Culture > Movies

Dawn doesn't rise

Movies | Ham-handed account of Mormon murderers proves shallow

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

September Dawn chronicles a shocking, if little-known event in Mormon history. Rated R for violence, the film recounts how a band of Mormons slaughtered some 120 wagon train settlers passing through Mountain Meadows, Utah, in 1857.

The massacre is historical fact, coming after Mormons had been driven out of Missouri and had resettled in Utah under Brigham Young's headship. What remains unclear is if Young ordered the attack, apparently a blind act of revenge because the California-bound settlers were Missourian. The Mormon church says not; the filmmakers say yes and depict Young (Terence Stamp) as present while leaders planned the assault. Beyond this point, the film itself has a gratingly sentimental, made-for-TV feel that is both ham-handed and bland.

Writer-director Christopher Cain bludgeons his viewers in contrasting the Mormons' evilness with the settlers' lamb-like innocence. When flint-eyed local leader Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) says grace by cursing the settlers, the scene cuts to the settlers' clergyman praying for blessings on the Mormons. By the time we get to the fight scene, and see slow-motion drool flying from a militiaman's mouth, you want to cry, "OK, we get it. The Mormons are bloodthirsty."

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Tangling the plot is a fictional and unnecessary love story between Samuelson's son Jonathan (Trent Ford) and wagon trail girl Emily (Tamara Hope). The two bicker coyly about love at first sight and why Mormons call the settlers "Gentiles." That's a question the film never answers adequately, along with other faulty Mormon theological points. Though there is much belligerent Young talk and Mormon lingo, it remains mysterious and obscure.

For modern viewers, Cain's parallels to modern-day terrorism will be unmistakable. The massacre occurred on Sept. 11 and Cain uses a quote in which Joseph Smith calls himself a "second Muhammad." September Dawn might irritate Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, but the film is probably too shallow to do more.

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