September Dawn

2007, Movie, R, 110 mins

Review

SEPTEMBER DAWN
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Inspired by true events, this poky but reasonably accurate portrayal of what came to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre throws some much-needed light on a 150-year-old crime: the merciless slaughter of an estimated 120 unarmed emigrant men, women and children by members of the Mormon Church.

September, 1857. Led by well-to-do Arkansas landowner Captain Alexander Fancher (Shaun Johnston), who'd already established a new home in California, a wagon train of close to 140 settlers is crossing the Utah Territory en route to California when they're diverted into an idyllic valley known locally as Mountain Meadows. Rich in gold, cattle and fine Kentucky horses, the wealthy emigrants are greeted somewhat warily by General Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight), a bishop of the Mormon Church and general of the local militia. Though scandalized by the appearance of outspoken Nancy Dunlap (Lolita Davidovich), who carries a gun, dresses in buckskin and rides like a man, Bishop Samuelson grants the group permission to rest and graze their livestock on Mormon land for no more than two weeks; he also assures them they'll be safe from hostile Indians. But like many Church members, the bishop distrusts outsiders, particularly those who hail from former Mormon promised-land Missouri, where founder Joseph Smith was shot to death by an angry mob 11 years earlier. Samuelson heads to Salt Lake City to consult with church president Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), recently appointed governor of the Utah territories. Young, who's both pathologically paranoid and unwavering in his conviction that he's been chosen by God to rule the Southwest, is certain that the Mormons are on the verge of annihilation and warns that President Buchanan has sent thousands of U.S. troops to destroy all Mormons so he can hand over their kingdom to the hated "Mericats" — the Mormon term for Americans. The Arkansas travelers at Mountain Meadows are clearly harbingers of destruction, and need to be dealt with. Against this tense backdrop, a love story involving Arkansas emigrant Emily (Tamara Hope) and Jonathan Samuelson (Trent Ford), the bishop's son, unfolds.

Writer-director Christopher Cain — father of actor Dean Cain, who appears briefly in flashback as Joseph Smith — pulls no punches in depicting the leaders of these 19th-century sectarians as hate-filled, authoritarian zealots little different from contemporary fundamentalist terrorists. In one early scene, the beatific Christian minister asks the Lord to bless the bishop who's kindly allowed them to rest in his beautiful valley, while the bishop is seen cursing the "Gentile dogs" and offering up a prayer that they all be damned to hell. Samuelson and his sons are fictionalizations, but many of the unpleasant details about the Mormon Church's sordid roots are all too true: "celestial marriage," aka polygamy; the fearsome, night-riding Danites, who were marauders used by Church leadership to cleanse the Church of evils through "blood atonement" — murder by ritualized throat slitting — and Young's depiction as an uneducated demagogue who ruled through terror and intimidation. Most significant and contrary to the Mormon Church's ongoing position, the film depicts Young as present when the plot is hatched to slaughter the emigrants. Needless to say, this workmanlike but unflinching film won't be playing in Utah anytime soon. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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