Program Length: 111 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
“There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it; and the judgments of the Almighty will come, sooner or later, and every man and woman will have to atone for breaking their covenants.” Those words, uttered by Brigham Young during an address in Salt Lake City in 1856, refer to the controversial Mormon doctrine known as “blood atonement.” Critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claim that blood atonement was practiced literally by Mormons in the 19th Century, that apostates and non-believers were put to death for their transgressions. Mormons deny this, arguing that Brigham Young was speaking theoretically and that his words had no practical application. However, killing in the name of God and religion has been with us for as long as recorded history.
It is important to understand something about blood atonement because it is the subject of the film September Dawn. On September 11, 1857, approximately 120 men, women and children – settlers from Arkansas and Missouri who made up a wagon train headed for California – were massacred by Mormons (and perhaps some Native American Paiutes) in an area of southwestern Utah known as Mountain Meadows. To this day there remain questions as to how much, if any, complicity Brigham Young had in the murders. September Dawn argues that he not only knew the killings were to take place, but that he authorized them.
The wagon train is known as “the Fancher Party,” named after its leader, Alexander Fancher (Shaun Johnston). In addition to the settlers, the wagon train also has a substantial number of horses and cattle. Needing rest for the settlers and sustenance for the livestock, Fancher stops the wagon train and camps at Mountain Meadows. What Fancher and his party do not know is that Brigham Young had declared martial law in Utah after learning that President James Buchanan has dispatched troops to the Territory to put down what he perceived to be a rebellion. The Mormons have reason to be concerned, since they had previously been driven out of Missouri and Illinois. Also, a Mormon leader named Parley Pratt had recently been murdered in Arkansas. When Mormon Bishop Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) learns that the settlers are from Arkansas and Missouri, he suspects that their true intention is to stay in the area and join up with the U.S. troops when they arrive. He gives Fancher permission to stay at Mountain Meadows, but Samuelson instructs his sons Jonathan (Trent Ford) and Micah (Taylor Handley) to keep their eyes on the “emigrants.”
Samuelson then meets with Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), who believes that the settlers not only intend to help the U.S. troops, but that some of the Missouri settlers were complicit in the death of Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church.
In the meantime, an implausible and unnecessary romantic sub-plot emerges as Samuelson’s son Jonathan falls for Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope), the daughter of the wagon train’s minister. Jonathan, who also is a horse whisperer of sorts, immediately falls in love with Emily, even though he is the son of a Mormon bishop and she is a Gentile (non-Mormon). Jonathan reports back to his father that the settlers are intent upon going to California and represent no threat to the Mormons, but Bishop Samuelson ignores his son and exhorts his followers to impose blood atonement upon the wagon train.
The movie was filmed on location in Alberta, Canada, which is a reasonable facsimile for the real Mountain Meadows. The narrative does not always hold together, largely because of the romantic sub-plot. Jonathan, the most reasonable of the Mormon characters, is forced to act stupidly on the eve of the attack because otherwise he would warn the settlers of what was coming. However, once the attack begins the film becomes quite riveting. Even though we know what is coming, the massacre is chilling and disturbing to behold. The final act is marred somewhat by the actions of Jonathan’s brother, who inexplicably is transformed overnight from a nice guy into a bloodthirsty savage.
There are some excellent performances, particularly by Terence Stamp and Jon Voight. Lolita Davidovich appears as Nancy Dunlap, a settler who infuriates Bishop Samuelson because she wears men’s clothes and carries a gun. There is also a nice performance by John Gries as John D. Lee, the adopted son of Brigham Young, who reluctantly accepts the task of organizing and leading the massacre. The film is directed by Christopher Cain, the father of actor Dean Cain (who has a brief cameo as Joseph Smith).
The historical aspects of the film appear to be largely accurate. The LDS Church continues to maintain that Brigham Young neither ordered nor sanctioned the attack, but the most recent historical studies (see “Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows” by Will Bagley) argue that an act of that magnitude could not have been carried out without Young’s approval.
September Dawn has a number of weaknesses, but anyone interested in the Mountain Meadows Massacre will want to take a look at it.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is very satisfying. The images are sharp and stable. The outdoor scenes which were filmed in Canada are pleasing and eye-catching. Many of the indoor scenes take place at night, and shadow detail is very good. I did not observe any problems with digital artifacts. Colors appear to be represented accurately and flesh tones are natural. All in all, this is a very nice transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio produces intelligible dialogue and reasonably good separation. There is not a whole lot for the surround channels to do until the film gets to the attack on the wagon train, and even then the surround effects are not the sort to have you sit up and take notice. Nevertheless, the audio does an adequate job and I found nothing to complain about.
This DVD contains two special features. One is entitled “True Events: A Historical Perspective.” It features historian Will Bagley, whose 2002 book is currently regarded as the most comprehensive take on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He makes the argument that nothing of significance was done in Utah in 1857 without Brigham Young’s approval. The other featurette is “Descendants: Remembering the Tragedy,” which includes interviews with descendants of some of the victims. The descendants seem to have no doubt that the massacre was carried out under the direction of LDS Church leadership.
This single-disc DVD comes in a standard keepcase.
The Final Analysis
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have several first cousins who are Mormons. My uncle fell in love with a Mormon girl and she told him that she would not marry a Gentile, so he converted to the LDS Church several years before I was born.
Mormons steadfastly deny that Brigham Young was involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. As Will Bagley puts it, the logic is that Brigham Young was a prophet, prophets do not murder people, so Brigham Young could not have been involved. Therefore, Mormons are not going to be happy with the way their patriarch is portrayed in September Dawn. There is also a disturbing flashback scene in which Bishop Samuelson hands over his wife (and the mother of his two sons) to the polygamous prophet, who wants her for his own. All religions, it seems, have skeletons which they would just as soon see forgotten.
That said, September Dawn is an interesting film, but only an okay film. With tighter direction and without the unrealistic romance it could have been a very good film. Still, I recommend it for anyone who is interested in the subject matter. It will certainly cause you to want to learn more about it.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA2 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: January 1, 2008