SALT LAKE CITY — A new film made in Utah is based on a little-known but true story.
The movie “Redemption” poses many questions: Does punishment fit the crime? How long does it take to forgive? And it presents a cast of Hollywood notables mixing with locals in this home-grown story.
In 1862, a French immigrant named Jean Baptiste was convicted of robbing 300 graves in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. For his crimes, he had his ears cropped, a tattoo on his forehead that said "Robbing the Dead," and was sentenced to exile on first Antelope, then Fremont Island.
In the film, Henry Heath is grieving the recent death of his daughter and is the lawman who arrested Baptiste and took him to Antelope Island. He also takes him food and water. As the story unfolds, each man has something to offer the other.
“Through David’s character, Baptiste, is where Heath maybe begins to find a way back to loving himself and maybe then, allowing others to love him,” said John Freeman, who plays Henry Heath.
"He had to continue to be punished because of their need to punish him. It is part of, I guess, another thing that made Jean so deserving of redemption, said David Stevens, who plays Jean Baptiste in the movie. “Someone's got to forgive him."
He said playing a character that was given the nickname the Ghoul of the Great Salt Lake was a challenge. He had to figure out a way to give someone who robbed so many graves a redeeming human quality.
He said Baptiste was able to forgive himself, in part because of the belief system he had about life after death. “He says at times, ‘It’s just bones. They (the people in the graves) don’t need these things. I do.’”
Henry Heath was an immigrant from England, a Latter-day Saint pioneer who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in September of 1847. He and his wife eventually had 12 children.
His great-great-grandson, also Henry Heath, is a Salt Lake attorney. He said the film takes some liberties. He said the real Henry Heath did not have a dark past, but his family then and now know how he felt about the criminal he took to Antelope Island.
"He was a good man. He was a kind man. He would have been a man who was conscientious, do his duty and he, himself, expressed that had Jean Baptiste actually robbed his daughter's grave, he would have shot him,” he said.
Writer-director Tom Russell said the story didn't come from a book. He read about Jean Baptiste online. "It was a reference to him in another article and then a little bit more investigation, and I thought, 'What a remarkable thing to have happened right here."
Producer Courtney Russell believes there's a universal message. "I hope that they can come away from the film or through the course of the film and kind of recognize those things in themselves that they tend to worry about or struggle with."
The cast includes some well-known Hollywood actors: Edward Hermann, Margot Kidder, Barry Corbin and a well-known Utahn, KSL Newsradio’s Alex Kirry has a cameo role as young Judge Smith.
“What I like about it is that it's not a weird story, for weird sake. It's about hope. You get that out of the end, I think, the quality of forgiveness and wanting to improve yourself,” he said.
The director and producers hope their film leaves audiences asking questions.
“When you get to the point on the island when those two are looking at each other in the eye and talking about universally important things, and that you can find that in cinema today, we think it is pretty cool,” said executive producer Bill Nelson.
"Redemption" was made with a small budget. The crew was 170 BYU film students. It opened in area theaters Thursday night and is rated PG for some violence and language.