Directed by Christopher Cain. Starring Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Terence Stamp, Lolita Davidovich, Dean Cain, Jon Gries, Taylor Handley, Krisinda Cain, Shaun Johnston. (2006, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 31, 2007
Oy, what a mess. This movie, "inspired" by real events, reeks of ulterior motives, yet even these unstated objectives are obscured by slack filmmaking choices and a silly Romeo-and-Juliet love story that's pushed front and center. There's even room for a horse whisperer to grab the spotlight for a while. The movie presents the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre of Sept. 11, 1857, in which some 120 California-bound settlers are murdered by Mormon zealots near Cedar City, Utah, after being duped by the Mormon leadership into camping for a spell in their open meadows. The event remains highly contentious as the Mormon hierarchy denies to this day that leader Brigham Young (who is played quite memorably here by Stamp) had any knowledge or involvement in the massacre of the "gentiles." September Dawn, however, portrays quite clearly that the order for the massacre came directly from Young (who, of course, received his instructions from the mouth of God) – a point that is not likely to win the film any box-office numbers in Utah. So a viewer might naturally wonder what beef director Cain and screenwriter Carole Whang Schutter have with the Mormon faith and why the filmmakers have such a driving need to set the record straight. Also, though it is never referred to, the echo of the September 11 date haunts the movie, and it seems as though the filmmakers want to make a point about the fatal excesses of religious zealotry. All this might be more effective if the Mormons were not portrayed as simplistic "evildoers." They lie, loot, indoctrinate, and trick – all with a self-righteous demeanor and literal black hats. Voight, now flagrantly in the what-the-hell-was-he-thinking phase of his career, plays the fictional bishop and patriarch who is responsible for the massacre as a true believer with the blackest of hearts. His son Jonathan (Ford) becomes smitten at first sight with Emily (Hope), a girl in the wagon train – to the extent that his love wipes out a lifetime of indoctrination. The film becomes as callow as the clandestine young lovers, while it focuses lingering attention on the pair and their turmoil and triumphs (i.e., horse-whispering). Muddled, sloppy, and obfuscating, September Dawn indeed brings a tragic event in American history to the forefront, although in its telling, the film is unlikely to win any converts.