September Dawn

Movie Information

The Story: A fact-based, highly colored account of the 1857 massacre, by paranoid fanatical Mormons, of a wagon train on its way to California. The Lowdown: Bad filmmaking conspires with bad acting and dubious history to create an alarmingly grotesque film.
Score:

Genre: Religio-Historical Western With Additions
Director: Christopher Cain
Starring: Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Shaun Johnston, Terence Stamp, Lolita Davidovich
Rated: R

Jon Voight continues in his apparent effort to prove that he’s the heir apparent to both Bela Lugosi and John Carradine in the realm of career sense. Just when you thought that Bratz simply had to represent the nadir of his acting choices, along comes September Dawn to prove you wrong. Except for the fact that almost no one will ever see this, er, remarkable film, career-wise it’s the cinematic equivalent of playing Russian roulette with six loaded chambers.

September Dawn purports to tell the story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre that took place in Utah Territory in 1857. Between Sept. 7 and Sept. 11 of that year, approximately 120 people—men, women and children—traveling in a wagon train headed to California were killed by a group of Mormons. That much appears to be history. However, filmmaker Christopher Cain—seeing the date Sept. 11 dancing before his allegory-dazzled eyes—goes way beyond history into the realm of speculation, rumor, myth and gossip, which he presents as historical fact.

While historians are divided on exactly what role Mormon leader and then territorial governor Brigham Young played in the event, Cain and his cowriter, Carole Whang Schutter, have decided that Young orchestrated the massacre out of a combination of religious zeal and paranoia concerning the U.S. government. The point is that this might be true, but it also might not. Choosing to present it as fact guarantees the film a certain tabloid-esque controversy, of course, but it’s a dubious choice that makes the movie play as little more than wild-eyed anti-Mormon propaganda.

Not content to leave matters there, the duo has also created a wholly fictional villain, Bishop Jacob Samuelson (Voight), and his equally fictional son, Jonathan (Trent Ford, The Island). The son falls in love with wagon-train “gentile” (gentiles being any non-Mormon white folks) Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope, Shall We Dance), speculative daughter of the wagon train’s speculative religious leader (TV actor Daniel Libman). The romance is apparently intended to give the film a kind of Mormono and Gentilette quality. In reality, it merely affords an excuse to indulge in a lot of sappy greeting-card imagery that makes the end result look like a Fox Faith or Hallmark production with R-rated atrocities tacked onto it.

The bulk of the film—those parts not inflicted with Jonathan the “horse whispering” Mormon (I swear I am not making this up) and Emily the pioneer girl, so freakishly white that she must have invented sunscreen—is given over to the rampagingly vile villainy of Bishop Samuelson and Governor Young. It’s a darn good thing that period-piece Mormons only opted for those Abe Lincoln beards, because if these boys had mustaches, mustache twirling that would shame Snidely Whiplash would have ensued. The only thing more ludicrous than Terence Stamp as Young in old-age makeup is Terence Stamp as Young in middle-age makeup with a matted-crepe-hair wig that must have been purchased at a Gods and Generals (2003) yard sale.

I must give Stamp his due, though. He at least plays his impossibly written role with low-key—almost sepulchral-toned—dementia. When Stamp’s Young talks about the “quaint” idea of “blood atonement,” the concept is undeniably creepy. When Voight’s Bishop Samuelson takes over, it turns into something reminiscent of Boris Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu. There’s nary a whiff of subtlety about Voight’s performance. But what can you expect when dealing with a role that calls for the character to prattle on about how pioneer woman Nancy Dunlap (Lolita Davidovich) wearing pants is an “abomination,” and requires him to deliver prayers that conclude with, “May these children of Satan go to hell”? This doesn’t make Voight blameless, however, since he obviously agreed to be in this thing.

The film’s other attempts to demonize Mormonism (really, what else can you call this?) are equally as unsubtle (in the manner most closely associated with Dr. Goebbels)—that is, when they’re not just peculiar. I’ve no idea whether or not the movie’s depiction of a secret Latter Day Saint temple ceremony is accurate, but it seems to consist of humiliating the participant by making him dress up as Chef Boyardee. True or not, it’s hardly persuasively sinister. The massacre itself can best be described as half-baked Peckinpah (like the ending of The Wild Bunch minus 60 gallons of blood). The scene reaches a high point of absurdity when a major character dies of a gunshot that magically doesn’t leave a bullet hole in her dress. As if all this weren’t enough, the entire story is told from the perspective of a massacre survivor who was 6 months old at the time of the event!

Ultimately, it’s a toss-up as to whether September Dawn is more offensive as history, as allegory or simply as lousy self-important filmmaking. It hardly matters since on all three levels the movie smells from herring. Rated R for violence.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

16 thoughts on “September Dawn

  1. Dionysis

    I had a hard time getting through this review due to convulsive laughter. This was among the funniest reviews you’ve turned out yet. I’m almost tempted to see the movie just for the inadvertent humor it clearly engenders. Too much.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Thank you! I’m not sure I’d really suggest sitting through the movie, though its amusement value is significant — in a grim way.

    However, in case anyone is seriously tempted to do so, I should note that there was a last minute change in the listings that will be reflected in the online edition on Friday, but which happened too late to make the print edition of the paper. SEPTEMBER DAWN will only be playing at 4:00 and 9:00 p.m. starting Friday.

  3. Ray

    I saw the movie. Read the available histories on the web (the lack of significant input by the Mormon Church is telling…other than “we didn’t do it!!” being maintained to this day.) and, must ask the inevitable question…”Is the reviewer a Mormon Elder?”
    The movie is reasonably true to the history that is out there…even to the existence of an exceptional horse. Voight’s part as Samuelson (Isaac Haight is the real person) is believable in that one must under stand that the closer you get to the Icon (B. Young) the more fanatic you become in maintaining the illusion. The character of his son and the “love interest” is entirely “Hollywood”. Eminently dismissible. There are published eye witness accounts (the executioners should have lowered the age to 4 years old rather than 8.) in quantity and dispersion (so they could not compare answers) to support the historicity of the movie.

  4. Ken Hanke

    First off, the idea that I am a Mormon Elder is pretty funny. And I suspect the same could be said of the 36 other (out of a total of 44) reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes who tore into this film.

    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/september_dawn/

    I have no pro-Mormon axe to grind, but that doesn’t keep the film from being frothing-at-the-mouth propaganda. Yes, the movie has a basis in reality, but it plays pretty fast and loose with that reality. Personally, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Brigham Young was in on it, but I have found no reference that proves that. The film states it as fact. Why did the filmmakers (or the woman who wrote the novel) find it necessary to change Isaac Haight into Bishop Samuelson? Or is Samuelson a composite character? If so, why? Why graft on the silly romance at all? Why have the whole thing told from the point of view of a six month old baby? So much of the movie is grounded in speculation and running wild with the known facts that it becomes impossible to take seriously.

  5. Orbit DVD

    Ok, so we now have a triple feature of SEPTEMBER DAWN, LAST LEGION and I KNOW WHO KILLED ME. What theater has the guts to do all three?

    marc

  6. Ken Hanke

    Sounds like a Walk-in Theatre Dusk to Dawn show in the making to me.

    As for the bumper sticker idea…first off, it would confuse folks (all I do all day on Sunday is review movies), but worse than that I fear a serious dose of karmic retribution. About 20 years ago I had a friend who was a Mormon and he had this bumper sticker proclaiming “Proud to be a Mormon.” Well, a piece of black electrical tape over that second “m” amused the hell out of me. He found it less mirthsome. In any case, I can just see some wag (there’s a term you don’t see everyday anymore) making the same alteration on the proposed bumper sticker…

  7. Jeff Markham

    “the lack of significant input by the Mormon Church is telling…other than “we didn’t do it!!” being maintained to this day.”

    I beg to differ. Below is a link to an article from this month’s issue of the Ensign (an official publication of the LDS church) which outlines a very detailed overview of the incident. After reading this, along with other versions of events, it is easy for me to see how an event like this could have happened at this time. Local mormon leaders and members were clearly involved to a significant degree.

    You can also go to LDS.ORG and search for “Mountain Meadow” and find the article.

    The problem with history is that it can easily be sifted and filtered through many different prisms. A lack of complete information causes people to fill in blanks in the historical record as they see fit. Kind of like how your brain draws lines where they are not in certain optical illusions.

    I don’t know all the facts surrounding the intentions of those who committed this atrocity, but as a life-long member of the LDS church, I do not attribute violence to my belief system, and hearing that this movie attempts to portray a religious justification for the murder of innocent people is preposterous. Individual mormons may be wacky, but this is more a reflection of the general tendency of humans to be wacky, rather than an attribute reserved exclusively for mormons.

    On a more practical note, attempting to directly implicate Brigham Young is also rather problematic, since he was in a distant city, three-days away by horse back. That doesn’t stop people from trying, but it really is funny to see how hard they strain do it.

    Bottom line: this movie doesn’t appear to add much of value to the discussion. (Full disclosure: haven’t seen it, don’t want to.) Its poor performance at the box office will seal its ultimate fate–slightly less monumental than Glitter. Your review couldn’t have said it better (or funnier).

    http://www.lds.org/portal/site/LDSOrg/menuitem.b12f9d18fae655bb69095bd3e44916a0/?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale;=0&sourceId;=1c234dc029133110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&locale;=0

  8. Byron Marchant

    When I first read your review, the question in my mind was, “…does this reviewer know anything about Mormonism?” Of course you don’t, or at least very little. For example (and the answer to this is obvious) have you ever been in a Mormon temple ceremony where they have all their hand signs and make their promises about “blood atonements,” etc.? If you had been, you would know that what was in the movie was accurate.

    The one place where the writers fell short was in regard to the reason(s) behind the massacre. Mormon Apostle Parley P. Pratt (one of the original Mormon Apostles) moved to Arkansas in 1856 and on May 13, 1757 (the MM massacre was September 11, 1837), was killed by Hector McLean. Pratt had married Eleanor McLean, Hector’s former wife, and with two other men ambushed Pratt. Probably every Mormon (at least all the priesthood leaders who called the shots) involved in the MMM were personally acquainted with Pratt and the members of the group going to California were, for the most part, from Arkansas.

    Mormonism, then, was a dangerous cult; Mormonism today is a dangerous cult.

  9. Ray

    To: Jeff Markham…”but as a life-long member of the LDS church, I do not attribute violence to my belief system,”…neither does Islam, but…
    And, no I am not equating the two, it just comes to mind. Mormonism, a home-grown USA development, fortunately has not gone to the extremes of Islam in propagating its faith. The spreading of Mormonism is done by humble young missionaries which are a credit to the Mormon system of evangelism.
    To Bryon Merchant: Mormonism maybe a dangerous cult to the Christians who see the Bible as the only source fo the knowledge of God and salvation of the individual. As a physical danger, I would rather be in the company of a Mormon than a Fundmetalist Christian. It wasn’t Islamists, Bhudists, Shintoist or Hindus that killed Joseph Smith.

  10. LandRover

    The ironic thing about this movie is that the producers try to put a religious fanatasicm spin on the whole MMM.
    I will say that I haven’t seen the movie, nor do I plan on it, but I have read the reviews enough to see where John/Christopher Cain & Co. are coming from. They’re not trying to help bring people closer to God (as they may see it); they are just trying to bash the LDS Church.
    Rarely is anything as “black-and-white” in real life as this movie wants one to think of the MMM. However, all the LDS (Mormon) roles are demonized in the movie.
    Apparently, all the persecution in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois against the LDS, as well as the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, are given little mention.
    Yet Cain & Co. fail to mention these things about the Church’s history and try to offend and put down any believers/follwers in it. I, too am LDS and served a mission. I’ve read anti-Mormon literature and have found many similarities between that and this movie, such as playing down or not mentioning what happened to the LDS in Kirtland (OH), Missouri, and Nauvoo (IL).
    True, many members of the LDS Church did kill those unfortunate travellers en route to California. However, many of the LDS congregations throughout Utah lived through the ordeals in Missouri, etc., and didn’t want to go through it again. A pair of local leaders (Isaac Haight and John D. Lee) took it too far and ultimately ordered the attack.
    I do stand by the Church’s view that Brigham Young had nothing to do with the attack, but even if he did, it certainly wouldn’t be pure evil like September Dawn portrays it. It would be more or less out of fear and defense of the people.
    To close, I just want to say that in this day and age of open-mindedness, people learning about the LDS Church, its beleifs, or its members, they need to simply talk to their LDS neighbors and friends. Disagreeing is one thing, but outright saying that an entire group or people or teaching/beleif system is downright wrong evil, or saying that they aren’t to be taken seriously is just plain ignorant.
    To find out about something, don’t simply let others tell you about something; learn about it yourself.

  11. Byron Marchant

    Ray:

    Mormonism is a religion that was invented from the fictional writings of Solomon Spalding and made to correspond with Sidney Rigdon’s religious fanaticism. It is spread today by “humble [ignorant] young missionaries…” and when you learn to spell (my name is Byron Marchant, not Bryon Merchant) and you can gather and express your “facts” in a rational way, maybe we can discuss whether or not Mormonism is all that you seem to believe it is. Until then, I suggest that you consider the possibility that Joseph Smith committed suicide (he was in jail after having committed a crime).

    LandRover:

    What is, really, ironic is that Mormons, like yourself, are always trying to accuse people who discuss your religious fanaticism as though it is Mormon bashing. And they sometimes do it without even making an investigation. That is just a con job. And you, one of the returned Mormon missionaries, remain (by your own admission) ignorant. Joseph Smith was chased out of New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois (and all for good reasons). After the government deals with Warren Jeffs maybe they can get to the real problem and do something about the abuses coming out of 47 East South Temple Mormons (Mormonism’s world headquarters address). If you think that terrorism by Mormons and Mormonism ended with MMM, you are kidding yourself. Your church leaders, including Gordon Hinckley, are criminals. But, of course, someone like you, who believes that Brigham Young had nothing to do with MMM, would naturally dispute this and defend their ignorant position. You, nor anyone else, will ever learn “…about the LDS Church, its beliefs or its members…” by “simply” talking “to their LDS neighbors and friends” (like you). You will lie to them, without even knowing of your lies. Your misguided suggestion is very wise: “To find out about something, don’t simply let others tell you about something; learn about it yourself.”

  12. Jennie B

    Watched the movie at the weekend, great scenery, actors looked the part, easy to understand plot. For goodness sake it was what all movies are supposed to be — entertainment. It said at the start BASED on fact. We all know how loosely that would have been. Why would you expect a budget movie to be War and Peace. It was a time filler for when there was nothing on telly. Entertainment, not meant to make an earth shattering difference to your life. Get a life you guys.

  13. Ken Hanke

    So you’re telling people in an argument that hasn’t been going on for a year to “get a life?”

    You know, really, the idea we all know how loosely based on fact the film is is, I fear, wishful thinking. There are an incredible number of credulous people in the world.

  14. John

    I know this is two years after the fact, but Spualding theory has been discredited. Many times. We can’t go on arguing of course, but the stuff you are saying about Mormons simply isn’t true, Byron. You should look for less biased sources; and you can’t seriously say Mormon persecution was justified.

  15. Byron Marchant

    John,

    Exactly who discredited Spalding/Rigdon? Was it the discredited Fawn M. Brodie or the equally discredited Sandra Tanner (and her deceased husband)? Bring on your “…sources…” and we’ll see.

    Joseph Smith deserved to die, too bad he wasn’t hung from a tree.

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