The new movie "September Dawn" dramatizes an 1857 event known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which 120 men, women and children—heading from Missouri to California—were killed in cold blood by a raiding party of Mormons in the Utah territory.
Jon Voight as fictional Mormon leader Jacob Samuelson. (Black Diamond Pictures)
What's more, that church's legendary leader, Brigham Young, is shown to have been complicit in the murders.
"September Dawn," directed by Christopher Cain, begins by saying it's "inspired by actual events." We open in Salt Lake City in 1875, where a 75-year-old Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) is not well.
We move forward to 1877, to Mountain Meadows, where a young woman tells us in a stark voiceover that she was spared as an infant in the killings that occurred there.
That's when we shift back to 1857, as folks from Arkansas and Missouri are making their way West, through the territory run by Young and the Mormon Church. We meet Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight, playing a fictional character), who, as bishop of the church, general of the militia, mayor and everything else, confronts the travelers.
The theocrat decides the travelers can rest in Mountain Meadows, but his magnanimity doesn't last long as director Cain reveals him to be crazy evil through a prayer he recites.
Backing—or leading—Samuelson is Brigham Young himself, who sermonizes about the shedding of blood and why sometimes it's just necessary.
"I'm the voice of God," says Young, "and anyone who doesn't like it will be hewn down."
It's made clear early on that the travelers are just looking to get to California, but that the Mormons are hell-bent on blood atonement because, as the movie clumsily sets forth, the travelers came from Missouri, where Mormon founder Joseph Smith had been persecuted in 1839.
Indeed, Jacob asks his son Jonathan to spy on the travelers and see if they talk about the prophet's murder.
"I don't even think they know who Joseph Smith was," replies Jonathan in all earnestness.
But no matter. The Mormon leaders are shown intent on avenging the prophet's blood, and Brigham Young himself is shown to authorize the massacre.
As filmmaking, "September Dawn" feels like a TV movie. The voiceover seems harsh. The music always lasts too long. The fictional love story between Jonathan and traveler Emily feels forced. About 35 minutes into the film, the lovers have a grotesquely obvious conversation about Bishop Samuelson, one's need for control, sin, etc., etc.
We're given melodrama instead of drama. The massacre itself goes on and on, much of it in slow motion. It's not Gibson graphic, but graphic enough.
The movie itself is most interesting for the conversation it might start: What really happened at Mountain Meadows? Where does the film take license? How has the Mormon Church responded to the massacre and now to this movie?
It's also chiefly notable because it deals directly with notions of blood atonement, avenging in a religious context, what constitutes "direct revelation from God," and so forth.
Twenty years after the massacre, John D. Lee, the adopted son of Brigham Young, was the only person convicted and executed for the massacre. Some feel that the Mormon church has not fully processed this event and its history, even as others, like Jon Voight, are careful to say the movie is not a reflection of the current Mormon church.
"September Dawn" is a so-so film about an event, but its real punch lies in the conveyance of worldviews that birth such events in the first place.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for violence.
Director: Christopher Cain
Writers: Carole Whang Schutter and Christopher Cain
Cast: Jacob Samuelson: Jon Voight; Jonathan Samuelson Trent Ford; Emily Hudson: Tamara Hope; John D. Lee: Jon Gries; Nancy: Lolita Davidovich; Brigham Young: Terence Stamp.
The movie's official Web site is here.