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September Dawn is a 2007 film by Christopher Cain, released on August 24, 2007. It sets a fictional love story against a controversial historical interpretation of the Mountain Meadows massacre, which happened on September 11, 1857 when a wagon train of emigrants was attacked by a group of Mormon militiamen and members of the Paiute tribe. More than 120 men, women and children were murdered.

The movie stars Jon Voight as Jacob Samuelson, Terence Stamp as Brigham Young, and Jon Gries as John D. Lee.

Plot



The fictional love story between Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope), the daughter of the wagon train's pastor, and Jonathan Samuelson (Trent Ford), the son of the local Mormon bishop, plays out against the build-up to the tragedy itself. The movie begins with the deposition of Mormon leader Brigham Young (Terrance Stamp). The Fancher party is then depicted crossing Utah on its way to California. The party encounters a group of Mormon militiamen, who advise them to move on. Bishop Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) defuses the situation but is disturbed that the Fanchers have a woman wearing men's clothing and are delivering racehorses to California to be used in gambling. He instructs his sons Jonathan and Micah to keep an eye on them.

A scene follows where the pastor for the Fancher party (Daniel Libman) praises God for their deliverance, while Bishop Samuelson thanks God for delivering the "Mericats" into their hands for divine punishment. As the Mormon leadership prepares to defend Utah from an attack by the Federal government, Samuelson's son Jonathan develops a relationship with the daughter of the pastor, Emily. The Mormons decide to instigate the local Paiute Indians to wipe out the Fancher Party. Jonathan objects to his father, confronting him about the plan and the long-ago death of his mother, and is imprisoned.

The Fancher party repels the Indian attack, and Mormon militia under the command of John D. Lee (Jon Gries) offer to lead the beleaguered party to safety. However, they lead them instead to an ambush where they are all killed. Escaping his imprisonment, Jonathan arrives too late to save them and his lover Emily, who is killed by his father.

The film ends with John Lee being executed for his role in the massacre in 1877 and Brigham Young denying any knowledge or involvement.

Cast



Development

Director Christopher Cain was prompted to make September Dawn because of his opinion that religious extremism is particularly relevant today. Cain drew on historical records of the massacre, excerpts from speeches by Brigham Young, and the signed confession of John D. Lee, who led the attack. The film is controversial, representing the view that Brigham Young had a direct role in the massacre, while the LDS Church maintains that "[t]he weight of historical evidence shows that Brigham Young did not authorize the massacre". Officially, the LDS Church "is not commenting about this particular depiction" of the massacre but has published an article marking 150 years since the tragedy occurred.

Screenplay writer Carole Whang Schutter said: "Creating likeable characters that take part in unimaginably atrocious acts is a chilling reminder that terrorists can be anyone who chooses to blindly follow fanatical, charismatic leaders.[...] Our fight is not against certain religions [but...] 'powers of darkness' which are prejudice, hate, ignorance, and fear perpetuated by leaders who history will surely judge by their deeds." Schutter claims that she was inspired by God to write the story. "I got this crazy idea to write a story about a pioneer woman going in a wagon train to the California gold rush, and the train gets attacked by Mormons dressed as Indians [...] The idea wouldn't leave me. I believe it was from God." She also states that she finds the coincidental date of the massacre - September 11 - to be "very odd" and "strange," but that "people can draw their own conclusions" about the date.

Reception

The film has received extraordinarily unfavorable reviews, and holds a 13% overall rating and a 0% Cream of the Crop rating at the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes as of February 6, 2008. It received a rare "zero stars" review from film critic Roger Ebert, and the New York Post gave the movie an unusual 0/4. The movie flopped financially, losing $9.9 million, and only remaining in nationwide release for two weeks.



The film has been described by various critics (most or all of whom are not LDS) as "the year's first honest-to-goodness exploitation flick," as "carrying an anti-Mormon agenda," as "some sort of attack piece on the Mormon religion," as "little more than wild-eyed anti-Mormon propaganda," as "a stridently anti-Mormon and cliché-heavy melodrama," as "unbelievably ugly and an insult to Mormons," as a "Swift Boating of Mormonism that advocates the religious intolerance it’s supposedly condemning," as an "anti-Mormon broadside" that is "certain to fan the flames of hatred toward America's largest homegrown religion and continue the persecution that terrified the original Mormons."

The movie has "the chilling certitude of the self-righteous" that goes beyond "mockery" and is "practically a call to jihad [against Mormons]." It "equates the institution of the Mormon church with Islamic extremism at every opportunity," it is "propaganda pure and simple," is "filmmaking at its worst...full of propaganda," and it "goes way beyond history into the realm of speculation, rumor, myth and gossip." Critics further state that the movie "feel[s] like blatant propaganda," that is "dabbles uncomfortably close to hate," that it is "raw and unpleasant," that it is "strange, confused, [and] unpleasant," that it is "trashy, tasteless, and ridiculous," that it is "a blatant libel against a forefather of one of America's more singularly American religions," and that there is an "unmistakable air of evil about this enterprise, and not just an atrocity the Mormon church caused to happen 150 years ago" and its negative portrayal of Mormons is "unsubtle (in the manner most closely associated with Dr. Goebbels)."

Not all reviews however have been completely negative. Boo Allen of the Denton Record-Chronicle gave the movie 3 out of 5 stars, saying that "director Christopher Cain renders a suspenseful, gripping tale." Linda Cook of the Quad-City Times calls the movie "interesting." Ted Fry of the Seattle Times writes that the movie is a "mix of poetry and polemics" that despite "theocratic elements that come unnervingly close to the spirit of Mormon-bashing" is nevertheless "a mildly effective dramatic tale of period Western strife." Pete Hammond of Maxim gives the movies 2½ stars, saying that Cain has made "a pulse-pounding movie experience reminding us that a terrorist act can happen anywhere, anytime, by anyone." David Tianen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes that the script's "great strength" is that Voight's character, Samuelson "is a zealot who behaves logically within his own belief system" in that he believes in "a theology that sees non-Mormons as wicked and degenerate." Consequently, "when Bishop [Samuelson] says things like 'May these children of Satan go to hell,' or, 'We have been honored above all others to be the chosen instrument of death," the hatred is more than mere craziness.

In a piece written for FrontPage Magazine, Ken Eliasberg states that: "I found the film to be artistically pleasing, theatrically well done, and, based on my less-than-exhaustive research, historically correct. [...] While the Mormon hierarchy denies any effort to directly or indirectly sabotage the film, it seems possible much of the criticism dealing with the film is derived from some common blueprint. [...] I hope that this notion is mistaken, and that there is no effort on the part of the Mormon establishment to do this film in. If there is such an effort, I have to believe it emanates from certain individuals who are acting on their own, who have so little faith in the power of their religion that they think a mere film about one isolated historic incident could do it harm."

Mitt Romney

The movie came out at a time when Mormon Mitt Romney was running for U.S. President, which brought the Mormon religion further into the spotlight. Robert Novak speculated that September Dawn is an attempt by Hollywoodmarker to negatively influence Romney's candidacy, and Roger Ebert echoed this possibility in his later movie review. Director Christopher Cain has denied this, saying he had not heard of Romney when he began work on the film 2½ years prior. In August 2007, Romney told reporters that he did not plan to view the film.

Notes

  1. Hosted on septemberdawn.net
  2. "Mormon Massacre", Robert D. Novak, Townhall.com, 3 May 2007; also found at humanevents.com, 3 May 2007.
  3. Did You Know? Mountain Meadows, lds.org, 2007-08-29
  4. Richard E. Turley Jr., The Mountain Meadows Massacre, lds.org, 2007-08-29.
  5. About Me—Carole Whang Schutter
  6. Local pens screenplay about massacre: 'September Dawn' to hit theaters in August, by Pete Fowler, Aspen Times, 9 July 2007
  7. September Dawn (2007), Rotten Tomatoes, last accessed 6 February 2008
  8. September Dawn by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 24 August 2007, as found at rogerebert.com
  9. September Dawn (2007) Budget: $11,000,000, U.S. Gross: $1,066,555, Net loss: $9,933,445
  10. September Dawn by Nick Schager, Slant Magazine, 20 April 20 2007
  11. 'September Dawn' by Gene Seymour, Newsday, August 24 2007
  12. Stirring love story weakened by director's pontification by Phil Villarreal, Arizona Daily Star, 23 August 2007
  13. September Dawn (R) by Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress, 29 August 2007
  14. Anti-Mormon flick loose with facts by Robert W. Butler, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), 24 August 2007; also found at The Clarion-Ledger
  15. September Dawn by Mark Keizer, Los Angeles CityBeat, 23 August 2007
  16. Attack on religion inevitable by Frank Gabrenya, The Columbus Dispatch, 24 August 2007
  17. 'September Dawn' is a misguided 9/11 allegory by Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel, 24 August 2007
  18. 'September Dawn' a grotesque Western by Chris Gladden, The Roanoke Times, 25 August 2007
  19. "September" sucks by Zach Richter, The State Press (ASU), 27 August 2007
  20. September Dawn by Brian Orndorf, DVD Talk, 21 August 2007
  21. Review: September Dawn by James Rocchi, Cinematical, 24 August 2007
  22. ‘September Dawn’ puts slaughter on Mormon hands by Boo Allen, Denton Record-Chronicle, 24 August 2007
  23. Enjoy 'Dawn,' but take heed by Linda Cook, Quad-City Times, 30 August 2007
  24. Mormon massacre story "September Dawn" mixes fact, fiction by Ted Fry, The Seattle Times, 27 August 2007
  25. September Dawn by Pete Hammond, Maxim, undated
  26. Fanaticism darkens 'Dawn' by Dave Tianen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 23 August 2007
  27. September Dawn: Criticism or Sabotage? by Ken Eliasberg, FrontPage Magazine, 31 August 2007


References



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