'September Dawn': Mountain Muddle

Salt Lake City Weekly | August 17, 2007
In the years since the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre -- where 120 men, women and children were slaughtered in cold blood in Utah after a four-day siege -- opposing versions of the event have collided. On the one side, historical evidence suggests that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ordered the execution of the members of a wagon train traveling through Utah from Arkansas. On the other side, there’s the church's official stand that John D. Lee conducted an unsanctioned renegade operation. No movie could possibly reconcile the tangled politics, emotions and beliefs.

But this one, from director/co-writer Christopher Cain (Young Guns) doesn't even try. Instead, it cobbles together a weak Romeo-and-Juliet romance and pastes it onto something that manages somehow to be both unintentionally hilarious and borderline offensive. It does everything but gasp and insist there are horns under the Mormons' hats.

Launched from a flashback, the story begins in earnest with the arrival of the Fancher/Baker wagon train in Utah in September 1857. Bishop Samuelson (Jon Voight) greets the travelers -- who wish to stop, rest and re-supply themselves on their way to California -- on behalf of the Mormon settlers, and initially at least seems cordial. But among the Mormons there is great suspicion of outsiders, particularly those from Arkansas due to the murder there of Mormon leader Parley Pratt. Samuelson secretly begins plotting against the travelers, but his feelings are not shared by his son Jonathan (Trent Ford), who falls instantaneously in love with Emily (Tamara Hope), a young woman traveling with the wagon train who, of course, instantaneously reciprocates. Can their feelings survive the enmity between their two peoples?

Cain can't be blamed for taking a major historical event and making it all about whether young lovebirds will find happiness. The device has become a staple from the sublime (Titanic) to the ridiculous (Pearl Harbor), notwithstanding Casablanca's insistence that the problems of two people, hill of beans, etc. He can share the blame, though, for making his central relationship so lame and perfunctory, and for casting two such lifeless performers. Ford attempts a rebellious smolder like he's in Mountain Meadows 90210, Hope plays sweet but chastely fascinated with this guy who can tame wild horses (metaphor alert!), and we're expected to accept their mooning as the stuff of transcendent, star-cross'd love.

At least, however, the romantic sub-plot distracts from a version of the story that doesn't merely insist that the LDS Church hierarchy, including Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), was in on the massacre. Apparently, they were also cackling in cartoonish villainy and twirling moustaches -- er, beards -- while plotting it. Cain creates one scene after another that seems intended simply to provoke agitation in Mormons, like portraying a temple ceremony, or showing a meeting of the brethren that degenerates into lusty shouts of "Blood atonement!" In the most egregious example, Cain cross-cuts between two examples of prayer: the meek and mild supplications of the wagon train party, and Samuelson's request that Heavenly Father call down hellfire and damnation upon all the apostates.

It is perhaps fortunate for Cain that many viewers will be distracted from his film's nastiness by its ineptitude. The performances range from the merely lackluster to the actively ludicrous; Voight in particular should thank his lucky stars that Cuba Gooding Jr. is around to top all lists of "Oscar winners who have subsequently turned into shameless, paycheck-cashing hacks." The dialogue actually finds people saying things like, "I've got a bad feeling" without any apparent irony, and the climactic bloodletting is, naturally, shot in bombastic slow-motion, punctuated by Jonathan's brother Micah (Taylor Handley) goin' saliva-dripping crazy. It’s the kind of movie where only the characters in it are aware that if you chain someone to a bedpost, and the bed moves while he's pulling on it, he probably could get away if plot demands didn't keep him in place.

If only it had been that easy to escape September Dawn's steaming pile of historical tar-and-feathering. Maybe Lee (played with at least a modicum of self-respect by Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Gries) was just a fall guy; maybe a paranoid Brigham Young did order the vile deed. But Cain doesn't even pretend to try to make the Mormons human; here, they're homesteading Nazis. His operatic nonsense accomplishes something I don't think he intended: By treating the Mormons with such laughable contempt, he actually made me feel sorry for them.


* (one star out of four)

Starring: Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Voight.

Directed by Christopher Cain

Rated R.

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