Release date: May 4, 2007, Distributor: Black Diamond Pictures, R rated, 110 minutes.
Imagine a love story between a good-looking, blue-eyed Nazi guard and a pretty dark-haired Jewish girl at the Dachau concentration camp or between a ruggedly handsome 7th Cavalry trooper and a beautiful Cheyenne maiden at the Little Bighorn. If you can do that, then it wouldn’t be hard to picture a Romeo-and-Juliet-like tale set in Mountain Meadows at the time of the 1857 massacre there. That’s what you get in director Christopher Cain’s September Dawn, an independent film scheduled for release to the public in early May 2007. September 11, 2007, marks the 150th anniversary of the massacre, in which Mormons (and Paiute allies) killed about 120 men, women and children passing through southern Utah Territory in a wagon train.
The somewhat unexpected thing is that the romance works. It personalizes the event. And without it, there would be nothing but underhanded, evil religious fanatics (Mormons), starting with Brigham Young himself, insisting on blood atonement against innocent, generous emigrants (“gentiles”) from Arkansas. The Romeo figure is Jonathan Samuelson (played by Trent Ford), who can tame horses with barely a whisper and isn’t afraid to question the wisdom of the late Joseph Smith (played by Dean Cain in flashbacks), Brigham Young (his great wrath on fine display thanks to accomplished actor Terence Stamp) or his father Bishop Jacob Samuelson (with Jon Voight looking and sounding perfectly self-righteous and rigid). The Samuelsons (including a “brainwashed” younger brother played by Taylor Handley) are fictitious, as is the Juliet figure, Emily Hudson (portrayed by Canadian actress Tamara Hope). But there are plenty of real historical figures here, including wagon train leader Captain Alexander Fancher (Shaun Johnston) and the Mormon scapegoat for the massacre, John D. Lee (Jon Gries). The only claim made is that the story was “inspired by actual events,” but Cain clearly did some good research, and the massacre itself seems historically accurate (17 young children were spared, some old enough to give eyewitness accounts).
The movie was filmed near Calgary, Alberta, where the meadow used is greener than at the actual site and where there is a nice river nearby instead of a little stream. One can’t imagine the Mormon state of Utah allowing a movie with such a script to be shot there. How will the church view director Cain? As another Mel Gibson? The Mormons involved in the slaughter come across as an earlier generation of September 11 terrorists—but that’s a viewpoint the movie shares with such excellent historians as Will Bagley (author of Blood of the Prophets). Only the made-up Jonathan Samuelson has a free mind; heck, the young man doesn’t even have one wife yet. What’s more, he only wants one, a gentle gentile gal who believes in love at first sight. Because Johnny be good (but a bad Mormon), his bishop daddy puts him in chains. Romeo eventually gets free and looks like he might save his Juliet, but alas this is indeed a tragedy. A voiceover at the end declares that the Mormon Church still hasn’t acknowledged Brigham Young’s true role in the 150-year-old massacre. One suspects that September Dawn—though it will entertain, inform and shock many people of all faiths—won’t change much.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.