September Dawn

September Dawn

You'd better be good or Jon Voight will go all Old Testament on your ass.

(Black Diamond) Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Gries, Taylor Handley, Huntley Ritter, Daniel Libman, Dean Cain, Lolita Davidovich, Shaun Johnston, Terence Stamp. Directed by Christopher Cain

So much pain, so much bloodshed has been perpetrated in the name of God and Christ. Even today, religious fanaticism and intolerance has led to the most heinous of acts.

In the late summer and early fall of 1857, the Fancher-Baker wagon train, led by the redoubtable Captain Fancher (Johnston) reaches Utah territory and the land of Bishop Samuelson (Voight) of the Mormon church. They are exhausted, and need food, supplies and rest before pushing over the rest of the Rockies to make it to California, where they are bringing Kentucky racehorses for the purpose of gambling. Samuelson’s sons, Jonathan (Ford) and Micah (Handley) meet the party with unfriendly distrust.

The Mormons had good reason to mistrust. They were on the verge of being invaded by the U.S. Army, as the American government was not too pleased with the idea of a religious theocracy developing on American soil. The prophet of the Mormons, Joseph Smith (Dean Cain) had been murdered at the hands of an angry Missouri mob, an event witnessed by Samuelson himself. However, he is the voice of hospitality as he tones down the boys’ unwelcoming and bids the settlers stay and rest awhile.

What he really wants to do is keep them close by while he can keep an eye on them and find out what they’re up to. What he thinks they’re up to is to sneak guns in to help murder Mormon citizens of Utah and pave the way for the U.S. military to wipe them all out. He is further disturbed by the sight of a woman, Nancy Dunlap (Davidovich) wearing pants, a no-no in Mormon culture…well in American culture pretty much of the time as well.

He means to punish the infidels or Mericats as the Mormons called them and praises God for delivering them into his hands for punishment, or more accurately retribution. Simultaneously, the Fancher party’s Reverend Hudson (Libman) is giving thanks to God for the party’s deliverance into hospitable hands.

Jonathan has fallen for the good Reverend’s spirited daughter Emily (Hope) who challenges him on an intellectual level that none of the local girls is able to do. However, to his horror, his father has ordered that the party be wiped out with the complicit support of Mormon leader Brigham Young (Stamp). Mormon leaders approach the local Paiute tribe to do their dirty work, warning the Native Americans that the party is out to take their land.

When the Paiutes fail to carry out the Mormon’s plan, John Lee (Gries), a militia leader for the Mormon Church, offers to escort the Fancher party to safety if they lay down their arms, which would appease the hostiles. Instead, on the morning of September 11, 1857 he leads them to the Mountain Meadows where the party is ambushed and massacred, with only the small children being allowed to live, taken to be raised as Mormons by Mormon families.

Most of the events above actually happened; the massacre did take place 144 years before the World Trade Center fell. In all fairness, there is no historical evidence that confirms that Brigham Young condoned or even knew about the attack; his deposition, which is recreated here, took place nearly a decade after the events occurred (the Civil War kept the United States a little busy before they could return and properly investigate the massacre). Only Lee was ever charged or convicted for the crime, and his execution is shown at the movie’s conclusion, in fairly graphic but accurate detail.

The Mormon Church has decried the movie, saying it is anti-Mormon and historically inaccurate and certainly there are plenty of inaccuracies here. However, it is widely believed that Young’s strident teachings created an atmosphere that allowed the massacre to take place. Certainly that Mormons took part in the crime is beyond doubt.

One doesn’t look to Hollywood for history lessons, and if you do, you do so at your own peril. Director Cain has been accused of making the film in order to derail the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, a charge which is patently ridiculous (the writing and preparation for the film took place long before Romney announced his candidacy). Whether there is anti-Mormonism in the movie is a judgment call; I for one didn’t detect that it was particularly against the Church of Latter-Day Saints but certainly depicted individuals within that Church as fanatic and paranoid.

Voight is a tremendous actor, and he gets license to go over-the-top and he does so with a great deal of gusto. He wears his Old Testament beard like a genuine prophet, or at least a man believing himself to be. There are some nuances to his performance that I liked a great deal, as he portrays Bishop Samuelson as a man scarred by his own inability to save his wife or Joseph Smith, and a man enraged by the threat of the Gentiles, as the Mormons then referred non-Mormons as.

The romance between Jonathan and Emily simply doesn’t work for me. They get together mainly because the screenplay tells them to; I never got the impression that there was anything binding them together that was real or believable. Johnston is suitably heroic as Captain Fancher, and Handley suitably tormented as Micah. Most of the rest of the performances are of the movie-of-the-week variety.

I do like that a nearly-forgotten incident from American history has been brought to light for public debate. The details of the Massacre remain cloudy to this day. The crime remains a heinous one, even by modern standards; women and children were shot, sometimes at point-blank range. Their remains were left unburied to be consumed by animals and scattered by the elements. Witnesses who came to the site years later proclaimed it to be one of the most horrific things they’d ever seen.

This is a movie that may well have excited a certain amount of debate on the subject if only it had been a little bit better. Far too much emphasis was placed on the star-crossed romance that never occurred. A movie about the Massacre that focused on the people who were victimized by it as well as those who were complicit in its planning and execution might have made for far more gripping fare. Still, I was at least motivated to do further research on the event and learn a bit more, so some good did come of the movie as far as I’m concerned.

WHY RENT THIS: Brings to light a forgotten event in American history that shouldn’t be. Even though he’s chewing the scenery somewhat, Voight still manages to be compelling.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This certainly depicts the Mormons in a very unflattering light; some might be offended by it. The romance between Emily and Jonathan is less than scintillating.

FAMILY VALUES: The depiction of the massacre is pretty brutal and is not for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reverend Hudson and his daughter Emily actually left the wagon train before it reached Utah; also, Nancy Dunlap’s husband is said in the film to have died before the action takes place, but historically he perished in the massacre.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the historical aspects of the massacre which tend to support the theories of the filmmakers – take these with a grain of salt. Of more interest are interviews with the descendents of those who perished in the massacre, which lends some perspective on the events of the film. It may not be a bad idea to watch both of these features before viewing the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: How About You

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