Revisiting an ugly chapter of US history
"September Dawn" commemorates the Mountain Meadows Massacre of Sept. 11, 1857, in which a party of Mormon militiamen murdered 120 settlers bound for California. True believers probably won't like it, but the sins here are more against good filmmaking than religion. Can a moviegoer ask for blood atonement along with a ticket refund?
All right, the movie isn't that bad -- it's just made-for-TV historical treacle that has somehow found its way to the big screen (and barely that; if you want to be moved or outraged by the film, you'll have to travel to Danvers or Revere). Director/co-writer Christopher Cain tells the tale ploddingly, and the script he has written with Carole Whang Schutter hits one cliched note after another with a dull bong.
The facts are these: In 1857, the Mormon faithful under Brigham Young had reached a pitch of near-complete paranoia. Following the murder of founder Joseph Smith in Missouri, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had relocated to Utah. Church leader Young served as territorial governor until revelations of Mormon polygamy prompted Washington to rescind the appointment and send troops to restore the infant theocracy to US control.
The Utah Mormons were convinced they were about to be wiped out. End-times beliefs and a justified persecution complex combined to create a mindset of Branch Davidian proportions -- and into this tinderbox rode the Fancher-Baker wagon train. As soon as Captain Fancher (Shaun Johnston) informs the LDS greeting party in "September Dawn" that his pioneers are from Missouri, we know they're doomed.
After a joint siege of the wagon train by a Mormon militia and local Native American tribesmen, the former lured the settlers out under a white flag -- then shot men, women, and children in cold blood. Twenty years later, after the Civil War had come and gone, one of the ringleaders, John D. Lee, was found guilty and executed. Brigham Young's involvement has been rumored but never proven.
That doesn't stop Cain and Schutter. They wheel on a wild-eyed Young (Terence Stamp) delivering bloody-minded lines taken from the church leader's actual sermons. The major villain of the piece, though, is the fictional Jacob Samuelson, played by a bewhiskered Jon Voight as if he were auditioning for a road-show production of "Gods and Generals." (Between this and "Bratz," it's been a lousy month for the actor.)
As Samuelson is fomenting against the infidels ("May these children of Satan go to Hell, amen," is his way of saying grace), his son Jonathan (Trent Ford) is falling for pretty Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope) of the Fancher party. This deeply unnecessary Romeo-and-Juliet subplot takes up a good chunk of running time, as the two frolic in the moonlit river and argue adorably over theology.
Hope turns in the movie's only convincing performance, although Jon Gries (Uncle Rico from "Napoleon Dynamite"!) is unexpectedly compelling as John D. Lee, here presented as a scapegoat who carried out the will of a maddened people. The massacre itself is a dutifully filmed barbarity, reenacted with balletic slow-motion and discreet fake blood. Then we're back to the lovers and their final passion play.
It's waxy Classics Illustrated cinema, in other words, with special cameos by the director's son, Dean Cain, as the martyred Joseph Smith and Lolita Davidovich ("Blaze") as a rootin' tootin' emigrant who shocks the Mormon elders. "September Dawn" wants to shock them, too, and us in the bargain, but it only serves to remind us of one of the uglier chapters in American history. For the details, find a book.