U.S. Release Date:
August 24, 2007
Distributor: Slowhand Cinema
Composer: William Ross
Cast: Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Lolita Davidovich, Dean Cain, Terence Stamp
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (violence)
One hundred forty-four years to the day before religious fundamentalists went throat-slitting through passenger jets screaming "God is great!" in a diabolical attack, faith-based radicals slit throats in a covered wagon massacre at Mountain Meadows, Utah, the subject of the independent movie, September Dawn. It is an engrossing dramatization of one of history's countless religious acts of war.
What happened on September 11, 1857, is best left to historians and it's depicted here in terms of essentials. Of course, the massacre remains controversial at the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, the name of the Mormons' Utah-based church. The sanction of mass murder by then-Mormon President Brigham Young, significantly, is denied by the leading Republican contender for President of the United States, Mitt Romney, a Mormon.
The modest, melodramatic September Dawn, directed by Christopher Cain (Young Guns), is limited by its theme that any idea consistently applied—so-called extremism—is wrong. This precludes the picture from a deeper examination of the ideas held by 19th century Mormons, who were denounced as cultists and forced out of Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. Instead, with a Romeo and Juliet love story, Cain, who co-wrote the script, adopts a broad approach.
The romantic framing device works on a B-movie level, putting carefree Jonathan (Trent Ford), who has his doubts about Mormonism, and brave pioneer girl Emily (Tamara Hope) in love at first sight. The actors are fine, especially Ford, who takes the stale dialog up a notch.
Jonathan, whose father is a bishop, is sufficiently appealing. It's in him that one becomes invested, since, once it's clear what the believers have in mind for the California-bound settlers, whom they regard as non-believers, September Dawn is filled with a sense of dread that's awful and realistic. Jonathan, who can tame the wildest horse, and guiltless Emily, who isn't afraid to speak up, represent the spirit of rugged, secular individualism.
They're up against true religionists, played by old pros Jon Voight (Transformers) as Jonathan's bishop dad and Terence Stamp (Superman II) in the picture's most striking performances—with the right mix of grit and rage. Capturing tight-fisted Puritanism, threatened and aroused by Lolita Davidovich as an independent, confident wagonmaster, the church elders slither into ruthlessly practicing what they so delicately preach. John Gries portrays a bloodlusting Mormon and director Cain's son, Dean Cain (TV's Superman), appears as Mormon founder Joseph Smith.
As the non-Mormon travelers—crossing southern Utah, still a guarded journey for outsiders—reluctantly follow Mormon orders to stay put and set up camp, tension builds and one begins to wonder: how is this going to unfold—and, as one grows horrified at the inevitable outcome, the massacre is no less involving. Admonitions to become God's chosen instrument of death and to kill out of duty are gruesomely accepted.
With sprawling landscapes, subplots about brothers and mothers and more stock Western types than an episode of Gunsmoke, September Dawn will not be confused with The Searchers. The lines—including having "a bad feeling about this"—are as conventional as the movie's slow motion attack scenes.
But September Dawn is engaging, introducing insidiously evil ideas and letting them linger, with menacing Mr. Voight whispering that "not even your closest wives must know" what's about to occur or a religious leader commanding a follower to cut someone's throat. That the wagons, with 120 innocent men, women and children, were at once enshrouded and trapped without detection, seems frightfully credible. "Obey without question," one of the religionists urges; Christopher Cain's September Dawn adequately demonstrates what happens when people do.