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Religious violence stirs a western

The portrayal of Mormons in popular culture has come a long way since Donny and Marie, and the imagery is getting considerably darker.

HBO is broadcasting the second season of "Big Love," about a modern polygamist, while locally, theaters in Boston and Provincetown this year featured "Confessions of a Mormon Boy," about a gay Mormon's journey through prostitution and drugs, and in Stockbridge, the Berkshire Theatre Festival offered "Two-headed," a play promoted as being about "an intolerant, patriarchal Mormon society and the polygamy it espouses."

Now comes Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight in a scathing and largely unsympathetic film portrayal of a polygamous 19th-century Mormon bishop who, driven by a combination of fear and bias, oversees the slaughter of dozens of innocent men, women, and children. "September Dawn" opens Friday.

The new film is billed as a "dramatic re-creation," depicting an actual event called the Mountain Meadows massacre. Informed by scholarly research, "September Dawn" uses fictional characters, with a point of view strongly critical of Mormonism at the time, and, this being the movies, with a tragic Romeo and Juliet narrative added. The filmmakers say they intend no criticism of contemporary Mormonism -- in fact, they say, the film is supposed to be a kind of allegory that warns about the risks posed today by religiously inspired violence.

In separate telephone interviews, Voight and the director of the film, Christopher Cain ("Young Guns"), said they believe the film is not an attack on Mormonism, but on religiously inspired terrorism, and they highlight the fact that the Mountain Meadows massacre took place on Sept. 11 (in 1857) to make their point.

"I started running into parallels with the world we're living in today," Cain said. "You ask yourself, what causes a 20-year-old kid to put a bomb on his back. The religious fanatical world pushes you to that point, and it's not the religion, but the specific input of specific leaders at specific times."

Voight offered a similar assessment, saying "I saw this immediately as something relevant to today, because religious fanaticism has erupted into a plague that we're now facing."

But the Mormon world is watching warily.

"This is a bit of salacious trash, designed to sensationalize a terribly tragic event and horrible atrocity as well as to exploit current anti-Mormon and anti-religious sentiment that seems to be sweeping through popular culture," said Gene A. Sessions, chairman of the history department at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

The film is so unrelentingly negative in its depiction of 19th-century Mormons that conservative talk show host Michael Medved complained in USA Today last week that the film heaps "cinematic scorn" on Mormonism, and declared that, "it's unthinkable that filmmakers would ever depict Mohammed and his followers as viciously as they handle Brigham Young in 'September Dawn.' "

With the release date just a few weeks before the 150th anniversary of the massacre, the film is sure to increase discussion of the ugliest episode in Mormon history at a time when the growing faith is eagerly trying to move beyond its controversial past.

The facts of the massacre are no longer in dispute: On Sept. 11, 1857, a group of Mormon men in southern Utah led the slaughter of about 120 unarmed people, many of them women and children, who were traveling by wagon train from Arkansas to California. Mormons at the time were bracing for war with the United States and fearful of a repetition of the violent persecutions they had endured on their trek west, but the church no longer cites those factors as excuses for what happened.

The massacre is the subject of increasing scholarly inquiry -- the Mormon History Association this year offered a field trip to Mountain Meadows in conjunction with its annual convention -- and there is a polarizing debate over whether or not Brigham Young, who at the time was serving as president of the church and governor of the Utah territory, authorized the massacre.

The church, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says Young was not informed about the massacre in advance, and a new study by LDS scholars agrees. But the film, which offers a harsh portrayal of Young (using Young's own words as recorded in various writings), strongly suggests that Young gave at least tacit approval to the massacre before it happened.

The film, of course, is being released at a time of increasing attention to Mormonism in the political sphere, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon, is a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency. Romney is doing well thus far -- last weekend he easily won the Ames, Iowa, straw poll -- but his campaign is dogged by the question of whether Americans are prepared to vote for an adherent of a church that many view with skepticism or disdain.

Voight, while critical of the Mormon leadership depicted in the film, offers high praise for Romney, who he believes would be tough on religiously inspired violence.

"When we made this film, Mitt Romney was not on the horizon, and we had no idea there was going to be a Mormon running for president -- he's a good guy, and this certainly isn't meant to diminish his candidacy," Voight said. "This is relevant to what's going on today with religious fanaticism and Islamic fanatics today, a theocratic totalitarian movement that is pernicious and dangerous and not unlike what happened in '38 with Adolf Hitler. Mitt Romney is very clear about this enemy, and he's one of those fellows that we can count on to understand what we're facing at this time."

Michael Paulson can be reached at