PFS Film Review
September Dawn


September DawnIn 1844, Joseph Smith, Jr., was assassinated in Illinois. Two years later, Brigham Young led many of Smith’s followers on a trek that ended up in barren Utah, then a part of México. After the Mexican War, in 1850, Utah was recognized as a territory of the United States, and polygamous Young was appointed by the president as governor. However, the Mormon practice of polygamy was deemed an unacceptable rebellion of sorts in Washington, so in early 1857 newly inaugurated President Buchanan authorized an army to put down the rebellion and install a new governor. The Mormons then formed a militia to defend themselves. The first 9/11 mass murder in the United States occurred later in 1857, when 120 covered wagon emigrants from Arkansas en route to California, evidently unaware that they were intruding into contested terrain in Utah, were slain in what is known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. September Dawn clearly indicts Utah Governor Brigham Young for the senseless killings; a title at the end points out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has never admitted culpability. When the film begins, Young (played by Terence Stamp) is being questioned by federal authorities on July 30, 1875. Next, the year 1877, a young woman (played by the director’s daughter, Krisinda Cain) visits the site of the massacre, reflecting that she was among the few babies spared from death who were raised by Mormons, recalls some of the events of the year 1857. In order to give the historical events some pathos, film director Christopher Cain (who was born in a town with a considerable Mormon presence) concocts a Romeo & Juliet love story in which a young Mormon, Jonathan Samuelson (played by Trent Ford), falls in love with wagon train emigrant Emily Hudson (played by Tamara Hope), who ultimately dies in a massacre that Jonathan had hoped to avoid. The film attempts to reconstruct the actual events of the incident, including a trip by the local Mormon bishop and mayor, Jacob Samuelson (played by Jon Voight), to Brigham Young, who in turn authorizes the massacre. (In actuality Isaac Haight was the name of the Mormon leader, and the authorization came from George Smith, Joseph Smith’s cousin.) The film seeks to capture the mood of the times, in which those of the wagon train were devout and innocent Christians, whereas the Mormon leaders believed that the mass murder was justified and secured compliance from their faithful through an authoritarian appeal based on the belief that God was sanctioning the massacre by speaking directly through Brigham Young. John D. Lee (played by Jon Gries), portrayed as the reluctant military commander of the massacre, is the only person convicted of the crime. The young woman who visits the site of the massacre (actual filming is in Alberta) observes as Lee is shot by a firing squad. Obviously, September Dawn will be controversial in Utah and indeed may raise questions for Mormons seeking elective office. Cain views the incident as a paradigm for murders by (religious) fanatics, including 9/11/2001. Accordingly, the Political Film Society’s goal of recognizing films that raise political consciousness requires a nomination of September Dawn for best film exposé of 2007 as well as the year’s best film on democracy, human rights, and peace. MH

I want to comment on this film