Friday, June 5, 2009

Western Films: September Dawn

September Dawn
(Voice Pictures, 2007)

Directed by: Christopher Cain

Written by: Christopher Cain & Carole Wang Schutter

Cast: Terrence Stamp, John Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, John Gries, Taylor Handley, Dean Cain

I had the opportunity to check this film out the other night on pay-per-view. Though not a traditional Western in the typical sense, the film is set during the Westward Expansion and the film is built around the Mountain Meadows Massacre of the Fancher-Baker Wagon train by Mormon militia in Utah Territory in September of 1857. September Dawn is directed and co-written by Christopher Cain, who is probably best known as the director of Young Guns.

For those who don't know, during the 1850's, the Church of Latter Day Saints (better known as "Mormons") became well established in Utah Territory to the extent of establishing political control of a vast tract of land in and around the current borders of Utah. At the time, the LDS Church was actively seeking to establish a state of their own called Deseret and although their leader, Brigham Young, seeked recognition from the United States, tensions ran very high and eventually escalated into what became known as the Utah War which began in May 1857 and ended in July of 1858. Although the Utah War was primarily an armed stand-off between the Territory of Utah and the United States, it was far from bloodless and actually involved at least one third of the U.S. military and pitted them against the world's most experienced militia. At the time, many Mormons living in Utah Territory held a very real fear that the government of the United States seeked to destroy them for their beliefs. In the process of the Utah War, a wagon train known collectively as the Fancher-Baker party passed through Utah Territory and conspiracy theories began to circulate that the wagon train intended to inflict harm upon the local population. On September 11th, 1857, Mormon militia members, assisted by Paiute Indians swept down upon the party and massacred between 100 to 140 people, leaving only a few young children as survivors. Who actually ordered the massacre and what brought it on is still debated and until the release of "September Dawn" the Mountain Meadows Massacre was rarely spoken of and even less known.

The film itself actually centers on a love affair between Johnathan Samuelson (Trent Ford) who is the son of Mormon Bishop Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) and a young woman named Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope) who is a member of the wagon train.

Though some of the acting is a little less than solid and the running time didn't seem adequate to go into more detail, all in all, "September Dawn" is still a pretty good film. That said, due to the subject matter, it is one of those films that will either enlighten or infuriate and a rather heated controversy has erupted around the film since its release. Despite this, considering the little known historical matter, it is definitely recommended.

On a bit of a side note, co-writer Carole Whang Schutter, has also written a novel of the same name based on the film which is also available at Amazon.

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