Before Sept. 11, 2001, there was Sept. 11, 1857.
There were no fuel-drunk planes then, no Twin Towers, no round-the-clock news coverage. But some of the themes feel eerily similar: Killers, stoked by religious fervor and anger at America, massacre innocent men, women and children. The murders shocked America, but most of the guilty were never brought to justice.
Such is the historical backdrop for September Dawn, a bloody retelling of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) killed about 120 settlers who were on their way to California. The killing was done in a tranquil Utah field, under a banner of truce and friendship. Only a small group of children—most too young to talk and all too young to remember—survived.
One person was tried and executed for the massacre, and that was 20 years after the fact. Just who else was involved is a matter of passionate dispute. But director, producer and co-writer Christopher Cain leaves no doubt as to who he thinks was ultimately responsible: Brigham Young, then head of the LDS Church.
Young is the first person we see in the film—a bark-faced, iron-eyed prophet relating his version of the events surrounding the massacre. Here, Young's dialogue was pulled from his actual testimony from the first Mountain Meadows Massacre trial in 1875. In fact, most of what Young says throughout the film comes straight from the Mormon leader's actual statements, according to Cain. And his words form the string on which this story hangs.
He's portrayed as a despot who rules the territory of Utah through brutal intimidation under the auspices of God's will—head of a virtual theocracy and spokesman for a new brand of faith many Americans found frightening. When he hears rumors that the U.S. government has dispatched an army to remove him as governor and (he says) wipe out the Mormon people, he declares martial law in Utah. This time, he says, the Mormons will fight.
"I am the voice of God," Young thunders, "and anyone who doesn't like it will be hewn down."
It's in this explosive environment that the Fancher party—a caravan of 140 or so settlers and named for one of the caravan's leaders—trundles into Utah. They bring with them prize cattle, swift Kentucky horses and (so the Mormons whisper) a chest full of gold. Caravan leaders want to stop in Utah for a bit before launching across the last brutal stretch of their journey and, after a tense standoff, local leader Jacob Samuelson (a fictional character) says OK. They can stay for two weeks, and they don't even have to pay.
"One should not pay for what God provides," Samuelson says.
But for Samuelson, the big gift is the travelers themselves. He believes God delivered these "gentiles" into his hands so he and his fellow Mormons could exact, perhaps, some divine retribution on their sinful heads. He asks his older son, Jonathan, to spy on them.
Jonathan does so, and in the process falls for Emily, daughter of the caravan's pastor. Jonathan likes Emily because she speaks her mind more than the LDS women he knows. Emily likes Jonathan because he has a curious way with horses. It's Romeo and Juliet in buckskin—star-crossed lovers from two different worlds.
But just when Jonathan is about to leave the LDS Church and join the caravan, the Mormons join with a local Indian tribe to attack it. The attack turns into a siege destined for tragedy.
The Fancher caravan is a little Utopia on wheels. The settlers sing together, pray together and do their best to get along with their prickly Mormon hosts. They're generous, too: When Jonathan tames a valuable but supposedly untamable stallion, the horse is given to him.
It's also a liberated place, where women speak their minds and one female traveler actually goes so far as to wear pants and tote a gun. Though Mr. Samuelson considers such unfeminine garb an "abomination," Emily says, "It's a free country, and she can do what she pleases." All the women take turns caring for a six-month-old baby whose mother died earlier, though Emily seems to be its primary caregiver.
Jonathan and his brother, Micah, get along well, and Jonathan's love for Emily is sincere and pure. "I would die for the woman I loved before I saw her murdered," he tells his father. John Lee—the only person to be eventually executed for his role in the massacre—balks when he's told what he must do.
Spiritual conflict lies at the heart of September Dawn: the charitable Christianity of the wagon train pitted against the frighteningly legalistic Mormonism of the Utah settlement. The dichotomy is most clearly illustrated in a spliced view of the prayers offered from both camps early on. While the pastor in the Fancher party thanks God for all His provisions and asks Him to bless their Mormon hosts, Samuelson begs God to curse the "gentile dogs."
"May these children of Satan go to hell," he prays. "Amen."
Cain presents the Mormons as religious zealots gone very, very wrong. They unquestionably follow their leaders, who in turn claim to receive revelation direct from God. They revere leaders such as Young and founder Joseph Smith as demigods, and their religion teaches that believers can become like God in the next life if they do all the right things, ruling their own celestial domains. As a spiritual rite—and right—they accumulate lots and lots of wives. Samuelson has 18. Young, 27.
These onscreen Latter-day Saints also see themselves as angels of death, eager to mete out "blood atonement" because they've deemed Christ's sacrifice insufficient for all sin. They're sticklers for doing their spiritual duty—a phrase repeated often. And while typically that would be an admirable trait, in this context "duty" involves terrorism and copious bloodshed.
"We have been honored above all other men to be the chosen instruments of death in carrying out this merciful deed," Samuelson tells a group of Mormons before the slaughter. "It is our sacred duty; through their deaths, the gentiles will attain eternal salvation."
Some find the "duty" too much to bear. A blood-streaked and nearly insane Micah is in the midst of the killing fields when Jonathan finds him and pleads with him to stop. You'll be cursed, Jonathan says.
"I'm already cursed!" Micah shouts back.
Conversely, members of the Fancher party preach love and forgiveness. They sing hymns. When Captain Fancher confesses to the pastor that, "God help me, I don't know what to do," the pastor leads the camp in reciting the 23rd Psalm. When Emily and Jonathan pledge to one another that they're going to get married, Emily gives Jonathan her most prized possession—a cross necklace. And when she asks her father whether he'd marry them (he says yes), she begs him, "Pray for him. I love him so much." Before a Mormon shoots the pastor as he sits in a wagon filled with children, the Christian leader says to his killer, "May God forgive you."
As more of a beseechment than interjection, characters utter "dear God" and "oh my God" in stricken horror and grief.
There are several references to Mormon polygamy. Micah, who has three wives and says he likes to lay next to their "soft" bodies, tells Jonathan it's high time he got married and that love doesn't need to be an important factor.
"Maybe men don't fall in love, only women do," Micah says. "You ever thought about that?"
Jonathan kisses Emily passionately and, once, literally sweeps her off her feet (and onto the back of his horse) when she's bathing. (She's wearing a full dress-like undergarment.) Moviegoers also glimpse Jonathan's nude backside as he undergoes a Mormon ritual.
Even before the climactic massacre, Mormons fire guns, slit throats and carry out numerous acts of violent intimidation. LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, played in a curiously quick cameo by the director's son and former Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman star Dean Cain, is gunned down. We see the murder of Samuelson's wife. Jonathan tries to strangle his father, and while he's imprisoned, he breaks a window to grab his brother's head.
But the carnage really escalates during the massacre itself. Much of it takes place in slow motion, so we see it clearly: Bullets tearing through the bodies of men, women and children; blood bursting from exit wounds like liquid crowns; fleeing women cut down from behind; a Mormon bashing a boy's head (unseen) with a rifle butt. There are knifings, beatings and a brutal "mercy killing." [Spoiler Warning] Jonathan puts a gun to his own head.
Crude or Profane Language
September Dawn is curse free, unless one counts the number of times people use God's name to excuse unspeakable acts.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mormons and settlers alike stay away from drugs and alcohol.
As the film opens 20 years after the massacre, a survivor looks over the meadow and says, "Two different worlds met on this spot: One of love, the other of hate."
That sums up writer and director Christopher Cain's treatment of this historical event. He paints the story with the broadest of brushes, never mind the splatter.
The Christians in Fancher's caravan are shown with nary a blemish, the Mormons as the blackest of pits. Samuelson, played with relish by Jon Voight, is so nasty that, in the sequel, he'll likely be tying young damsels down to railroad tracks. Brigham Young's villainy has the depth of a sheet of onion paper. Only two Mormon characters—Jonathan and Micah—manage to peer out from beneath the Darth Vader mask Cain places on Mormonism's head: Jonathan is redeemed because he leaves the faith, his virtue incompatible with his family's beliefs; Micah literally crumbles under the weight of blood and duty. The Christians in Fancher's party may ask God to bless the Mormons, but the film bestows no such blessings itself.
And then there's the matter of Young's complicity in the massacre.
"Our position is that he clearly knew about it, clearly covered it up and was, in fact, part of at least the spirit of the time that caused this to happen," Cain told the Hollywood Reporter. "We are very comfortable with that." The LDS church has denied that Young was involved.
The film makes passing mention that a Mormon commander, in the days leading up to the massacre, asked Young what should be done with groups like the Fancher party. It omitted Young's alleged answer: "We must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please, but you should try and preserve good feelings with them."
More interesting, actually, than what the film includes or omits, are Cain's assertions that the film was not intended to "condemn this specific religion," but rather cast a light on a more modern form of frightening religious zealotry: radical Islam.
"This movie kind of tells you how that can happen," he said. "It's done in the name of God and religious fanaticism. It's not a religion, itself, that causes it, but the extremist leaders that are running the different religions and the different sects that can drive people to do that."
But Mormonism is cast in such a cold shadow in September Dawn it's hard to believe viewers won't take it at face value. One passing onscreen reference to Mohammad won't bridge the gap between 1857 and 2001 for most.
Mormonism, Islam and traditional Christianity are not in any way synonymous. Neither are the Spanish Inquisition, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and modern jihad. Religions and sects aren't solely defined by their darkest moments or their most radical leaders. September Dawn makes it hard for moviegoers to remember that.