On September 11, 1857, 120 pioneers from Arkansas and Missouri were massacred in Utah on their way to California. All but 17 small children in the wagon train were slain.
Historical evidence shows that some who took part in the slaughter were Mormons; some disguised as Paiute Indians. To what extent Mormons were involved has always been an issue between hundreds of direct descendants of the event and the Mormon Church.
Brigham Young, leader of the Mormons at the time, is believed by some to have been complicit in the massacre. The church disagrees, albeit an adopted son of Young's, John D. Lee, was executed by firing squad 20 years after for what is today called "The Mountain Meadow Massacre." Lee was the only person charged.
At the time, Young was in political trouble with President James Buchanan. Years earlier, Mormons had been pushed out of Missouri as their founder, Joseph Smith was shot to death. After arriving in Utah Territory, many Mormons looked upon wagon trains moving west through their new found home as a threat to the community.
Against this history, Christopher Cain has made a film called, "September Dawn." Cain and co-writer, Carole Whang Schutter give us a set of fictional characters in a personal story which is enveloped by the Mountain Meadow Massacre.
Oscar winner Jon Voight plays Jacob Samuelson, a fictional Mormon Bishop. Terence Stamp is cast as Brigham Young. It's important to know that all lines spoken by Stamp in the film are recorded words of the Mormon leader who lived from 1801 to 1877 and was also the first governor of Utah Territory.
A touching Romeo and Juliet story brings "September Dawn" to a personal level, with a particularly grounded performance given by Tamara Hope as Emily Hudson, a young, single, pioneer Christian woman who falls for Bishop Samuelson's eldest, Jonathan, played by Trent Ford. It's love at first sight.
The question of Mormon culpability in the massacre and, if so, to what extent, is, today, a hot-button issue, what with politics and religious terrorism so much on the minds of so many.
That, however, wasn't the focal point for me in "September Dawn" so much as the sharp contrasts drawn between these early groups of Americans: Authoritarian Christians and Humanistic Christians. The divide between them gives definition to the many polarizing attitudes and notions in today's media.
Voight and Stamp are fine in their roles. Each gentleman has reached that time in his career to be almost perfect to portray a staunch and seemingly inflexible elder. (You've come a long way, Joe Buck.)
The film was shot in Canada and seems to have been done on a modest budget. The violence in "September Dawn" is plain but not as grisly as other directors might have made it such as Mel Gibson with his "The Passion of Christ." However, "Dawn" is rated R, even though there is no coarse language or scenes of sex and nudity.
Preview "September Dawn"