It is unprecedented — or close to it — that a writer needs to disclose his affiliations before reviewing a film, but “September Dawn” presents such a situation. So here it goes: I have no connection with the Mormon Church, and neither sympathize with it nor oppose it.
From that “neutral” point of view, “September Dawn” appears a sandwich of a film, with a purpose on top, a biased view on the bottom, and a poorly made movie in-between.
This meant-to-be controversial film about another shameful 9/11, a Mormon massacre of 120 innocent men, women and children in Utah on Sept.11, 1857, is open about its agenda: “[The Mountain Meadows story] closely resembles the religious fanaticism the world is seeing today. People were killed in the name of God 150 years ago and they’re still being killed in the name of God.” So says the director, Christopher Cain.
Mountain Meadows was the stopping place for a wagon train in 1857 on the Old Spanish Trail from Arkansas (and, the Mormons might have believed, from Missouri, a significant state in church history) on the way to California.
What is an established historical fact is that the Mormon militia, together with Indians pressed into the fight, killed most of the would-be settlers in cold blood.
“September Dawn” mentions in passing some of the many factors involved — such as the killing of church-founder Joseph Smith by a mob in an Illinois jail, the Mormons’ fear of federal troops moving against them — and yet the entire film is a blanket indictment of the church. People on the wagon train are uniformly kind, decent and wonderful; the Mormon leadership is consistently and grossly evil. It’s not a matter of good people turning bad, but rather a boring straight line from expected evil to actual one.
Jon Voight, playing the Mormon bishop zealot who instigated the massacre, is mean, bitter and murderous. Terence Stamp, as Brigham Young, doesn’t fare much better. There is no mention of Young speaking against robbing — much less killing — emigrant trains.
Of all the Mormons, only one (fictitious) character has any redeeming value. Trent Ford is the handsome, intelligent son of the bishop and does impossibly heroic deeds that you see telegraphed from a mile away.
Predictable, obvious, often silly, with a painfully poor script (“I curse the Gentiles, grrrrr!”), “September Dawn” doesn’t so much expose fanaticism as lays an egg in a fanatical crusade of its own.
September Dawn *
Starring Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Terence Stamp, Lolita Davidovich, Dean Cain
Written by Christopher Cain, Carole Whang Schutter
Directed by Christopher Cain
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes