Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
This week we head back to 1978 to take a look at Uncle Ben. This film was produced by BYU and was based on a true story highlighted by J. Richard Clarke—second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric at the time—in a BYU devotional in 1977. The story happened to Dr. Kenneth McFarland, an educator, lecturer and public speaker who made the rounds in the 1950s. Perhaps Bishop Clarke’s mentioning of this story helped push the film into being a year later? Johnny Lingo’s rise to existence was somewhat similar, but who knows?
The film opens with 3 adult siblings—Nancy, Jim and Tom—eating in a college cafeteria and reminiscing about the past. They are gathering together for Nancy’s college graduation. She says her good byes for now and goes to pick up tickets for graduation for the general section. Not the parents section.
As she walks through the various buildings from BYU standing in as her college campus she finds President McFarland and asks him for a few minutes. They go into his office, which has some amazing wallpaper, and Nancy begins to tell him about her Uncle Ben.
We flash back to Nancy, Jim and Tom as young children. Their father died when Nancy was 2 and, their mother, Laura, worked at a grocery store to support them. They didn’t have much, but they had each other.
We first meet Uncle Ben at Nancy’s birthday party. He arrives after the party is well underway, and Nancy explains that he smells bad. We learn that Uncle Ben is not a “pillar of the community,” and he really only worked enough to buy his next drink. We even see Laura bailing Ben out of jail.
Cut to a scene at Ben’s place of work. Uncle Ben is looking for his timecard but it isn’t there. His boss says he won’t find it. He is letting Ben go because he isn’t working the regular hours that he promised he would. Ben accuses him of not being fair and of not letting Ben have a second chance. Ben has had many second chances and his boss sees Ben’s problem with alcohol is getting worse. He can’t run his business on Ben’s promises to do more.
After he loses his job, Ben surprises Laura at her work. He asks for credit to finish buying his groceries and Laura realizes he no longer has work. She insists he come over for dinner and offers to give him some money to tide him over. He reluctantly agrees to the meal but refuses help with money.
After a nice dinner he tells the kids some stories. We then cut to Ben in the kitchen and Lara coming down after putting the kids to bed. She looks weary and Ben learns she hasn’t been feeling well for a while but the doctor can’t figure out what is wrong. Ben chooses this time to ask for money. The money is for “medicine.” Laura knows what it’s for. She insists she doesn’t have any money for him that night. She asks him to put aside his quest for alcohol and to stay the night so he can take the kids to school in the morning. Ben is persistent and Laura finally scrounges up $2.50 for him (about $10.00 in 2020 dollars). He apologizes for asking for it and then disappears into the night. We next see him collapsed against a building being picked up by the police.
Back at the family home on another night Laura is reading a story to the kids before bed. They then sing Now the Day is Over, which actually sounds pretty with accompaniment. I find it to be a bit creepy when sung a capella. Laura seems so tired and finally retires for the evening herself.
The next morning the oldest son comes downstairs and is surprised that his mom didn’t wake them up. He’s worried they will be late for school. He thinks his mother is playing a joke on them but sadly she has passed away in the night. We hear a melancholy and minor version of Now the Day is Over, and we see them loading Laura’s body into the ambulance. The kids ask Uncle Ben what will they do now? Who will take care of them? Ben says he will if they really want them to, but the police officer warns Ben to not get the kids’ hopes up—he can’t keep a job and he can’t stay sober.
Later that evening we see Ben in the kitchen with a bottle in a brown paper sack. He wants to take a drink but he hears the kids’ words in his head. He shoves the bottle away and realizes he cannot love the children and alcohol. “Lord, I need help!”
In the court room, Ben again pleads to care for the children, but the Judge is not convinced. He expresses the same concerns the police expressed earlier. Ben says The Lord said men can change—even a bum like him. The judge agrees and gives him 30 days to see if he can care or the children with an option for permanent custody after the trial period.
Back in President McFarland’s office Nancy says Ben has served as their parent. He never missed a day of work and never touched a drop of alcohol after that night. Despite his love and support over the years he won’t sit in the parent section. Nancy wonders if there is something that can be done to recognize Uncle Ben if he won’t allow himself to be recognized when the other parents are as part of the ceremony. President McFarland says to leave it up to him.
At the graduation President McFarland gives the traditional moment of recognition to the parents. He then asks for all the Uncle Bens in attendance to stand and be recognized for their support of their graduates. Uncle Ben is confused, but after urging from Tom and Jim he stands and receives a standing ovation.
President McFarland meets Ben and asks him how he did it. How did he overcome years of alcoholism to care for his nephews and niece? Ben said he realized he had been given a gift. When they arrived home from court they knelt in prayer and thanked the lord. “I made a promise. If [the Lord] would hold on to me I would hold on to the kids. The five of us have been going on together ever since.”
Uncle Ben is a simple story of a person finding the power to overcome addiction and do what is right through Jesus Christ. As a film, however, I’m just left with a feeling of “well, that was nice, I guess.” Some of the emotional beats seemed forced and contrived. Ben’s journey from addiction to recovery is also fast and simplifies the serious struggle of those recovering from alcoholism. I am sure there are stories of people who make a decision and move forward in sobriety, but the reality is more complicated than that. I think the film touches on its various themes so lightly no one is driven home with any power.
Nancy’s desire to recognize Uncle Ben reminded me of Sheri Dew’s excellent address “Are We Not All Mothers?” We can be someone special to someone else without a formal title or relationship. Ben was not a parent, but filled that role. This message, to recognize the “Uncle Bens” in our lives is probably the best takeaway from the film.
Thoughts, Musing & Trivia
- Kenneth McFarland was an educator schooled by the Ivy League. He later worked in Kansas and eventually became the superintendent of the Topeka, Kansas School system—the school system in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.
- McFarland’s views were to maintain the racial status quo prevalent of the day.
- McFarland was noted for the quality of his speeches and delivery. Several of his speeches are available online.