Mormon massacre story "September Dawn" mixes fact, fiction
The mix of poetry and polemics in "September Dawn" presents a series of puzzlements. In fact, it's often downright disturbing trying to...
Special to The Seattle Times
"September Dawn," with Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Gries, Shaun Johnston, Lolita Davidovich, Dean Cain, Terence Stamp. Directed by Christopher Cain, from a script by Christopher Cain, Carole Whang Schutter.
110 minutes. Rated R for violence.
The mix of poetry and polemics in "September Dawn" presents a series of puzzlements. In fact, it's often downright disturbing trying to determine the dominant theme. It's a movie that aims for romantic historical drama; factual representation of a little-known 19th-century tragedy that befell pioneers on a westward expedition; and a bigoted screed against one of the world's newest, most misunderstood and distinctly American religions.
The events portrayed are a partially fictionalized version of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. On Sept. 11, 1857, 120 California-bound settlers from Arkansas were slaughtered in the verdant high country south of Salt Lake City by a small group of Mormon inhabitants and a few Paiute Indians under their sway.
This well-documented incident has always been a thorn in the side of the Mormon church, especially intimations that Brigham Young, then president of the church and territorial governor of Utah, ordered the killings. The movie does a fine job of staging and executing horrifying scenes that depict the established facts of the event. It also takes the clear position that Young (played by Terence Stamp with chilling gravitas) did give the command, however oblique, for "blood atonement" of the "Gentile" settlers crossing Mormon territory.
Despite theocratic elements that come unnervingly close to the spirit of Mormon-bashing, "September Dawn" is a mildly effective dramatic tale of period Western strife. What fails is the interjection of a "Romeo and Juliet" subplot that undercuts a knife-edge fear that lingered during the standoff between the frightened settlers and their indecisive Mormon besiegers.
The fictionalized character of Bishop Jacob Samuelson is played by Jon Voight, who gives much soul and spirit to a man plagued by the uncertainty of pragmatism and the certainty of his faith. His elder son, Jonathan (Trent Ford) falls for one of the settler girls and sneaks into their circled wagon camp, ever more doubtful of the wisdom his Mormon elders hold as godly dogma. The doomed love story resonates only slightly when the inevitable happens, and an unfortunate strain of melodrama creeps in with the psychotic behavior of a younger brother who blindly follows the famous killing order of "Do your duty!"
Religious and thematic issues aside, "September Dawn" is well-crafted as a revisionist Western with a message. If the message is muddled, there's plenty of literature to clear the facts — or to make the matter even more bewildering for those seeking truth.
Ted Fry: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article originally published on August 24, 2007 was corrected on August 27, 2007. The location of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre was described incorrectly in a review of the film "September Dawn" in Friday's Ticket/Movie Times. The killings took place south of Salt Lake City, not north.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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