'September Dawn' a campy screen disaster

Published August 23, 2007 3:08 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Posted: 3:04 PM- When watching the screen depiction of a historic event in which 120 people were murdered, giggling is not the appropriate response.

But "September Dawn," director Christopher Cain's drama set during the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is deserving of derision. Each stilted performance, each clichd line of dialogue, each paper-thin character stereotype is one brick in a fortress of ineptitude that turns a historical tragedy into a laughably campy screen disaster.

First, the history: In September 1857, the Baker-Fancher wagon train, made up mostly of Arkansas emigrants headed for California, temporarily camped at Mountain Meadows (in what is now Washington County, Utah). The party was attacked by Mormon militia disguised as Indians, along with a few actual Paiute Indians. On Sept. 11 - a date the filmmakers stress with sledgehammer subtlety - militiamen encouraged the emigrants to surrender, then killed 120 men, women and children. Years later, after two trials, LDS leader John D. Lee was convicted for his role in leading the militia. He was executed in 1877 at the site of the massacre.

The movie "September Dawn" plays out those grim events, but first introduces the two factions. The Baker-Fancher party are shown as kind innocents, while the Mormons are depicted as suspicious and closed-minded religious zealots. Even the sight of a female emigrant (played by Lolita Davidovitch) wearing pants drives the local Mormon leader, Bishop Jacob Samuelson - a fictionalized character played with over-the-top gusto by the once-respected Jon Voight - to puritanical apoplexy.

Meanwhile, back in Salt Lake City - or on a soundstage far removed from the Mountain Meadows shooting location in Canada - LDS Church President Brigham Young issues harsh proclamations such as "I am the voice of God, and anyone who doesn't like it will be hewn down." The actor playing Young, Terence Stamp, brings the same stage-trained villainy to these lines as he did to General Zod in the "Superman" movies.

In the middle of this tension, Cain and co-writer Carole Whang Schutter inject a blossoming relationship between Samuelson's gentle son Jonathan (Trent Ford) and the sweet-faced emigrant Emily (Tamara Hope). Ford and Hope have all the sizzle of a doused campfire, and you may start humming songs from "West Side Story" when you hear them deliver their trite dialogue.

The movie's one emotionally honest performance is handed in by Jon Gries (Uncle Rico from "Napoleon Dynamite"), who brings some weight and a sense of guilt to his portrayal of John D. Lee. But that can't compensate for two hours of canned melodrama, a tacky memorial unfit to honor those who died at Mountain Meadows.

-- Sean P. Means can be reached at movies@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">movies@sltrib.com or 801-257-8602. Send comments about this review to livingeditor@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">livingeditor@sltrib.com.



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