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Dawn shines as a story of religious fanaticism

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 24, 2007 at 2:53 a.m.

— September Dawn

84

Cast: Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Lolita Davidovich, Terence Stamp, Taylor Handley

Director: Christopher Cain

Rating: R for violence

Running time: 120 minutes

September Dawn is a professionally realized, somewhat fictionalized account of one of the most notorious (and notoriously unknown) events in American history, the execution of 120 men, women and children by Mormon militiamen near Cedar City, Utah, on Sept. 11, 1857.

Arkansans may be more familiar with the story than most, for the victims of what has become known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre were members of a wagon train that departed from Boone County. Most of the people killed were Arkansans or Missourians on their way to California. A goodly number of descendants of the wagon train party - 17 children under the age of 6 were spared and taken to live with Mormon families until the U.S. Army saw them returned to relatives - still live in Arkansas.

While veteran director Chris Cain's movie is not a documentary, it tracks pretty close to the known facts andputs no words into the mouth of the prophet Brigham Young (a magisterial Terence Stamp), with all his dialogue descending from the historical record. And when it slips away from the facts into a fabulated Western love story between young Mormon Jonathan (Trent Ford) and teenage Emily (Tamara Hope) from the wagon train, it slips and stumbles, but surprisingly enough recovers. It's a bit cheesy, and Hope is a better actor than Ford (who weirdly seems to get better as the film goes on), but it's ultimately affecting.

While we should always be suspect of history served up with popcorn, this is a story worth telling.

That's not to say September Dawn is an unmitigated success; it has some of the overearnestness of an issue movie, although it's difficult to see much of a connection between the kind of religious fanaticism that informed the terrorist perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with these wacky Utah Saints.

As assayed by Jon Voight, the made-up Bishop Samuelson (Jonathan's dad and the polygamist proxy for whatever dark forces conspired to murder the emigrants) seems more cynical and avaricious than inflamed by any spirit. He's a monster, but not a terrifically complicated one, and we never get the sense that his call for blood atonement - essentially the merciful killing of a malefactor to grant his soul a chance at heaven - is anything other than a cover for his covetousness. And Jon's brother Micah (Taylor Handley) takes such relish in killing that he seems like a cartoon.

Current members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might find plenty here with which they can take issue, but the early charges that the movie was a cheap slasher designed to impugn the religion are empty. There are some scenes of great beauty, and in spite of the fitful clunkiness of the screenplay we're left with a sense of ruefulness: It's not the creed that seems at fault, but those who profess to know, and explain, the Creator's mind.

MovieStyle, Pages 37, 44 on 08/24/2007

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