Critics pan “September Dawn”

August 27, 2007 | 66 comments
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New York Post: “‘September Dawn’ succeeds completely at failure; the unified incompetence of its writing, directing and acting suggest a man who manages to be on fire and drowning at the same time, just as the bus runs him over.”

New York Daily News: “‘September Dawn,’ written by an evangelical Christian, may be the worst historical drama ever made.”

New York Times: “The maudlin, grotesque western ‘September Dawn,’ . . . apes ‘Schindler’s List’ in hopes of creating a Christian Holocaust picture.”

Washington Post: “It’s a soap opera posing as moral outrage.”

Newsday: “[a] bombastic, slow-drying dramatization with lead-weight dialogue and a turgid romantic subplot.”

Arizona Daily Star: “[September Dawn] can’t shake the implication that it’s some sort of attack piece on the Mormon religion”

Los Angeles Daily News: “even if Cain and co-screenwriter Carole Whang Schutter hold no animosity toward the LDS, the flat-footed fakiness of their story prevents ‘September Dawn’ from feeling historically accurate.”

Baltimore Sun: “such ham-fisted earnestness does no one any good, least of all those who believe there’s a big difference between historical fact and emotional screed.”

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert): “If there is a concealed blessing, it is that the film is so bad.”

According to Rotten Tomatoes (an excellent website, in case you’re unfamiliar with it), September Dawn recieved positive reviews from only 15% of critics and an average rating of 3.5 on a 1-10 scale, making it one of the ten worst movies of 2007.

As I read the reviews, I realized that for many people, this review would be the only thing they would ever read or see about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and one of relatively few things they would read about Mormons. Though they hate the movie, the critics offer widely differing summaries and conclusions about MMM as background, with some accepting the movie’s depiction of events and some ridiculing the movie’s version as giggles-inducing preposterous. It should be unsurprising that few of the reviewers demonstrate actual knowledge of the MMM history and surrounding controversy. Roger Ebert, for example, though he wrote one of the more thorough and thoughtful reviews, still doesn’t know that John Voight’s leading character, Mormon Bishop John Samuelson, is fictitious.

While most people will fortunately never see the movie, for others, including some of the approximately 120,000 people who saw it this weekend, the movie will damage their respect for Mormons and the church.

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66 Responses to Critics pan “September Dawn”

  1. Eric Russell on August 27, 2007 at 12:52 am

    Possibly. If the film were more subtle it could easily have been damaging, but I think this movie is more likely to backfire. I think relatively few are going to buy into the Mormons as evil cult depiction.

    In addition, the movie could act as a sort of inoculation via absurdity. The discovery of the reality of MMM won’t be any shock for those already made familiar with it by way of a grindhouse film.

  2. se7en on August 27, 2007 at 12:52 am

    I’m surprised. The silly thing to me was a tagline I remember them using for to advertise their movie: “America’s first act of religious terrorism.”

    Then what do you call all the terror that anti-mormons leashed on us, because our Jesus wasn’t the same as theirs?

  3. MikeInWeho on August 27, 2007 at 1:28 am

    Sounds like Ed Decker Goes To Hollywood. Nobody is going to go see this movie; it will soon be gone. Don’t fret.

  4. lief on August 27, 2007 at 1:31 am

    Few are the movies that receive zero stars from Roger Ebert – September Dawn is in august company.

  5. Alison Moore Smith on August 27, 2007 at 1:37 am

    What a great bunch of quotes. I haven’t seen a pan like that in ages.

    I just saw another titled Painless Dawn, with this:

    If the Western genre is struggling, it’s because of terrible movies like this one, simultaneously pretentious, awkward and mawkish.

  6. Benjamin on August 27, 2007 at 1:51 am

    It\’s also worth noting that Ebert called it one of the worst historical dramas ever made. (I can\’t remember the exact quote, but it was in the Deseret Morning News this morning.) That\’s strong language, even for a film critic.

  7. Ryan on August 27, 2007 at 1:57 am

    Curses! Now I can’t make self-righteous arguments about how Mormons are martyrs of the media.

    *sigh*

    I’m going to go find somewhere where we are being persecuted so I can go back to feeling indignant and self-righteous

    Just Kidding :)

    Although It’s funny because it’s true

  8. Ray on August 27, 2007 at 2:05 am

    I didn’t realize the movie’s writer is an evangelical Christian – or that the movie says that JS was killed in Missouri. Talk about no attempt to do careful research!

    I thought Ebert’s review was amazingly thoughtful and insightful. I particularly liked his final comment: “I am trying as hard as I can to imagine the audience for this movie. Every time I make any progress, it scares me.”

  9. m&m on August 27, 2007 at 2:10 am

    I linked to a KSL story on my blog about this as well. (http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=1688467)

  10. Dan S. on August 27, 2007 at 2:51 am

    Two interesting links I found off of Matt’s links above:

    (1) Eric D. Snider’s very funny pan of this movie . . .http://www.ericdsnider.com/movies/september-dawn/; and

    (2) A very recent news story by the Church summarizing the MMM, written by Richard E. Turley Jr., Managing Director, Family and Church History Department. . .http://lds.org/ldsnewsroom/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=17bef28172543110VgnVCM100000176f620aRCRD&vgnextchannel=9ae411154963d010VgnVCM1000004e94610aRCRD

    Both links are well worth the time to read.

  11. Wizard of ID on August 27, 2007 at 5:50 am

    Quote: \”the movie will damage their respect for Mormons and the church.\”

    Mostly, they\’ll remember what an awful movie it is. And if anyone tries to say, \”What those mormons did was terrible,\” the reaction is going to be, \”C\’mon! You don\’t take that movie seriously, do you?\”

    As anybody who\’s ever been a schoolkid knows, the fastest way to win popularity is to get yourself criticized by somebody who\’s even more unpopular than you are! I think September Dawn will have completely the opposite effect that was intended — I think it\’ll make people lighten up on the church a little.

  12. Mark IV on August 27, 2007 at 8:04 am

    And it features John Gries? Say it ain’t so! There goes all my respect for Uncle Rico. Flip! Dang it!

  13. Dan on August 27, 2007 at 10:30 am

    This movie will be forgotten in a month. It tried too hard and went too overboard to be taken seriously. I am surprised that Christian organizations gave it enough money to make as much noise as it did. I am curious though, who were the funders behind this movie. It wasn’t any Hollywood major production company. Who gave them so much money for all that advertising?

  14. Ardis Parshall on August 27, 2007 at 10:49 am

    If it weren’t for the “massacre porn” (Variety’s phrase) at the end, I suspect that it would have become a camp Mormon movie, with audiences shouting out the kludgy dialog in unison, and pelting the screen with popcorn, or whatever other traditions developed. The ending is apparently too disgusting, though, for it to be used as a so-bad-it’s-funny DVD with campus FHE groups.

  15. Ivan Wolfe on August 27, 2007 at 11:14 am

    Here’s a positive review from a conservative film site. The reviewer liked it because it was a western and made Christians look good.

    http://www.libertyfilmfestival.com/libertas/?p=4994
    excerpt:
    The film does succeed as an allegory for the religious fanatics we face today. These Mormons are mysogynist dictators who spew the word “gentile” like our current enemy spews “infidel.” They are void of reason, charity, or any sense of humanity. What matters is their rabid faith and if gunning down children will put them right, so be it. Will it open any eyes? Will it help people gain a better understanding of the threat we face now? Or, will it just make the Mormons look bad? We’ll have to see.

    While this film was conceived and written long before Mitt Romney, a Mormon, became a serious candidate for president of the United States, it may be the first answer to any questions people have about his religion. In full context, the Mormons have contributed more to our society than is even possible to list. A benefit of September Dawn could be it starting a two-part conversation; one about our current battle against religious fanaticism, the other about the Mormon faith as a whole.

    At its heart September Dawn is a western, and they just don’t make enough of those these days. It’s beautiful to look at and documents a little-known event in our history. Less romance and more history would’ve served the story well in many respects, but watching these fine actors work and knowing this film’s meant to be a warning about our current dangers goes a long way.

  16. Non-Winter Meat Eater on August 27, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    I don’t think this movie will “damage” anyone’s respect for the Mormons. The only people who will take this movie seriously are people who already have a negative view of Mormons; it will only confirm in their minds what they already believe.

  17. John C. on August 27, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    Schaden meet freude.

  18. Christopher on August 27, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    There seems to be some confusion among some commenters on this thread about the film’s purpose. Wizard of ID (#11), you seem to be under the impression that the intent is to tear down LDS. According to the directors and producers, the film aims to use a historical event to illustrate the dangers of religious fanaticism (see: Radical Islam) today (which point was not lost on the critic quote in #15).

    That said, the film looks terrible, and the fact that a secularist critic like Roger Ebert blasted it is especially telling (the man gave “Two Thumbs Up!” to Air Bud for crying out loud).

    Now with that said, I can’t wait to go see the film this afternoon.

  19. Bookslinger on August 27, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    A Catholic lady pulled my missionary companion and I off the street, saying the Catholic priest was telling people he was going to excommunicate anyone who allowed us into their homes. She said she wanted us to tell her why he’d say that, and literally ordered us into her home. She said this very loudly, on the sidewalk, in earshot of everyone else on the block, in which the houses were built abutting each other, South-American style.

    We had taught and baptized her 18 year old son who didn’t want her to know he was investigating or had been baptized. So it was doubly-cool.

    Matthew 5:11, Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

  20. Terry on August 27, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    Too bad the movie was released too late to be featured in Ebert\’s recent book \”Your Movie SUCKS.\”

  21. Wizard of ID on August 27, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    Tell me about it, John C. September Dawn cost $11 million to make. After taking just $600,000 over its first (any movie’s most profitable) weekend, it is expected to gross a mere $3 million in income.

    Bigotry can be expensive!

  22. Andrew on August 27, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Does anyone know generally which movie theater chains have picked this movie up?

    I searched Regal Cinemas, which owns most movie theaters in the county where I live. Regal Cinemas isn’t showing the movie in any of it’s theaters–not even the ones that are dedicated to “artsy” or small indie films, nor the big megaplexes with 30 screens.

    However, I noticed that AMC is showing the movie at a couple theaters in my county. Here’s the synopsis of September Dawn that appears on the AMC website:

    “The Mountain Meadows Massacre, as it is known, occurred on September 11, 1857, and was the first known act of religious terrorism on U.S. soil. A group of Mormons, many disguised as Paiute Indians slaughtered all but 17 small children on a wagon train of 120 men, women and children traveling through Utah on its way to California. One man, the adopted son of Mormon leader Brigham Young, was eventually executed for the crime–20 years after the event. Hundreds of direct descendants of the massacre still assert that the iconic Brigham Young had complicity in the massacre, a view denied by the Mormon Church, even today.”

  23. John Lynch on August 27, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    My favorite line from a review:

    [Director Christopher] Cain has turned the Mormons into baby-eatin’ Nazis to suit his argument, parading around these black-clad, chin-bearded, testicle-slicing gunslingers without any thoughtful consideration. – Brian Orndorf, eFilmCritic.com

    More reviews compiled at:

    http://www.fairwiki.org/index.php/Mountain_Meadows_Massacre:September_Dawn_film

  24. Eric D. Snider on August 27, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    It’s showing at a Regal Cinemas theater in Portland. The film is being distributed by a new, independent company, one that doesn’t have the usual prior arrangements in place. I suspect they got it into whichever theaters they could manage, and that the theater chains looked at this the way they look at all independent films: “It probably won’t make us a ton of money, but eh, we’ll give it a shot.” The chains seldom give a film’s subject matter any consideration, or at least that’s been my experience. So I wouldn’t read too much into it either way.

  25. Jacob on August 27, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/challenges.php?id=1275873

    I don’t know how to link this, but this dude seems to think the movie is accurate!!!!! Wow!

  26. Questions on August 27, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    I have not studied the MMM in any great detail in the past, and am wondering how accurate and reliable the article by Richard Turley, Jr. in the current (Sept., 2007) issue of the Ensign is. If there are significant factual errors, or major “spin” please identify the specifics.

    Thanks.

  27. MikeInWeHo on August 27, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    It’s actually playing at a couple of major theaters here in L.A. (AMC and Mann). Can’t imagine it will be there for more than a week or two if the numbers are as bad as they say. Outside the Bloggernacle, this has to be the cinema non-event of the year.

    On the other hand, when I realized that they cast Dean Cain as Joseph Smith, I can’t deny I was tempted to go see the film….. : )

    http://www.tvguide.com/images/pgimg/dean-cain1.jpg

  28. Carlos on August 27, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Well, Jacob #25, the “conservative” in # 15 clearly states he’s an EX-mormon, and then he goes on to recommend some anti-Mormon books, you know, so you can get your history and all. Not that he’s biased, of course…

  29. Ray on August 27, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    Questions, about the only thing of serious significance in dispute is whether or not BY ordered the killing. Every serious scholar agrees that the rhetoric of the time contributed to the mentality that caused it, but the only “proof” that BY ordered it is Lee’s confession before he was executed – and the nature of such a confession (“It wasn’t my fault; someone else told me to.”), coupled with the undeniable letter BY wrote ordering the members to let the wagon train pass safely through the territory (that arrived two days after the massacre), leads most scholars at least to say, “We don’t know for sure.”

    Turley’s article, IMO, is very accurate – much more so than a movie that didn’t even bother to verify the state where JS was killed – and which was based on a concept the co-writer had before she even knew about MMM.

  30. Christopher on August 27, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Just for the record, the film doesn’t say that JS was killed in Missouri. During the martyrdom scene, it suggests that the mob is composed mostly of Missourians. Perhaps that is where the suggestion that the film identifies Missouri as the site of JS’s murder comes from.

    I can understand the confusion, though, since Illinois isn’t even mentioned in the movie. Also, given the rather hilarious fact that Dean Cain was really portraying JS on the big screen might have caused some viewers to not pay closer attention to the dialogue during that scene.

  31. MikeInWeHo on August 27, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    Amen, Christopher. Hottest Joseph Smith Ever. I bet the Affirmation crowd is flocking to this one!

  32. Jacob on August 27, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Joseph Smith = Superman!! Nice!

  33. Ray on August 27, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Christopher. Shows that I shouldn’t trust reviews either to be accurate – although I can understand why reviewers would make the connection as you explained it.

  34. Questions on August 27, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    Thanks, Ray.

  35. David Grua on August 27, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    Just to add to Ray’s comment (#29) on the (un)reliability of JDL’s confession, we don’t have the original manuscript. It was published after JDL’s death by his attorney, with all the proceeds going to attorney fees. Many historians believe (Bagley excepted, of course) that the attorney doctored it up for publication, in order to sell more copies. Unfortunately, without the manuscript to compare it to, we can’t know for sure what was inserted and what was original to JDL.

  36. Dan S. on August 28, 2007 at 12:24 am

    To call the MMM an act of religious terroism is misleading. It is trying to draw a parallel to fundmentalist religious sects that believe, as a policy or doctrine, that murdering humans is a relgious tenet, whether under the auspice of war, jihad, or some other mechanism to advance a religious agenda. However, as far as I know, such a doctrine has never been, and is not currently, a doctrine or tenet of the LDS church. Consequently, the MMM is a one-off act in Mormon history, an anomoly, a sad example of what anger, confusion, and fear can do to a relatively small group of persecuted individuals in a pressure cooker. Unfortunately, however, this film is trying to depict the Mormon religion as one of those sects who support terror. That kind of speech is far from useful. It is inflamatory. I don’t see it opening up any good dialogue.

  37. Kyle R on August 28, 2007 at 3:15 am

    I second what Dan S. says. As a non-Mormon with a philosophical interest in certain aspects of Mormonism, I look at the massacre this way. It’s clearly an out-of-character blip compared to the wholesale slaughter carried out in history for explicitly religious reasons by Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Moslems. And it was obviously done in an overall climate of fear and confusion, which is understandable in human terms, given what the LDS church had been through up until that point.

    I haven’t seen the film and am not particularly interested in it. But as someone who has read both pro- and anti-Mormon arguments, the general viciousness and lop-sidedness of much (but not all) of the “anti” camp repels me not only for the childish tone and tilting at windmills, but on account of what – even to a non-expert – is the repeated taking of things out of their context.

  38. Eric Russell on August 28, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    I actually thought the most potentially offensive part of the film is one that’s received fairly little attention – a brief but long enough to be disturbing depiction of an initiatory and endowment. It holds no purpose in the film other than to progress its central thesis that Mormons are weird and cultish. And aside from the fact that the ceremonies are held in a very dimly lit room, the initiatory was particularly strange. But I’ve no idea if it was accurate. Does anyone who’s seen the movie know? Were initiatories really like that back in the day?

  39. David Grua on August 28, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    Eric: My understanding is that the portrayal is the film is somewhat accurate. I think that Buerger may cover this in _Mysteries of Godliness_, but it’s been a few years since I read it. John-Charles Duffy gave a paper at the American Academy of Religion conference that discussed the decline of ritual nudity in the temple. (I suspect, though I don’t know, that that is partially why he got exed recently). Anyway, there is some indication that the initiatories were at some point performed on naked bodies and that large vials of oil were used. Reliable sources that describe the 19th century temple ceremony are few, and most that do exist come from hostile sources that should only be used with care. IIRCC, however, the film portrays women washing and annointing men, which I’m almost certain was not part of the ceremony.

  40. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    David, I agree that the women washing men was off. And offensive since it attempted to sexualize the whole thing. But clearly Eric is right in that (judging from the trailer anyway) the scene is designed to just make the Mormons look cultish. In that it really is like the Godmakers.

    Of course the early Christians according to many documents baptized naked.

  41. David Grua on August 28, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    I too found the portrayal of the temple ceremony (as well as the recitation of one of the covenants, with penalities) to be offensive. I had forewarning (thanks to John Hamer’s review) that the film was going to show that. I feel bad for those Mormons that went and were blindsided.

  42. Shash Nahalin on September 3, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    SD folks are floating conspiracy theories to flack for the moive.

    SD Distributors has a news release on BUSINESS WIRE—Here is an excerpt: \”Independent Media accounts have begun to surface questioning whether there is an organized effort to discredit the film, especially in light of numerous heavy-handed reviews (“September Dawn: Criticism or Sabotage?” by Ken Eliasberg).\” Note both the FrontPage.org article and the news release came out the same day suggesting coordination.

    http://home.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/index.jsp?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20070831005582&newsLang=en

    Script writer, Carole Whang Schutter\’s floated the conspiracy theory in an August 29 e-mail which also explains her motives (apparently) in her own words here:

    http://www.box.net/shared/t62rjva876

    Note in the e-mail she discloses that her brother-in-law ministers to “Ex-Mormons” whom she hopes the movie will help. If the e-mail is really from Whang Schutter, we understand why it is so full of venom. I doubt Cain or Voight knew about any of this.

  43. Spencer Macdonald on September 4, 2007 at 1:27 am

    Shash Nahalin:

    If you want some insights into why Carole Whang Schutter wrote the screenplay, check out her recent interview on a Protestant talk show out of Denver (WARNING: there is a brief reference to temple content in this interview):

    http://www.godtube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=f8518cd7ff4ec204377c

    If you want to download it (it\’s an .flv file), here\’s the direct link to the file:

    http://www.godtube.com/flvideo1/36/25257.flv

    A partial transcript of the interview is available here:

    http://tinyurl.com/3asyzz

    Spencer Macdonald

  44. Wizard of ID on September 4, 2007 at 3:04 am

    “our intention has never been to denigrate the current Church of Latter Day Saints”

    Of course it wasn’t. That’s why the Mormons are all portrayed as raving fanatics, drooling as they hack their victims to death, while the wagon company are all simple, kind-hearted Christian folk. That’s the way it was, right? It’s all historically accurate. We Mormons are all black-hearted, evil fanatics.

    The fact that their movie has flopped so badly, and that Roger Ebert and the New York Times (among so many others) slammed it so hard, can’t possibly be that the movie is crap. Of course, it’s all to do with an LDS church conspiracy to have it suppressed!

  45. Wizard of ID on September 4, 2007 at 3:19 am

    I love this line from the e mail:

    “We have been heavily slammed in the press and perhaps I’m being paranoid but the apparent sameness of their opinions are too coincidental”

    No, you’re being paranoid. They criticize the movie for the same reasons, because they all thought it sucked for the same reasons. Journalists, of course, love to be told what to write, don’t they?

    “I am aware of persecution of ex-Mormons who have become Christians in Utah.”

    That’s a little rich given the christians’ history of persecuting Mormons, and that so many Americans say they wouldn’t consider voting for Mitt Romney simply because of his religion. But actually, (although it’s rather embarassing to admit), I went inactive while I was a BYU student, and attended the Episcopalian church in Provo for a time. I didn’t experience any persecution.

    “They don’t have to be told – they “know” what they should do”

    Our critics flatter the LDS church too much. Anyone who thinks the LDS are so organized and so self-disciplined, clearly has never had to sit through a ward council meeting!

  46. CRAIG C on September 5, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    “September Dawn” was originally scheduled for spring release. In anticipation of this release date, the Deseret News published an article about its making, and possible Mormon reaction. When I read about the movie, my immediate question was, “Why on earth would a Hollywood type make a movie about MMM, and who could possibly think this is a money-making idea? Who would fund such a movie?” I concluded it likely that whoever was behind the idea was motivated by dislike of Mormonism. I thought it probable that the filmmaking team was influenced by a Hollywood type who disliked Mormons because of their moral conservatism, or by a virulent ex-Mormon. I wondered if I could find any information to help me answer my questions, and I googled Christopher Cain, the director. Mr. Cain had made a well received Indie film some time ago, but had recently made poorly-received low-budget comedies. He had not had a film in years that could be considered successful, a fact which increased my curiosity about funding of such a project. I found a New York Times piece on the making of “September Dawn” in which Mr. Cain said the movie would really be about September 11! He also said his Aspen neighbor, Carol Whang Schutter, furnished him with the idea and convinced him to make the movie. I googled Ms. Schutter. She was not a screen-writer before working on “September Dawn”, and could not have been considered a professional writer at all. She was, however, young and attractive, and the tone in which Mr. Cain had spoken of her in his NYT interview suggested to me there might be a factor to the relation of Mr. Cain and Ms. Schutter in addition to the working relationship. Her personal web site made quite a big deal about her faith as an Evangelical Christian. This seemed a relevant piece of information on the question of motivation for making the film — relevant but not determinative. I thought that the information was sufficiently relevant that it ought to be disclosed, especially since, given the controversial nature of MMM in the year of Mitt’s campaign, more news articles about the movie were likely to be forthcoming. But then I thought about the many news articles I had read about people who had broken the law, which articles made what seemed gratuitous mention of the fact that the violator was a Mormon. In the most egregious of these articles the circumstances of the law breaking had nothing to do with the person’s religion. I emailed a note to the Deseret News reporter enclosing the links to the NYT article and the Schutter personal web site. I indicated the information about Schutter’s faith seemed relevant to me. Though the DN reporter thereafter published more articles on the movie, I never saw any mention of Schutter’s faith from any news source until the New York Daily News mentioned the fact without comment, in its review of the movie.

    Was this a piece of information the Deseret News should have included in its articles about the movie before its release?

  47. Spencer on September 5, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Craig C:

    You said: “She was not a screen-writer before working on ‘September Dawn’, and could not have been considered a professional writer at all. She was, however, young and attractive, and the tone in which Mr. Cain had spoken of her in his NYT interview suggested to me there might be a factor to the relation of Mr. Cain and Ms. Schutter in addition to the working relationship.”

    This is an appalling thing to speculate about.

    -Spencer

  48. Lib on September 25, 2007 at 7:27 am

    Permit me to go a little contrarian here. Much as I admire Roger Ebert and depend on his critiques to select good viewing on Netflix, and much as I respect other serious film critics who have panned this movie, I have to say it was not the worst film I’ve ever seen, though primed with extensive reading about it, including Ebert, the DesNews and even this thread, I fully expected a cinematic failure of the first water.

    I can’t see that the depiction of the Baker-Fancher party, angelic creatures all, nor the blaggard Mormons, the black hats of the piece, are stereotypes and extremes drawn any more egregiously in this flick than say the Indians and the settlers in nearly all movie westerns up until about the time of Little Big Man – the 70s or so.

    The inclusion of a little cross-tribal romance is an old and venerated storyteller’s device and seems no worse or different to me than weaving young love into Handcart or the venerable Work and the Glory. Why should anyone complain?

    It seems to me that the history, while full of invention, gets at the essential fact that the members of the wagon train, including a lot of children – making an incomprehensible horror somehow more horrific – were slain in cold blood by Mormons who deceived them into surrendering their arms and submitting to the briefly feigned protection of their executioners. The Brigham Young sequences are argued by scholarly students of the Mountain Meadows crime still and the poisonous rhetoric of bishop what-his-name is all made up but how wrong can it be, given what we know of the zealousness of the reformation sweeping the territory, and since it is a given that something and someone talked good people into becoming murderers?

    Cinematically, I thought the story was well told with moving pictures and not just the dialogue, as it should be. I even thought the Calgary location was handsome and the cinematography sometimes quite beautiful, something important to me on both a technical and aesthetic level.

    In fact, aren’t most of the reactions, including those of non-Mormons, more easily understood as not criticisms of this film as cinema but of this film as history, and criticisms of the film as history because believers KNOW Mormons are good people, a notion shared by many non-believers, and because given the political milieu of our time, all of us, myself included, believe this film was made with an agenda to discredit the modern Church by drawing the ugliest portrait possible of its ugliest historical episode?

    Well, film as polemic is hardly a new phenomenon. We don’t have to hate every possible aspect of this movie because we think it was unfair to our ancestors by painting them darkly and leaving out their humanity.

    Like most people with an interest, I’ve read the circumstances of the massacre, the politics, the ferment, the memories, and tried to understand the stage set for it. But like most people, I still cannot grasp how folks as good as my pioneer ancestors, whose spirit and grit I revere to my core, could ever have come so low as to commit these atrocities. Struggling to make sense of it, I project that myself and my friends could not possibly be capable of these deeds. But reflecting, and believing the perpetrators no less decent or pious or faithful than any of us, and probably much more so, I’m left with the indigestible notion that somehow we, I, could have done it too. That is a place too dark to tarry long.

    It appears that September Dawn has made hardly a blip on anyone’s radar screen so I doubt that it has done the educating (make that harm to the Church – perhaps the Mormon presidential candidate) that looks to have motivated it in part. But if you suspend disbelief and if you can overlook the overdrawn sinisterness and your natural tendency to explain and defend, and you just take in the essential truth that a wagon train of ordinary people were brutally massacred by Mormons in a scene whose brutality and inexplicability make you want to turn away, you can get something out of this movie more important than anger at its makers.

  49. Ardis Parshall on September 25, 2007 at 8:12 am

    Lib, that’s an awful lot of “ifs” on the way to a very nebulous “something” — evidently too much work for too little payoff for all but a few dozen people. Is the thing even still on a screen anywhere?

  50. Lib on September 25, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Hello Ardis,

    The nebulous something is the unmatched power of a moving picture to instill a richer, more visceral appreciation for what “our people” did to those people. An emotional one. I cry in movies; they work on me. I can’t be the only one.

    BTW, there’s another route to this state. I once saw a detailed presentation from a forensic osteologist who had a few days with some of the bones when they were dug up, and sure enough, those bones spoke for the dead just the way she said they would. Skull entry and exit wounds, among other insults, and a chilling, sorrowful catalog of sex and age of the victims, coupled with the merest of imagination, grabbed my head and gave it a hard twist too. I’d almost rather they didn’t.

  51. Russell Arben Fox on September 25, 2007 at 9:55 am

    The inclusion of a little cross-tribal romance is an old and venerated storyteller’s device and seems no worse or different to me than weaving young love into Handcart or the venerable Work and the Glory. Why should anyone complain?

    Lib, not to nitpick a relatively small point in your argument, but…did you really just call Work and the Glory “venerable”? Dude, that movie totally sucked. (I’ll give Handcart a pass, because that was a complete in-house production with the narrative standards of a script written for a Deacon-Beehive roadshow, and besides, I kind of got a kick out of the poofy-haired doofus they had playing Joseph Smith.)

  52. Jonathan Green on September 25, 2007 at 10:20 am

    Lib, that’s the most reasonable take on “SD” I’ve read. Curse you! Now our ham-fisted attempt to control the media is all for naught. (Welcome to T&S, where we’re always glad to see thoughtful and reasonable comments, except when we’re trying to infiltrate bastions of media power for our own nefarious ends.)

  53. Janet on September 25, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Lib said: “But reflecting, and believing the perpetrators no less decent or pious or faithful than any of us, and probably much more so, I’m left with the indigestible notion that somehow we, I, could have done it too. That is a place too dark to tarry long.”

    As a college freshman I sat in Wilfred Griggs’ and Alan Keele’s phenomenal “History of Civilization” course and watched __Triumph of the Will__. That thing–that propagandistic *thing*–really does constitute breathtaking cinema, good art devoid of good morals (if you believe such a thing possible). After watching it I wrote “could I have known? Could I have known?” over and over in my journal, having realized for the first time that Germans who became Nazis weren’t all Satan’s followers who’d wormed their ways into human form. They existed in a particular historical context which, had I been a part of, I may have responded to in kind. It’s a thought which horrifies and haunts me still. And it was one of the best lessons the course–or life in general–have ever taught me. But it also gives me literal nightmares. Thanks, Lib, for articulating your argument so well.

  54. Adam Greenwood on September 25, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Why do critics ‘pan’ things? Where’s that expression come from?

  55. Janet on September 25, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Oh yeah–I’m not comparing Riefenstahl’s artistry with that of the maker of SD. Just the realization which can come at the end. Riefenstahl was a real artist; thus, her film much more dangerous.

  56. Ray on September 25, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Wonderful thoughts, Lib. Just as a modern application:

    When the movie was released, then when the newspaper articles were written about the 150th anniversary of MMM, I read a few of them – and the comments about them. I quickly stopped doing so, specifically because of what I saw on both sides – the vitriol that came from those who use any excuse to spew bile about the Church, but also the reactions of the Mormons who tried to defend the Church. What I saw disturbed me deeply.

    Each said was lashing out at a perceived threat – one side swinging verbal hay-makers at the Church, and the other side swinging just as energetically back at them. There were no dead bodies – no bullets or other tangible weapons, but these people were reacting essentially in the exact same way that the local members had with the MMM. There really wasn’t a life-threatening attack on the Church occurring, and there really wasn’t a need for a “counterattack” on the perceived attackers. I loath the tactics of the bitter, anti- crowd, but I am much more saddened over the members who were lashing out in defensiveness over an attack that really wasn’t a serious threat to themselves. When all is said and done, if we don’t learn from history we are destined to repeat it – even if there are no tangible weapons involved in our own battles.

  57. Ray on September 25, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Each side, not each said. Wow.

  58. Ardis Parshall on September 25, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    But reflecting, and believing the perpetrators no less decent or pious or faithful than any of us, and probably much more so, I’m left with the indigestible notion that somehow we, I, could have done it too.

    That’s exactly why the story deserves a serious look, not the cartoonish, melodramatic botched job that was SD. Of course the boorish, backward, hateful monsters that Cain painted could/would do horrible things. Big deal. So what? Who cares? But how do you explain good people doing those things? How could people very much like you and me be brought to the point where they were willing to, and did, do that? From all that has been said about it, SD is a yawner because it didn’t pretend to try to begin to start to survey the remotest shadow of an interesting question.

  59. Janet on September 25, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Ray: amen. I’ve watched such disturbing interchanges on the imdb over movies with only the barest suggestion of Mormonism (_Saints and Soldiers_, for instance). The anti-feeding frenzy may force my eyes to roll, but the militaristic “defense” some members hand back scares me silly. As one of the reviewers said of SD, “our worst speak for our best.” I know those members’ have fine motives, but there would be no “war” if they’d stick with the eye-rolling or maybe take a stab at empathy.

    I just saw a descendent of the MMM victims post a 5 star rating somewhere, noting how “historically accurate” the film was and how pleased she felt. At first I wanted to blast her with a note regarding what constitutes historical accuracy rather than “ham-fisted earnestness.” Then I wondered how I’d feel if I were her. As a kid I certainly bought into the portrayals of the Illinois and Missouri gentiles as purely evil, and would’ve loved a film excoriating them. My illustrated BOM picture book featured ugly, brutish looking villians and aethetically gorgeous prophet/heroes who could’ve been either abnormally buff models for Calvin Klein. Sigh.

  60. Adam Greenwood on September 25, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Ray, I think its too easy to try to find a middle ground. It implicitly assumes that the movie doesn’t have a quality of its own, that the reactions are merely tribal. But I think its fair to say in this case that the movie’s quality is bad and that its intent is propagandistic and derogatory.

  61. Ray on September 25, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    Adam, I agree completely with your review of the movie’s inaccuracy and obvious agenda. I didn’t mean to endorse seeing the movie, since I never have or would do so. I always try to see what can be learned from something, so I tend to like the “Sure it was over-the-top, but what can I learn from it anyway?” angle – the “thoughts” of the last paragraph, mostly. I should have made that clearer, since I do agree that it was a propagandist hack job.

  62. Jacob M on September 25, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Adam 54 – the dictionary response:

    pan (n.)

    O.E. panne, earlier ponne (Mercian), from W.Gmc. *panna (cf. O.N. panna, O.Fris. panne, O.L.G. panna, O.H.G. phanna, Ger. pfanne), probably an early borrowing (4c. or 5c.) from V.L. *patna, from L. patina “shallow, pan, dish,” from Gk. patane “plate, dish,” from PIE base *pet- “to spread.” Ir. panna probably is from Eng., and Lith. pana is from German. Used of pan-shaped parts of mechanical apparatus from c.1590, hence flash in the pan, a fig. use from early firearms, where a pan held the priming (and the gunpowder might “flash,” but no shot ensue). The verb meaning “criticize severely” is from 1911. Pancake is c.1430; as symbol of flatness c.1600. To pan out “turn out, succeed” (1868) is a fig. use of the lit. sense (1839) from panning for gold. To go out of the pan into the fire (1596) is first found in Spenser.

  63. Nate Oman on September 25, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    “The anti-feeding frenzy may force my eyes to roll, but the militaristic “defense” some members hand back scares me silly.”

    This strikes me as an unjustified response. To be sure, many defenders of the church say stupid or counterproductive things, but being “scared silly” strikes me as precisely the kind of melodramatic personal reaction that fuels the screeds in the first place. I suspect that we would have better conversations if we realized that frequently our moral reactions to what others are saying are not as important as we think they are.

    Also, I think that you ought to be able to call a crappy movie, crappy without being deconstructed into a tribal warrior leading us all into a needless aramageddon. Sometimes a bad review is just a bad review.

  64. Janet on September 25, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Sorry, Nate–You make a fine point. I was typing quickly and often use hyberbole in oral interchanges. It doesn’t always translate well online and doesn’t coalesce with the predominant tone of T&S. I will stand by “scared” though–I truly do feel frightened when I see members totalize someone based on their primary totalization of Mormonism (artificially tacked onto a film about something totally different–it would make a little more sense w/SD. I was alluding to full-fledged conversations about the validity of Mormonism I’ve seen on imbd threads about nominally LDS flicks). I feel frightened because I recognize my own initial intentions upon reading screeds aimed at my church “family.” We loathe in others, often, what we fear in ourselves. And I fear my own reactions in such instances, even though I bridle them.

  65. Janet on September 25, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    That second paragraph wasn’t aimed at me, was it? Because if so I am unsure to what you are referring and require clarification.

  66. k l h on September 25, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Schutter explained in her TV interview how she had originally been writing what was a MMM-based novel that depicted its villians as members of a fictional cult, but that when Cain started to collaborate with her on a screenplay, Cain wanted them to stick with (Bagley’s Blood-of-the-Prophets-style) “true history.” Which made me wonder what reaction their starkly black-and-white piece would have gotten if it had featured unidentified villains.

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