By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won't like September Dawn.
The teaser released some two months ago tells you exactly why: "On
September 11, 1857, in an unspoiled valley of the Utah Territory--and
in the name of God--120 men, women, and children were savagely murdered.
Who ordered the massacre, and why has it been hidden? A cloak of secrecy
and conspiracy and the reputation of one of this nation's mightiest
religious figures have been preserved and protected. On August 24th
the truth will be revealed."
If this come-on led people to anticipate a docudrama, they were disappointed.
The first clue is the all-too-familiar statement at the start of the
110-minute film, "Inspired by actual events." This assertion
should raise a red flag immediately. And, indeed, what we have here
is a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet cum cowboy story jammed between religious
bookends. Mormon boy meets Protestant minister's daughter and it's love
at first sight. On one side of the doomed romance are the settlers,
led by two earnest "captains" and a cumbia-style padre; on
the other is the demonic Mormon Bishop Jacob Samuelson, hell-bent on
destroying the "gentiles" from Missouri (where his beloved
Prophet Joseph Smith was gunned down).
As I say, Governor Romney won't like this film. Fortunately for him,
box office receipts on its opening weekend were weak. Additionally,
the clash of good vs. evil is so heavy handed that only the most die-hard
liberals will find this passion play compelling. Fair-minded folks of
whatever political persuasion will have to wonder whether the timing
of the film's release is something more than a coincidence equal to
the historical twist of fate that the massacre occurred on 9/11.
Putting this note of skepticism aside--which isn't easy--I must give
the film's devil his due. Jon Voight, who portrays Bishop Samuelson
as possessing all the fanaticism of an ayatollah, manages to bring a
reasonable measure of believability to what otherwise would have been
a cardboard cutout of a character. The same can be said for Terence
Stamp, who portrays Brigham Young. The young, star-crossed lovers are
sympathetically portrayed by Trent Ford and Tamara Hope, albeit we can
see their tragic fate looming in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.
The basic historical facts which "inspired" the film are
not much in dispute. Mormons mobilized Paiute Indians, then joined them
in Indian regalia, to attack a wagon train passing through the territory
en route to California. The settlers beat back the opening attack, but
ran desperately shy of food, water and ammo. Believing they were being
rescued by Mormon militia, they voluntarily agreed to disarm. Then,
instead of escorting them to safety, the militiamen treated the defenseless
settlers much as the Afghans had treated the British 15 years earlier,
as the latter retreated from Kabul to Gandamak under an alleged safe-conduct.
In other words, they slaughtered them.
September Dawn wades into a bloody quagmire of controversy
in its unequivocal assertion that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was
sanctioned at the pinnacle of the Latter Day Saints hierarchy. In response
to an inquiry by columnist Robert Novak, following the film's premiere
earlier this summer, a Mormon Church spokeswoman in Salt Lake City said:
"The weight of historical evidence shows that Brigham Young did
not authorize the massacre." She added that "the church has
no comment on the 'September Dawn' movie."
By contrast, John D. Lee, Brigham Young's adopted son who led the massacre,
and who was the only Mormon executed by a firing squad 20 years after
the killings, maintained, "I have been sacrificed in a cowardly,
dastardly manner." He said this after his excommunication by the
church and his conviction.
Young, as portrayed by Stamp, certainly behaves like a prefiguring
of Osama bin Laden, dubbing himself a "second Muhammad" and
intoning the "shedding of blood" of the "gentiles."
Will the truth ever emerge? The thing about conspiracy theories is
that they are often impossible to prove or disprove. This goes for the
Molly Maguire murders in the anthracite coal fields of post-Civil War
Pennsylvania, the murder-by-bomb of Idaho Governor Stunenberg in 1907,
and, of course, that mother of all conspiracy theories, the Kennedy
Certainly September Dawn, whatever its limited merits in terms
of credible acting and dubious demonizing of religious intolerance,
does nothing to clear up the controversy concerning who really masterminded
the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Rated R for violence.