This much is beyond question: In 1857, a band of Mormons killed 120 men, women, and children who were passing through southern Utah on their way to California. The attack was unprovoked and unjustified. Despite the direct involvement of numerous Mormon men, only one was ever convicted and executed for it.
Those are the facts. The big question is: Were the Mormons acting on Brigham Young’s orders? Was this an official church-endorsed activity, or were the murderers rogue agents who acted independently of their leaders’ instructions?
Historians have debated both sides of that issue for 150 years and will probably continue to do so for another 150. But as far as director Christopher Cain is concerned, the matter is closed. In “September Dawn,” his asinine chunk of Mormonsploitation that mixes historical fact with fictional romance and bald-faced anti-Mormon prejudice, he declares that Brigham Young knew of the attack, endorsed the attack, and later lied about it under oath.
Cain’s justification for thinking this is all over the film. Of course the Mormons would do this, because that’s the kind of people the Mormons are! Paranoid, secretive, benighted, violent, and spacey. There is no indication that the Mormons at hand were simply a misguided subsection, a zealous and murderous anomaly. Instead, Cain portrays all Mormons — at least the ones in 1857; no telling what he thinks of them now — as delusional, brainwashed, and just plain weird.
What he has done, with a screenplay he co-wrote with Carole Whang Schutter, is to take a factual structure and fill it with completely wrong details. The basics — the massacre, some of the character names — are accurate. The smaller points — the motives, the reasons, the doctrine — are all wrong. The Mormons portrayed here don’t act, talk, or pray the way real Mormons do or ever did. The local bishop, Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight), is stern and emotionless, dedicated to seeking out evil and punishing those who indulge in it. Every indication is that this is how Mormon bishops are supposed to be: His own son, upon hearing of a Protestant minister who is kindly and loving, can’t fathom such behavior from an ecclesiastical leader.
Now, I’m not going to say there’s never been a bishop like Jacob Samuelson. There are aberrations in any system. But someone as coldly, hilariously evil as this guy would obviously be the exception, not the rule. I have to think a non-Mormon watching this film would realize that. I mean, you’d have to have had NO contact with Mormons EVER to think that this is really what they’re all about.
And that’s how Cain has shot himself in the foot. Here he wanted to make a movie with which to share his hatred of Mormonism. (At least I assume that was his purpose. Watching the film, I really can’t see any other motive.) But then he goes overboard with the demonizing — the creepy unison chanting, the strange and unseemly religious practices — and turns it into an unintentional farce that surely will not be taken seriously by anyone.
It doesn’t help that the acting, dialogue, and story structure are really bad, too.
Cain centers the film around a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Jonathan Samuelson (Trent Ford) the bishop’s son, and Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope) the preacher’s daughter. She’s with the wagon train heading to California that has stopped in Mormon territory for a couple weeks to rest and gather supplies.
Bishop Samuelson has charged Jonathan and his brother, Micah (Taylor Handley), with keeping an eye on the strangers. Bishop is suspicious of them for two reasons: Some of them are from Missouri, where the Mormons faced a lot of unjust persecution; and one of their women is wearing pants. On the first night of the visitors’ stay in Mountain Meadows, Cain cuts back and forth between the camp’s evening prayers and Bishop Samuelson’s family’s prayers. The travelers, true Christians indeed, are giving thanks for the Mormons being so kind as to let them stay a couple weeks. Samuelson, meanwhile, is saying, “Curse these children of Satan” and “May they burn in hell.”
Somehow, Cain expected me to watch this bizarre and absurd juxtaposition without laughing out loud. I’m sorry to report that I have failed him in that regard.
Jonathan gets cozy with Emily through his being a horse whisperer, which enables him — in a subplot that takes up way more time than it should — to tame a previously untamable horse owned by the travelers. But being fond of Emily puts him in conflict when his dad announces that, well, all the town’s men are gonna have to get together and murder every last one of those varmints.
His rationale for this, seemingly shared by every single faithful Mormon, is that since these people aren’t Mormons, that means they are wicked, and people who are wicked must be put to death. Some sins aren’t covered by Christ’s atonement and must be paid for in the sinner’s own blood. This principle of “blood atonement” is portrayed as being taught by Brigham Young (who, as played by Terence Stamp, for some reason has a British accent), who says the Mormons have “an obligation to avenge the blood of the prophet” Joseph Smith. Since non-Mormons killed Joseph Smith, that means … we have to kill all non-Mormons in revenge? I guess? So these people’s unpardonable sin is that they are not Mormons?
I’m not really clear on the thinking here, and neither is Cain — and that’s fine with him. He doesn’t need to provide the Mormons with lucid, logical reasons for their murdering; they’re insane zealots, remember?! This is just how they ARE!
There’s some nonsense between Jonathan and his dad over the fact that Jonathan’s mother was killed years ago by some of those “blood atonement” avengers. This was her punishment for not wanting to go be someone else’s polygamous wife. The avengers are hardcore like that. There’s one flashback sequence where they drag an adulterous man outside, cut off his testicles, and nail them to a wall. Cain briefly shows the ball-laden scrotum hanging from the knifepoint, and my only question is why, if he was going to show it, didn’t he find a set of fake gonads that looked more realistic and less like a rubber novelty item? I mean, if it were me, and I wanted to include a pair of severed testicles in my movie — and why wouldn’t I, really? — and this was the best the props department could find, I think that’s where I would start to question just how integral this particular shot was to my overall vision. “Hmm,” I would think. “It’s really, really vital that my film include the image of someone’s ball sac stuck to a wall with a knife. But the only thing my people could produce is comically oversized and disturbingly hairless. What would Spielberg do in this situation?”
But that’s just me. I am not the director here! The director here is Christopher Cain. You will remember him as also having directed such fine films as “Gone Fishin’,” “The Next Karate Kid,” and “Young Guns.”
In closing, I offer my impression of the way this movie establishes its characters and their beliefs:
MORMON: Hey, fellow Mormon, how many wives do you have? I think you should have even more!
JONATHAN: My father has 18 wives! The prophet Brigham Young has 27! We sure do like having many wives, we Mormons do! This is because we are strange and cultish.
BISHOP: All the people who are not Mormons like us deserve to die, because that is God’s will. God is crazy like that.
JONATHAN: What happened to my mother when I was very young? I want to know the truth! Even though it has nothing to do with what we were just talking about, I demand that you discuss this with me now!
MICAH: I marry many wives just because I like having sex with them! I am not in love with any of them. Mormon men do not believe in love. It is one of the many things that makes us so weird.
MORMON: Let’s go to the temple and perform bizarre, outlandish rituals that bear only a passing resemblance to the actual ceremonies of actual Mormons!
EMILY: I am an innocent Christian person who is passing through Utah. I sing Christian hymns at night while the Mormons are cursing me and wishing damnation upon me.
DUMB PERSON WATCHING THE MOVIE: The date of the massacre is September 11, 1857. Oooh… spooky… September 11… OOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH … This is ironic, but only because I don’t know what “ironic” means. The word I’m really looking for is “coincidental.” But I can’t help it! I’m dumb! Those Mormons sure are creepy!
D (1 hr., 50 min.; )