One of the American indies least likely to appear at Sundance, September Dawn recounts the grim tale of the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, wherein the men, women, and children on a California-bound wagon train of Missouri settlers were slaughtered by irate Mormons.
Paranoia informed religious fanaticism: The Mormons themselves had been persecuted, in Missouri and elsewhere, before making their exodus to the Utah territory (which the federal government had recently placed under martial law). The Mountain Meadow massacre also occurred on September 11. Occult coincidence reinforces paranoia: Director Chris Cain makes the jihad comparison explicit in a flashback to the Missouri pogrom, where the Mormon maximum leader declares, “I will be to this generation a second Muhammad. Joseph Smith or the sword!”
Mountain Meadows’ unresolved controversies include the degree to which Smith’s successor Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) was involved in planning the atrocity. Although September Dawn suggests that Young lied under oath and let one of his commanders take the fall, it places the blame on a fictional Mormon bishop (steely Jon Voight), who claims to have been informed by a celestial Smith that the Gentiles are cursed and soon has his congregation shouting for “blood atonement.” Meanwhile, as the wagon train wends its way through Mormon territory, a certain amount of fraternization transpires. The bishop’s boy (Trent Ford) locks eyes with a settler girl (Tamara Hope). A pastor’s daughter, she befuddles him by quoting gentle Jesus; he’s the product of a cruel and punitive God whom he hopes to elude by tagging along to Cali.
Shot in a style that might be termed Americana gravitas, September Dawn has the ham-fisted lyricism of political ads and pharmaceutical commercials. The schematic script is further burdened with heavy ironies and hackneyed dialogue. Everyone declaims their lines except for Hope; she swallows hers. The massacre, replete with knifing and bludgeoning, is rendered in slo-mo superimpositions and accompanied by celestial keening. The discovery of the atrocity is no less awful. One would need to be Shakespeare to truly script these scenes. Despite the presence of a Mormon Romeo and settler Juliet, co-writers Cain and Carole Whang Schutter aren’t.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 14, 2007