Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Terence Stamp, Tamara Hope
Directed by Christopher Cain
Rated R for Violence
Even before you buy a ticket, September Dawn begs this fundamental question: who is the audience for this movie? And just as significantly: what is the point?
In brief, September Dawn is the motion picture depiction of a handful of Mormons who, on September 11, 1857, murdered 120 men, women, and children of the Fancher-Baker Party in the peaceful meadowlands of Southern Utah in an incident that came to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. For decades, Mormon historians and church leaders buried the incident, scapegoating an adopted son of church leader Brigham Young--John D. Lee, blaming the incident on the Paiute Indians, and denying all, or even any, culpability in the events of that fateful day.
As with many historical depictions, this film takes liberties that mar the lines between known facts and blurry suppositions. While the filmmakers state upfront that this motion picture is "Inspired by Actual Events", it contrives characters and events that add little to the value of the actual telling of a story so dramatic and heinous, it still isn't fully clear what happened that day, why it happened, and who did or didn't know about it or ordered the slaughter.
Especially disturbing are the following points:
- The depiction of Joseph Smith's last days, which include Voight's character, Jacob Samuelson. In particular, Samuelson's presence at the murder of Joseph Smith. It is a known fact that the only people with Smith in Carthage Jail that night were his brother, Hyrum, and their associates, Willard Richards and John Taylor.
- The lack of notable female Mormon characters. Aside from a brief glimpse of the wives and children of the fictional Samuelson, a passing glance of a woman crossing the family courtyard between the Samuelson house and the barn, and three women in a temple reenactment scene, there are no Mormon women of significance in this film and, of those that are portrayed, none speak except in the temple scene. And then, they're only repeating ritual liturgy.
- A gratuitous scene featuring Mormon temple rituals, including ritual clothing and liturgy, that added nothing to the content of the movie. The worst part of this scene was the use of outdated liturgy that included an oath of vengeance and "blood atonement" on those who were not Mormons. (Granted, Mormons did, at one time, swear oaths of vengeance and sought to avenge the death of Joseph Smith. However, these oaths have been removed from all temple liturgy and are no longer sworn by faithful Mormons.) Even though I am no longer active in my faith and haven't participated in temple in almost a decade, I bristle at inappropriate depictions of rituals that have meaning for people of faith. This scene added nothing of value to the film.
- The daughter of a preacher traveling with the Fancher-Baker party who is a 19th century girl with 21st century ideas. This tool was used to show the sometimes backward thinking of Mormons (and yes, most of their ideas on the roles of women in the church are definitely archaic), but it was done in such a manner that the contrast between this young woman's intellectual and spiritual prowess and Jonathon Samuelson's blind faith and rote religiosity leave both characters as little more than one dimensional, flat parodies.
All that to ask once again: who is the audience for this movie?
It certainly isn't present-day Mormons. There isn't any more information they can glean from this that they haven't already had from the Church--even as spotty and flawed as that information has been. For true believing Mormons, this movie will do little more than incite ire and disgust.
It can't be historians or scholars, because any academician of credibility--with the exception of the folks at FARMS (the apologetics arm of Mormon academia)--will tell you the information surrounding the events leading up to Mountain Meadows is incomplete and comprised of supposition and probabilities. Yes, Brigham Young was extremely vitriolic in his speeches and ruled his people with an iron hand. He also made no bones about wishing to eradicate not only those who killed Joseph Smith, but their descendants as well. But, did he actually order the massacre in so many words? We'll likely never know with absolute certainty. The movie, on the other hand, makes that dubious claim with little apology or compunction.
It can't be political pundits and journalists, who salivate at the very possibility of finding any little tidbit that can be attached to a political candidate seeking public office. In this case, some critics speculate that Christopher Cain & Co. are looking to throw a disparaging light on presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. While I'm certainly no fan of Romney and have no intention of voting for him, it's pedantic to think that a movie about an historical event 150 years ago would torpedo the candidacy of a Mormon. That would be akin to accusing John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, of somehow being indirectly responsible, but nevertheless guilty-by-association, for the reprehensible acts condoned by the Holy See over the centuries. It's just silly.
If this movie is targeted at a mainstream audience, then September Dawn is "sound and fury, signifying nothing" insofar as your average American is concerned. What little mainstream America understands about Mormonism to begin with--factual or not--is so far removed from what happened at Mountain Meadows, its akin to explaining the three degrees of glory, or heaven, Mormons believe in upon first meeting and discussing religious beliefs with a non-Mormon. In other words, it's so far out there, it doesn't even register with many run-of-the-mill Mormons. Ergo, it's hardly likely to register as even momentarily significant for someone who isn't LDS.
That said, it doesn't take away from the fact that what happened on this "other September 11th" (and, oh by the way, Voight, in an interview in the Weekly Standard, makes no bones about drawing parallels between the September 11th of 1857 and September 11th as we understand it today) was heinous, unnecessary, and tragic. It doesn't diminish the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made every effort to bury the incident--and not just for years, but for more than a century. And it doesn't lessen the legitimate queries about who knew and how the orders were given.
Sadly, this movie wasn't what it could have been. Then again, I'm not sure what it could be, other than a documentary. Instead, September Dawn is a gratuitous, vulgar, disingenuous flim flam.
To read more reviews about September Dawn, visit these sites:
- Roger Ebert
- Deadline Hollywood Daily
- The Rotten Tomato
- Wikipedia (Reception)
- New York Newsday
- The Village Voice
- The Salt Lake Tribune (One and Two)
- The Washington Post (One, Two, and Three)
- September Dawn: News & Reviews
Photo courtesy of Google Images.