Word of Wisdom: Cinematic Masterpieces from the 80s
As a Mormon child of the 80s and 90s, hokey church films were a near constant companion—like a third parent to me. We were shown Johnny Lingo as a reward in Sunday School classes. We were presented with depictions of Biblical stories as a teaching tool in seminary. Last year for The Beehive I wrote a thorough recap of Saturday’s Warrior, a film that spurred controversy and debate in my Utah neighborhood. “I heard the prophet walked out of it because it preaches false doctrine,” a girl told me in my second grade class.
While none of these films were any good, some were worse than others.
Recently I stumbled upon two early 80s films about the Word of Wisdom I somehow missed during my childhood, and if I now have to know they exist, so do you.
We’ll start with I Can’t Do It, Coach, which comes to us from 1982.
A few things you need to know right off the bat: This story is told in slideshow format, with voice-overs and static photos that switch out every five seconds or so. Apparently the church production company did have the ability to actually film moving images, though, evidenced by the fact that there is a very large overlaid video of a stern sign language interpreter covering about a third of the screen for nearly the entirety of this film.
The film begins with a teenage boy in bed. He’s asleep, and he’s dreaming about running a race.
After about a minute, the sleeping and dreaming is interrupted by a knock on the boy’s bedroom door. “Creed? Are you awake?” a voice from the hallway says.
The door opens to a sad middle-aged man who appears to have just lost all his winnings at an underground cock fight. “It’s me, Creed. May I come in?” he says as he hovers over a minor in his bedroom in the middle of the night.
“Sure, Coach,” Creed responds, acting like this is not an unexpected or uncommon visit.
Coach takes a seat on Creed’s bed. Creed can’t be bothered to sit up.
“Creed, I’ve brought you some wine,” the Coach says as he tips a bottle into a large glass.
“I want all the boys on the team to drink a little of it tonight. It will help you sleep better so you’ll be rested for your races tomorrow.”
I know we’re only one minute and twenty-four seconds into this, but I think it’s already time for a recap because there is a LOT going on here: this coach is apparently going around town and visiting all of the boys on the track team in their bedrooms, waking them up at God knows what time, to force-feed them wine in their pajamas in an effort to help them sleep so they can perform better in track the next day.
So many questions.
Where did this coach learn that drinking the night before an athletic event will enhance cardiovascular performance? Can I join this team? Why is he springing this on these kids at the last minute? Did he just come up with this idea? Is he drunk? Is he having a breakdown? Who let this grown man into the house at this hour? Why is Creed’s bedroom so depressing? Where did Coach get that hat? Does it come in black and in my size?
Coach hands Creed the glass.
“I can’t drink it, Coach.” Creed tells him.
“I know you Mormons don’t drink alcohol, Creed, but you wanna win the race tomorrow, don’t you?” Coach responds.
I cannot help but wonder about the production history of this film. Actually, let's go there together.
Picture this scene: It’s [day before this film was shot, edited, and sent out for distribution] 1982. Seven balding white men in their 50s are sitting around a conference table in a boardroom in downtown Salt Lake City. The walls are adorned with their most popular Mormonads. Like these ones:
“What are we gonna do about the worldly pressure on the youth to violate the Word of Wisdom?” one of them asks, his shoulders slumped, the weight of depraved humanity upon him.
“I have an idea!” another shouts. “Let’s make a film they can relate to!”
Then the speaker stretches out his hand and slowly waves it to the right, his glassy eyes seem to be looking off into the distance, his tone is inspired—nearly prophetic. “The story of a track coach who pressures his athletes to take illegal substances in an effort to get them to run faster.”
“Excellent!” someone shouts. “Which substance would make the most sense for our story?”
“Steroids? Speed? Coca Cola? Diet pills?!” the team excitedly brainstorms.
“No.” The eldest and wisest of them responds in a soft voice from the corner of the room. A silence falls over the group.
“Tell us, brother. Which substance should we have the boys take to prepare for their track meet?”
“The most pernicious of them all,” he utters. “Red wine.”
“Yes!” everyone in the room screams in unison. “Let’s make that film!”
Back in Creed’s room, Coach tells Creed several more times “I know what’s good for you,” in an unsettling “if you love me, show me” sort of tone.
“I can’t do it, Coach. I won’t drink it.” Creed repeatedly responds, rejecting a glass of something that is absolutely not wine.
“Alright,” a disappointed Coach finally relents. “But remember, you better win tomorrow.”
Creed lies in bed all night, kept up by this moral dilemma. Should he have guzzled the wine? Is Coach right? Is red wine what it takes to become a track star?
Eventually there’s another knock on the door.
“Creed? Can I come in?”
“Coach!” Creed responds after opening his bedroom door to this predator who has now interrupted his sleep twice in one night. “You look terrible!” Creed tells him.
Coach is frantic. “All the other boys are sick!” he tells Creed. Apparently he kept tabs on them throughout the night, which I guess is consistent with his character.
“Some of them are so sick they can’t get out of bed!”
Flashback to the Salt Lake City boardroom: “But instead of making them run faster, that glass of wine completely debilitates the boys to the point they can’t even stand up in the morning!”
“BRILLIANT!” the creative team who has never actually seen wine in person cheers.
Creed has an idea about why the boys might be sick. “Maybe it’s the wine you gave them, Coach,” he smugly says, seemingly not understanding that this situation is bad news for his team’s chances.
Coach asks Creed to help get the boys down to the track because they have to win. They simply have to. Coach has a lot of money riding on this. The cock fight from four hours ago has already nearly ruined him.
The boys show up for the race. Some of them immediately fall over.
I’m starting to wonder if that one bottle of wine shared between 12 people was actually just bleach and maybe this is really a story about homicide.
Creed wins the race, even though he didn’t drink the night before. Or maybe it’s . . . because he didn’t drink the night before. Dun dun DUUUUUN!
“A masterpiece!” shout the boardroom writers who are probably all still active voters in our state.
“How could you run so fast?” one of Creed’s flabbergasted teammates asks him.
Suddenly over the intercom it is announced that the next race is already going to begin.
“What!? They can’t do that!” one of Creed’s teammates objects. “You can’t run again! You haven’t had time to rest!”
“He’ll have to,” Coach responds, looking a little sweaty and like someone who may have his fingers broken in an alley within the next few hours.
This plot point—why Creed's races have suddenly been scheduled back-to-back—goes completely unexplored. It's not clear whether it is implied that someone is out to get him for not drinking wine at 2:00 in the morning or whether they just want to show that passing up on drinking one time allows Creed to excel under even the most unfair circumstances. Frankly, the whole last minute of this film is really phoned in and after all the care that has been put into character development in the first five minutes, this oversight is kind of disappointing.
So without further discussion, there’s another long, completely unnecessary race.
Creed KILLS it.
And that’s seriously the end.
There’s no follow up as to whether Coach was fired or arrested or both. No explanation about whether the wine was poisoned. Not even a “where are they now” (coffins) for the boys who were evidently not weirded out by the Ghost of Christmas Past showing up in their bedrooms to feed them cranberry juice from a wine bottle.
This wasn’t the only time Mormon filmmakers sought to tell the story of an educator’s brush with the Word of Wisdom in the early 80s.
Take for example the 1980 cinematic masterpiece, running at two minutes and forty-nine seconds, A Cup of Coffee.
We begin with shots of tweens playing soccer.
Suddenly a teacher shows up to congratulate a boy in a blue jersey for a well-played game.
Oh, by the way, we have a different sign language interpreter this time.
The teacher’s name is Mrs. Robinson.
“Thanks, Mrs. Robinson!” the boy says as he sashays in his booty shorts.
“Did you get some good pitchers?” the athlete asks his friend who has a camera slung around his neck.
The two boys and Mrs. Robinson have a conversation about how excited they are to see the pictures from this soccer game that will have absolutely nothing to do with the plot of this extremely tight film.
In any event, the photographer friend is totally fabulous.
In the next scene, the two boys are standing amid church pews talking about whether the “pitchers” have been developed yet. I cannot stress enough how irrelevant the photos of this boy playing soccer are to this story, despite having now consumed roughly 90% of the dialogue between the characters.
Then there’s a scene of people at church bearing their testimonies very quietly while passing a mic around the congregation.
This includes a testimony from a breathy Mrs. Robinson. “I’m so proud of the kids in this ward,” she exhales. “Working with them at school has been a great experience.”
After testimony meeting, the boys shake Mrs. Robinson’s hand. “I enjoyed your testimony, Mrs. . . . I mean Sister Robinson,” one of the boys says without even the slightest intonation in his voice.
The next day the boys see her at school. “Good morning, Sister . . . I mean Mrs. Robinson,” they say. Oh the hijinks.
“I’m really glad she’s in our ward,” one of the boys says to the other as Mrs. Robinson walks away.
The boys start talking again about the photographs they are excited to see. Again, these photographs in no way have any bearing on how any of this plays out. Nonetheless, they have now been referenced and discussed at length FIVE times in this film.
Later that day one of the boys runs into Mrs. Robinson.
And that’s when it happens.
Warning: if you have kids in the room you may want to cover their eyes. This next part is NSFW. I frankly can’t believe they were allowed to show this on film.
It seems that Mrs. Robinson is . . . pouring a cup of coffee!
The boys are HORRIFIED.
“ARE YOU SURE?!” one of them asks when the other explains what he saw. “YES!” the eye witness responds.
“I don’t believe it!” one of them says. “I thought she was such a good member of the church!!!”
Even the interpreter is disgusted.
We ALL remember Mrs. Robinson monopolizing the church mic on the Lord's Day, her permed bangs flopped forward, her Little House on the Prairie getup buttoned to her chin. Meanwhile she's apparently capable of something like thissss. So was all that "I'm so proud of the kids in this ward" nonsense just for show? Does this monster even care about the damn soccer photos?
Who doesn't feel betrayed right now?
“SHHHH! Here she comes!” one of the boys says as an approaching Mrs. Robinson interrupts the gossip sesh.
“Hi boys. How are you?” she asks, like she hasn’t just made a pact with SATAN.
“Uh . . . fine! How are you?” the boys respond, not sure if they should look the great serpent in the eyes, choosing instead to stare straight at her boobs.
Then they start talking about the “pitchers” of the game again. WHY. I FEEL LIKE I’M TRAPPED IN THE 9 CIRCLES OF HELL.
The boys are still uneasy and unsure about what they’re supposed to do about this whole Mrs. Robinson coffee situation. Can they still talk to her? Should they be seen with her? Should they tell the authorities? Is it ok to eventually show her the pictures of the soccer game when they are one day developed? What if she spills coffee on them? What if she has coffee breath? What if she drags these boys down to hell?
But before the pitchforks can fully come out, we get the kicker.
“I have to take this cup of coffee down to Mrs. Olsen. She hasn’t been able to get around very well since she broke her ankle,” Mrs. Robinson explains.
Mrs. Robinson says she’ll check in later with them on whether the pictures have been developed. I’M REALLY NOT KIDDING. Then she walks away.
“Ha!” the boys let out a relieved sigh. “She’s taking the coffee to Mrs. Olsen! And we thought she was going to drink it! HAHAHAHAHA!”
That’s the end. We never see the pictures from the soccer game. No further follow up. Not even closing credits. The screen just abruptly cuts to blackness.
The message of the film is apparently not to assume someone has begun worshiping the devil just because they are holding a cup of coffee. Not because that would be an overreaction. Not because it’s none of the boys’ damn business. Not because it’s wrong of them to judge.
They shouldn’t assume the worst about Mrs. Robinson when they see her holding a cup of coffee because the cup of coffee might be for someone else!
I watched this video on Youtube just now. Curious to see what kind of internet response it has received, I scrolled down to the comments. The top comment, with over 100 likes, seems to encapsulate the critical consensus.
“Gripping story, strong plot, enjoyed the twist ending. I give it 4/5 stars.”
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)