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.