship,” Davis said.
The Grobergs happened to visit the set the day Hathaway arrived and Davis made the introductions. Elder Groberg thrust out his hand and said, “You’re the lucky lady who gets to play my wife,” Davis said. “Annie fell in love with both of them at that point.”
The Grobergs came away pleased with how Gorham and Hathaway portrayed them in the movie and have maintained a friendship with the actors over the years, Elder Groberg said.
While making the movie, the crew had three goals in mind, Davis said.
“Our dream was to make a movie that captured the spirit of Elder Groberg, the spirit of the Tongan people, and the spirit of the Lord,” Davis said. “We had a feeling if we could get those three things packed into the movie, it would be potent and kind of impossible to not like. That’s what we shot for, and to a degree, we succeeded.”
The last 15 years
Since the movie’s original release in 2001, Davis has calculated that more than 200 million people have seen “The Other Side of Heaven.” It’s the only religiously themed motion picture ever distributed by Walt Disney Studios, Davis said.
According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the movie has a lifetime gross income of $4.7 million worldwide, enough to compensate investors and help provide scholarships for Polynesian students attending Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Davis said.
Over the years, the Grobergs have collected binders of letters and emails from fans all over the world. In addition to the love story, some have wondered if rats really ate the soles of Elder Groberg’s feet. Others have expressed admiration for Feki, Elder Groberg’s faithful companion and his “Hurrah for Israel” cheer. Most viewers say they were spiritually uplifted.
“It’s gratifying. I’m grateful that it’s helpful to people. I don’t look on it as you did a good job, but rather the gospel, the power of light and truth, the Spirit of the Lord helps people,” Elder Groberg said. “I hope that can happen millions and millions more times for years to come.”
Davis recalled taking his family on a backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon and meeting a father and son from Georgia. As they visited around a campfire, the man figured out Davis was a Mormon and mentioned he had watched “the most amazing movie about you Mormons,” Davis said.
The movie was “The Other Side of Heaven.” The man and his wife were so moved by the story that they invited eight couples over to watch the film. Hearing that warmed Davis’ soul.
“What I learned is when you create a movie, you create a living thing,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t live long, but what has been remarkable about this movie is how it has taken on a life of its own and is doing good around the world. It has been a remarkable experience and I hope the movie can continue to affect more lives for good.”
The Groberg legacy
Sharing his mission experiences has been a blessing in the Groberg family. Their posterity includes 11 children, 45 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren. Among the children, grandchildren and their spouses, 35 have or are currently serving LDS missions. While no one in the family has served directly in Tonga, three grandsons have served in Fiji, Samoa and Hawaii. Most have served in Europe, South America or the United States, Elder Groberg said.
“Our feeling is one of deep gratitude as they are getting the same experience we had,” Elder Groberg said. “We don’t feel like we’ve done anything in particular, but we’re grateful for their parents, their leaders and their desire to serve. We know a mission will be a great blessing in their lives just as it has been in our lives.”
As a new generation considers viewing the new HD version of “The Other Side of Heaven,” Elder Groberg hopes they glean the basic truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“God lives, faith is real, and the Savior and priesthood have power in an ever-darkening world. The light of the gospel is still the hope of the world. It’s real, not a fictitious, made up thing,” Elder Groberg said. “If we have more faith, more love and more courage, and more willingness to obey, we will all be better off. That’s the message.”
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