The History Place - Movie Review

September Dawn

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 assassination.

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.

JJim Castagnera is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow on Terrorism of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. With his daughter, Claire, he is co-author of Ned McAdoo and the Molly Maguires, available at, excerpts of which are posted in The History Place - Writer's Corner.

September Dawn - Official Website
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