September Dawn Review
By Joe Lozito
Though it is carefully prefaced with the words "inspired by
true events," "September Dawn" - director Christopher Cain's earnest but misguided attempt to generate political allegory from the horrific Mountain Meadows Massacre - is likely to ruffle a few Mormon feathers. Like the reaction from some members of the Jewish community to "The Passion of the Christ"
, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints could certainly make a case for being painted as a bloodthirsty mob led by power hungry men with God-complexes. Naturally it would be hypocritical for any faith to throw stones, so rife is history with religious war, but as with any debate, the truth behind Mountain Meadows likely lies somewhere in between.
As the film opens, an exhausted wagon train out of Arkansas led by Captain Fancher (Shaun Johnston, in a fine, earthy performance) comes upon a Mormon militia in the verdant fields of Utah. After being given the once over by the fictional Mormon Bishop Samuelson, Captain Fancher's party is given permission to camp for two weeks. Since Bishop Samuelson is played by Jon Voight, it's pretty clear from the outset that his motives are not entirely pure - a point illustrated in a prayer sequence (juxtaposed with the wagon train's preacher) in which Samuelson wishes them all to hell. When the Bishop leaves to consult with current Mormon leader Brigham Young (Terrance Stamp, an excellent choice), he assigns his son Jonathan to "keep an eye on the immigrants". Jonathan has one in particular he'd be happy to keep an eye on - all-American, Christian lass, Emily.
Mr. Cain, whose son Dean makes a cameo as none other than Mormon founder Joseph Smith, has a resume which includes 1988's "Young Guns" and TV's "The Magnificent Seven," so he's no stranger to horse operas. In fact, "September Dawn" takes its time building a relationship between Jonathan and a wild, untamable steed. Yes, he's the Mormon horse whisperer (though he makes kissing sounds). Too bad the love story between him and Emily isn't as convincing. As soon as Jonathan lays eyes on Emily, it's clear the story is about to be given the "Titanic" treatment, and for a while it works. The two young stars give it their best, but the script is full of movie-of-the-week dialogue and even dares a full-on "Witness" rip-off. Trent Ford, who resembles an even more angular Josh Hartnett, does some good work early on as Jonathan, and Tamara Hope doesn't overplay Emily's anachronistic post-modern views.
Details surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre are unclear, and the Church of Latter Day Saints, naturally, denies any involvement. Still, it's undeniably chilling that the events occurred on another September 11th, and there is certainly a story here worth telling. For now, "September Dawn" will do, but the memory of the victims deserves better.