In 1902, a man named Edmund Creffield showed up in Corvallis, Oregon. He began to preach a militantly fundamentalist form of Christianity. He quickly attracted a small, but intensely devoted group of followers, most of them women. He named his sect the “Bride of Christ Church”. Rumors started to circulate that Creffield was having sex with his female followers. Creffield eventually announced that Esther Mitchell, who came from one of Corvallis’s most respected families, would become the “Second Mother of Christ”. To make a long story short, Esther’s brother, George, shot Creffield in the back of the head while the latter was walking down a street in Seattle. Although there was no doubt as to whether he did the killing, a jury found George Mitchell not guilty. (This was clearly a case of an “honor killing”.) Later, as George was boarding a train, Esther shot him in the back of the head, exactly as he had shot Creffield.
The Portland-based filmmaker, Edward P. Davee, has written and directed a film based on these events, How the Fire Fell. The film is in black & white, and much of it was shot in Corvallis. There is not much dialogue, although there are numerous scenes of Creffield (Joe Haege) preaching. The film is atmospheric, with lingering shots of forests, fields, and people lost in thought. Some of the imagery is clearly meant to be symbolic. In one scene, for example, while Creffield is preaching to his flock, there is a cutaway shot to flies caught in a spider’s web. Haege is quite good as Creffield. Davee was clearly limited by a very low budget in what he could do, but nevertheless there are some powerful scenes.
I found this film fascinating to watch, though I wish I could have learned more about the characters. Why were they so attracted to Creffield? At the screening I attended, there was a question-and-answer session with Davee and with the film’s director of photography, Scott Ballard. Davee said he wanted to “keep a sense of mystery alive” about the Creffield story. He also said he preferred to tell stories using images rather than dialogue. He expressed no strong feelings either for or against religion. (He said that some of the actors in the film are devout Christians.) Davee did say he found it disturbing that people could blindly follow a leader.
As I watched How the Fire Fell, I was reminded of the undertone of eroticism in many of the practices of evangelical Christian groups. (I remember H.L. Mencken commenting about this in one of his articles.) It may be that Creffield simply crossed a line that other evangelicals (apparently) do not cross.
How the Fire Fell has had a very limited release, mainly being shown at film festivals and at scattered venues in the Pacific Northwest. Let us hope that this film gets the wider audience it deserves.
You can find a trailer for the film here.