Jon Voight, Trent Ford
Christians and Lions - 2.5 out of 5 stars
Mormons - 1 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
If ye be of the Mormon faith you'll undoubtedly be offended by "September Dawn," a 2007 film based on the September 11, 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah. The film gives a fictionalized/historical account of a little known incident in which 140 men, women, and children paid the ultimate price for trespassing.
The plot takes a few liberties with the actual events in order to support a fictional love story between emigrant ingenue Emily Hudson (corn-fed Tamara Hope, looking as if she stepped out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue), and teenage mutant Mormon heart throb Jonathan Samuelson (prairie Tarzan Trent Ford). A wagon train bound for California led by Captain Alexander Fancher (comfortable cowboy Shaun Johnston), mosies into a fertile valley belonging to the Mormon Church. The acreage is ruled by Bishop Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight, as slithery as a snake in Eden. Oops wrong denomination). Fancher asks the Bishop if his 200 head of cattle and expensive horses can graze for a spell. In the tradition of keeping one's enemies close, Samuelson, who harbors a hatred of gentiles, seemingly extends his hand in friendship, proving once again that guys with chin beards and no moustaches not only look creepy, they are creepy. Samuelson charges his eldest son, Jonathan, with the task of keeping an eye on the emigrant's mares, but the only Philly he's interested in is young Emily. The two quickly fall in love, make plans to marry and head to Californee.
When Samuelson tells head Mormon Brigham Young he has a rich wagon train in his clutches, yammering Young sharpens his smite stick for a holy war. Young�s been waging a war of ideologies with the government, which frowns on the head Mormon having 27 wives and 57 children. (Although I think the Beatle haircut Stamp sports should have been a sticking point too.) Tired of talk, and if you believe the film�s point of view, as unhinged as a shutter in a Kansas tornado, Young declares marshal law: �I am the voice of God, and anyone who doesn�t like it will be hewn down. God has revealed to me that I have the right to call down curses on anyone who invades our lands, and I curse the gentiles.� I�ve never been hewn, but I could tell from Young�s demonstrative tone he wasn�t going to organize a barn dance to welcome Fancher and friends to the back forty.
Jacob Samuelson has his own reason for wanting to eliminate the emigrants. They�re from Missouri, the same state of origin as the people who murdered John Smith (charismatic Dean Cain, perforated in a flashback). Smith was a Mormon preacher deemed a prophet who also happened to be Samuelson�s mentor.
Young sends his adopted son, John D. Lee (�Lost� alumni Jon Gries, in grim reaper mode), and Samuelson to try and convince the Pawnee Indians to join them in an attack on �God�s enemies.� The fate of Fancher and his frontier folk may be sealed, but what of the two young lovers? Will Emily�s bones bleach in the sun alongside her fellow travelers? Or will Jonathan get to play connect the dots with her freckles as the couple sires religiously conflicted children? The film�s opening offers a hint. Hopefully, despite the numbing romantic plot, you�ll still have enough cognitive powers to follow the events leading up to the climatic confrontation between Lee�s Mormon militia and Fancher�s unsettled settlers.
Even a film as one-sided as �September Dawn� could have been more entertaining if the younger members of the cast had paid more attention in drama class. Square-jawed, steely-eyed Jon Voight is as vengeful as a plucked eagle as Jacob Samuelson. You don�t want to turn your back on this man in black when he calls for a blood atonement (the equivalent of putting a hit on everyone who isn�t a Mormon). Voight could have played Samuelson completely wild-eyed and over the top � instead he turns the Bishop into a cool, calculating autocrat who cares deeply for his sons and his brethren, but will stop at nothing to see that the edicts of his prophets are followed without exception. It�s interesting to see how soft spoken Jon Voight is in the extras, because he�s so convincing as a Mormon Joe Stalin you�d think twice about saying hello to him on the street.
With a Lincoln-esque beard and bare upper lip, Terrance Stamp may look like he belongs on a Smith Brothers cough drop box, but his portrayal of Brigham Young is nothing to sneeze at. Stamp probably had the time of his life playing the grim, frowning leader of the Mormons, and at times does such a commendable job of making Young sound as if his sanity�s bolted the corral and he�s ready for a butter churned tranquilizer cocktail. Although the events leading up the massacre make Young look like a frothing fanatic, Stamp is able to hammer home his character�s singular belief that the Mormon way of life must be preserved, even if means going to war with the rest of the country. Stamp may look like Moe Howard with a beard, but he shows Young is no stooge when it comes to motivating his followers, and he�s skilled at flashing his thousand yard blue-eyed stare at the camera while quoting some of Young�s actual speeches. Most of the time his stare resembles the same death-dealing crazy as a loon expression you�ve seen painted on abolitionist John Brown in history books, which is bound to cheese off today�s practicing Mormons who revere Young as a dedicated, benevolent saint.
Stamp and Voight�s characters come off as unrepentant, fanatical villains who are blind to their heinous deeds, and worse, they�re wrong. Jon Gries (John D. Lee, the local authority who actually carried out the massacre), is painted as a man with a conscience rather than a storm trooper blindly following orders. The fact he carries out Young�s edict demonstrates that faith can indeed be blind and often trumps guilt. Lee knows what he�s about to do is wrong -- his pained expressions and initial resistance are proof � yet he wrestles his doubts to the ground and completes his mission. When Gries grimaces, pointing his gun at Shaun Johnston (Captain Fancher), and quotes Lee�s actual
words � �Mormons do your duty!� � you can see and feel the anguish in his eyes. Gries doesn�t have a lot of screen time, but he�s able to give his character emotional depth. Young and Samuelson live a black and white existence � it�s the Mormon way or no way. Lee sees the shades of grey in between and he has to struggle to keep his doubts from tearing him apart.
The leads, too handsome Trent Ford (Jonathan) and comely Tamara Hope (Emily), are asked to carry a wagonload of weight by making the Romeo and Juliet on the lone prairie love story believable. From the moment Jon boy nearly falls out of his saddle gawking at Emily, you know they�ll be on each other like flies on a pasture patty. The predictable plot puts a lot of groan worthy lines in the mouths of the two young actors:
Emily: I didn�t think you were coming to meet me.
Jonathan: I�ll always come back to you. No one, nothing, will come between us.
Ford can ride (or at least his stunt double can), but he can�t act. This prairie Patrick Swayze goes hoarse halfway through the picture as he screams out in defiance of the Mormon counsel�s decision to save the emigrants souls by helping them cast off their mortal coils. What, somebody could get the kid something to drink so he could irrigate his vocal chords? There�s more hope for Tamara, only because the script makes the Mormons look like puppets in bizarro world. Hope is a bit more scrubbed and walkway ready than the other gals in the wagon train � and also she appears to be the only teenager in the whole group. The other women are either babies, pre-teens, or tired looking women holding babies. Samuelson raises a real magilla over Lolita Davidovich�s character, Nancy Dunlop, because she wears pants and carries a gun. Despite her strength of character, and because of it, you know Davidovich�s character is going to exit the movie in a wrath of God manner, and that�s what�s wrong with �September Dawn.� This oater is predictable as Marshall Matt Dillon winning a showdown.
The historical liberties are balanced by the plot�s overall accuracy. Voight�s Bishop Samuelson is a composite of several members of the church council; Young�s documents and testimony by John D. Lee indicate he made contact with Colonel (not Captain) Fancher and carried out the Mormon�s vengeance. Young testified he knew nothing of any plans to harm Fancher and his people, effectively throwing Lee under the wagon. Lee was the only person held accountable and his fate is accurately portrayed in the film.
More Massacres�The Extras
�September Dawn� clubs its way through two extra features that are as entertaining and informative as the film: �Descendants: Remembering the Tragedy,� and �True Events: A Historical Perspective.�
Present day kin of the Fancher wagon train are interviewed in �Descendants,� including Bob Fancher and Cheri Walker Baker, whose relatives led the ill-fated trip. Needless to say, time has not healed their wounds. Historian Will Bagley adds factual meat to the Mormon bashing, concluding: �The Mormon Church can never shake Mountain Meadows until it owns up to it.�
�True Events� features further comments from Bagley, writer Carol Wong Schulter, and cast members Voight, Stamp, Davidovich, Cain and Greis. Schulter draws a parallel between the massacre and today�s global picture: �It seemed to me that this was an event that not many people had heard of�There are relevant scenes that relate to today�s world. Scenes that are happening in mosques today.�
You don�t have to know anything about the real massacre to know how �September Dawn� is going to turn out�The settlers are gonna get their acres of land alright, they�re just gonna be spread all over it. We all knew from the start how �Titanic� was going to end � big ship hits big iceberg � big trouble, lotsa people die � yet the writers made the known facts more interesting by getting into the heads of the characters and somehow making a wholly unbelievable love story attractive. With �September Dawn� writers Christopher Cain and Carol Wong Schulter even had the advantage of telling a story few people had heard about. They not only turn the villains into parable spitting fanatics, they rip off Shakespeare�s best known plot, slap some mud on it and stick their hands out waiting for their Oscar. It don�t work that way, pardner. When Jon Voight, Terrance Stamp and Jon Gries are on the screen, �September Dawn� rises toward the high sierra into the realm of good storytelling and fine acting. It sinks into the suet whenever the junior league actors have to try and deal with a pedestrian love story that�s about as pretty as a three-legged pig at a county fair. For the most part, �September Dawn� is a real massacre.