Dir. Christopher Cain
Starring: Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Gries
It was Joseph Stalin who alledgedly said “One death is a tradgedy; one million deaths is a statistic.” It is hard for people to get their heads around great historical events – the stories have to be humanised. This is the case increasingly in history writing: just this year I have read Anthony Beevor’s D-Day and Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, both of which drew upon the personal testimony of first-hand witnesses. It is even truer in movie-making. How are we expected to understand the drama of the sinking of the Titanic without the relationship between Jack and Rose? How are we expected to understand the horrors of the Great War except through the eyes of a horse? Or, at any rate, those are the questions asked by film company executives. Cinema is sent down the Les Miserables school of history. September Dawn uses an entirely-fictitious love story to bulk out the tale of an all-but-forgotten tragedy: the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857.
A convoy of covered wagons wends its way through Utah en route from Arkansas to California. It is a well equipped and funded party. In the south of the territory they appeal to the locals to let them rest up for a fortnight and reprovision. It is only the intervention of the local Bishop / General Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight, a hell of a lot older than in Deliverance) that allows them to do so. But Samuelson is the leader of the local Mormons and they don’t like these “immigrants”. The prospect of the party’s horses being used for sinful gambling appals them, as does the sight of a woman wearing trousers and wielding guns as if she was a man. There are rumours that the party includes members from Missouri who killed the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (Dean Cain) and forced the Mormons off their land. And troops from the U.S. Army are heading towards Utah; the fear is that the United States government intends to crush the Church of Latter Day Saints. And so the decision is made to destroy this potential fifth column in their lands. The party is attacked by Paiute Indians and local Mormons dressed as Indians. When the party resists they are besieged. Eventually the Mormons intercede under a flag of truce. As the survivors are led away to what they believe will be safety their ‘rescuers’ turn upon them and slaughter them.
Against this background is played out a classic story of forbidden love. Bishop Samuelson’s son Jonathan (Trent Ford) and pastor’s daughter Emily (Tamara Hope) fall in love and pledge to marry each other. Theirs are two radically different worlds colliding – “a world of love and a world of hate” as it is expressed at the start of the film. To be together Jonathan will have to rebel against the rule and the teachings of his father and the Mormon faith.
For in Mormonism, as it is shown here, rule and teaching go hand in hand. Under the governance of Brigham Young (Terrence Stamp) the Utah Territory is to all extent and purposes a theocracy. Being Governor of the Territory goes hand in glove with being President of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Dissent is not tolerated because Young and his ‘Apostles’ are guided directly by God. To go against their decrees is to rebel against God. This is a sin. And in the Mormon faith the only way to expiate sin is “blood atonement”. Whereas Christians believe sins can be atoned for by repenting before God and receiving His grace Mormons believe that sins can only be atoned for by blood and death. Repenting does not matter. Death is atonement.
It is a kindness to kill a sinner.
To be honest, it’s a hatchet job. I have no idea if the events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre are as depicted here, nor if the theological arguments put into the mouths of the Mormon characters are those expressed at the time, but the Mormons do not come out of this film well. Their double-dealing and polygamy (Bishop Samuelson has 18 wives and Brigham Young 27, though it is stated that ideally men should only have three) are the least of their negative traits. They may well have felt persecuted and affronted but the fact of the matter is that a Mormon militia, believing that they were doing good, massacred over a hundred innocent travellers; only seventeen children survived. I always get a bit nervous when I see a film allegedly depicting historical events and I cannot see what bias the film is pushing. Here the contrast is made quite clear. Two scenes are spliced into one another at one point. In one the wagon train’s pastor prays for God to bless the locals who have granted them succour; in the other Bishp Samuelson thanks the Lord for delivering the “Gentiles” into their hands and prays for them to be damned to hell. The date of the final massacre is made quite plain: ‘September 11 1857’. Parallels are being drawn between two massacres of innocent Americans in the name of religious fundamentalism that occurred 144 years apart. The Mormons, in this film, are an enemy of the United States; the implication is that they remain an enemy within.
Whilst taking note of the above, I have to say that the film is not terrible. Historical revisionism can be entertaining as long as the audience goes in with its eyes open: I, for instance, enjoyed U-571. September Dawn is certainly not a great film, but it is competently written and directed, the storyline is clear, as are the contrasts between the two camps. The young actors are engaging and a touch of gravitas is provided by the performances of Terence Stamp and Jon Voight, two holy men that you certainly wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of…
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What have I learnt about Utah?
The Utah depicted in the film is the Utah Territory rather than the State of Utah. As shown it is a stop on the Old Spanish Trail between the Midwest and the boomtowns of Goldrush-era California. Its borders already seem to be fairly well set, and its population is comprised of two groups.
The first group is that of the Mormons. Firm followers of the Church of the Latter Day Saints and its President, Brigham Young, they are paranoid, polygamous, hierarchical, cowed and blood-thirsty zealots. Young combines the role of Church President, Territory Governor and representative to the Indians, combining both spiritual and temporal power.
The second group are the Paiute Indians who live in the woods. They have a relationship with the Mormons who seem to treat them with respect rather than trying to eliminate them. From one comment made in the film it is possible that the Paiutes had converted to Mormonism too.
Can we go there?
Mountain Meadows is located in present-day Washington County in the south-west of Utah. At the site can be found two memorials, one a replica of the 19th century cairn originally constructed by the U.S. Army over the largest gravesite (and now maintained by the Church of the Latter Day Saints) and the other located down in the meadows and maintained by the Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation. The entire site has been decreed a National Historic Landmark. The nearest town is that of Enterprise.
September Dawn was not filmed in the vicinity however. Shooting took place near Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Principle locations were the Augustina Farms and the CL Western Studio and Backlot.
Overall Rating: 3/5