Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. --Voltaire
September Dawn may or may not be well-intentioned; it's a lot easier to state that it's not well-made. Directed by Christopher Cain, September Dawn tells the story of an 1857 massacre where a group of settlers en route to California were attacked and slaughtered in Utah by a group of local Mormon residents. It also includes a Romeo-and-Juliet love story -- and yes, I'm taking that cliche phrase directly from the press notes -- between the young pioneer Emily (Tamara Hope) and Jonathan (Trent Ford), the eldest son of the local Mormon bishop (Jon Voight, sporting the requisite evil goatee). At first, the Mormon community offers the pioneers land and supplies so they can rest for two weeks before moving on; in time, though, inflamed by the words of Brigham Young (Terence Stamp, with an equally ominous set of whiskers) and paranoid concern that the settlers may be planning to strike out at them, Voight's followers decide to save the damned souls of the Christian group -- by cutting them down so they can sin no more.
September Dawn's been the focus of some controversy -- not because it's invented the climactic bloodletting; the events of that day, now known as the "Meadows Massacre," are a matter of historical fact. The controversy around September Dawn comes from its assertion that Young, the supreme leader of the Mormon church at the time, knew about the massacre before it happened and explicitly approved of it. The central question September Dawn wants to answer is simple: What did Brigham Young know, and when did he know it?
But controversy aside -- and that's a big aside, considering how September Dawn accuses a founding father of a major American religion with mass murder -- Christopher Cain's film is more substandard than it is scandalous. The dialog feels like it was taken from a school historical pageant -- heavy on factual exposition and bound up in stiff, flat language. The locations (the film was shot in that conveniently cheap Canadian simulacra of the American West, Calgary, Alberta) are attractive, but the basic cinematography -- the grammar of shots, scenes and edits -- is fairly ham-fisted: When the Christian settlers pray, their calls to God are shot from straight-on in warm firelight; when the Mormon congregation gathers to speak in the fiery tones of an angry Lord, they're shot from crazy angles in dim, spooky light. Director Cain also co-wrote the film alongside Carole Whang Schutter, but the script feels like it's just there to follow one path -- bad guys bad, good guys good -- on rails until the concluding massacre.
And oh, what a massacre it is. Gunshots, arrows, hatchets; there's a good, old-timey bloodbath at the end of September Dawn, which not only seems unsubtle (including one killer literally dripping with drool at the height of his bloodlust) but also somewhat at odds with the tastes of a large portion of the possible audience for September Dawn; You wonder if Christians will want to see a true tale of persecution and tragedy that comes wrapped in so much blood and grisly violence; then again, that didn't keep the Christian audience from seeing The Passion of the Christ. ...
On a performance level, September Dawn is also pretty barren. As the young star-crossed lovers, Tamara Hope and Trent Ford both have to deal with jaw-breakingly clunky dialog -- this is a film whose big courtship scene involves Hope and Ford walking through a meadow quoting scripture back and forth. While Ford's got a certain charisma, Hope looks slightly lost in her role, as if the thinness of the character seeped the energy out of her very flesh. Voight's fallen prey to Pacino's Syndrome recently -- the wasting disease that afflicts older American actors where they become deluded that showing up and shouting somehow counts as acting -- and, again, the script takes his character from gentle charity to homicidal lunacy so fast there's no sense of a person under Voight's busy, bewhiskered race through the plot points. Stamp also intones his way through his performance as Young -- he's displaying the symptoms of McKellen's Syndrome, the wasting disease that afflicts older English actors where they become deluded that showing up and enunciating is acting.
September Dawn is stiffly written, twisted by flashback upon flashback (and often by flashbacks-within-flashbacks) and shoddily made -- and that's putting aside the issue of whether the film's an insightful expose of a forgotten part of American history or a blatant libel against a forefather of one of America's more singularly American religions. There's no doubt that somewhere along the line, someone was passionate about making September Dawn -- there's too much money on-screen with the period costumes and sets for that not to be the case -- but passion's not necessarily the same thing as competence.