Religious bias clouds Dawn

September Dawn

on August 24, 2007 by Wade Major
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An already thin veneer of historical truth wears off fairly quickly in this surprisingly dull and melodramatic low-budget western seemingly meant to throw a little dirt on the just-announced presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts governor and practicing Mormon Mitt Romney. Unfortunately, the actual event around which the film builds its fictitious tale is the notorious Mountain Meadows Massacre, a genuine tragedy that deserves far better than the maudlin hatchet-job delivered here.

Precisely what transpired on and around September 11, 1857 continue to be widely disputed, but this much is known – that group of pioneers journeying westward from Missouri took up camp near a small Mormon community in Southern Utah only to be ambushed a short time later by a force consisting of Pauite Indians and local townsfolk masquerading as Pauites. The days-long killing spree left more than 100 of the pioneers dead and a litany of questions that remain unanswered.

It's against this backdrop that “September Dawn” spins its story of star-crossed young lovers – Jonathan Samuelson (Trent Ford), the son of a fiery and humorless Mormon Bishop (Jon Voight), and Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope), the daughter of a loving and benevolent Protestant minister traveling with the ill-fated pioneers. It's a romance that has barely blossomed before its bloom is extinguished by a shower of blood, fury and hatred.

The obvious bias in this scenario is so flagrant as to be cartoonish—co-writer/director Christopher Cain (“Young Guns”) and co-writer Carole Whang Schutter are anything but subtle with the film's message which can roughly be summed up as Mormons=bad, Protestants=good. The real giveaway, however, is the film's intercutting of later court testimony (taken from actual transcripts) delivered by Mormon Church president and then-Utah governor Brigham Young (Terence Stamp). Though Young's involvement has never been established, speculation about such has been a favorite pastime in anti-Mormon Evangelical circles for years, which is where this film was seemingly hatched. Not only is co-writer Schutter an avowed Evangelical, but the film also reportedly enlisted as advisor Brigham Young descendent Sandra Tanner, a practicing Evangelical who, with her husband, runs a Utah-based ministry that specializes in attacking the Mormon Church.

All of this should serve as a warning to filmgoers expecting anything close to objectivity. Imagine a half-baked remake of “Schindler's List” by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and you get the idea.

Cain, for his part, seems to genuinely believe he's making more of a political commentary than a religious one, drawing a parallel between the 1957 Mountain Meadows incident and events that transpired on the exact same date in 2001. But the analogy never really sticks, in large part because political concerns are so poorly fleshed out and repeatedly obfuscated by the clear religious bias. That the man who once romanticized no less than Billy the Kid should heap scorn on a figure like Brigham Young suggests at best a fickle interest in detail and accuracy.

Not that “September Dawn” is likely to stir much of a controversy, anyway. Apart from a handful of Bible Belt markets that will devour it like red meat, the self-distributed picture is more likely to be greeted by Mormons and non-Mormons alike with exceeding apathy – more offensive for its slapdash storytelling than its willfully slanderous bias.
Distributor: Slow Hand
Cast: Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, John Gries, Lolita Davidovich, Taylor Handley and Terence Stamp
Director: Christopher Cain
Screenwriters: Carole Whang Schutter and Christopher Cain
Producers: Christopher Cain, Scott Duthie and Kevin Matossian
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for violence
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: August 24, 2007
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