September 13, 2007
— Seth Perry
On September 11, 1857, a group of Mormons and Native Americans slaughtered over 120 members of a wagon train passing through southern Utah in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The event is a blot of abiding shame on the frontier heritage Mormons revere, and has been the subject of a number of critical, considered studies over the last 150 years. September Dawn, a new movie about the massacre directed by Christopher Cain (Young Guns), is certainly critical, but not so much considered. Cain’s ham-fisted approach to sensitive historical details is standard enough for Hollywood fare, but two other interrelated features of the movie are gravely problematic. First, Cain presents the movie not just as historical fiction but as historiography—he wants the viewer to believe that there are details of the actual events which he is bringing to light, in the manner of a documentarian. Second, the handling of these “newly-revealed” details constitutes a bald-faced attack on Mormonism and, to the point, Mormons.
September Dawn is not a documentary; it’s a disaster movie with largely fictional characters, and not a very good one. With the production values of a History Channel re-enactment, the romance of a Lifetime special, and the dialogue of a television movie-of-the-week, September Dawn operates according to the familiar historical-disaster-movie format, with a treacly romance set against a backdrop “inspired by actual events.” Poorly-written disaster movies are harmless enough—sometimes they even win Oscars—but Cain contends that this movie is much more than a simple yarn set in a semi-recognizable past. One of the posters for the movie proclaims, “Who ordered the massacre, and why, has been hidden in a cloak of secrecy and conspiracy….Until now.” The “historical background” text that appears on the screen at the beginning and end of the movie similarly lays claim to a “factual” representation of history. “Factuality,” of course, is endlessly contested ground among historians, but no especially robust theory of historiography is required to undermine this particular claim to it—the main “evil Mormon” character is completely fictional, for starters, and Cain has said that the research for the movie was done “on the internet.”
The major detail that Cain claims to have uncovered is that Brigham Young was personally responsible for ordering the massacre. The question raised by this contention is not whether it bears any resemblance to historical reality. Scholars are divided on the question of what and when Young knew about the massacre, because most believe that the documentary record doesn’t offer enough material for a clear determination. The question the movie raises is why Young’s involvement matters so much to the makers of this movie. Cain has said that he is making a point about religious fanaticism, with all of the weight that phrase carries in our time (note the date of the Mountain Meadows incident). While this point could have been made by sticking to local Mormon leaders whose behavior could well be called fanatical and who were demonstrably involved in the attack, Cain seems to feel that his point about blind obedience to authoritarian religious leaders is lost if he can’t implicate the highest Mormon leader of the time in inciting the slaughter.
This obsession with Young’s culpability takes on a sinister cast in light of the movie’s general portrayal of Mormons. The movie features exactly one redeeming Mormon character, and he leaves the faith; all other Mormons are depicted in variously negative ways. In one representative sequence, prayers by the Mormon bishop and the generic Protestant minister traveling with the wagon train are juxtaposed: we see the peace-loving minister—who might as well be wearing tie-dye and sandals—praying for God to bless the Mormons, while the evil Mormon prays that all the settlers go to Hell. Elsewhere, Cain employs flashbacks to paint the Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, as a brutal autocrat. In light of this tone, Cain’s unhistorical flogging of Young feels like an instrument for branding all Mormons as fanatics through one of their most well-known and honored leaders.
A movie focusing on the demonstrated culpability of certain Mormons local to Mountain Meadows in 1857 might well be the affecting story of religious fanaticism that the director wants the viewer to think he has made. This movie feels like an assertion that Mormonism is inherently authoritarian and violent. B-movies should not be construed, let alone conceived, as vessels of historical truth; neither should even they have room for such dangerous and ignorant stereotyping. Those wanting to know more about Mountain Meadows should read Juanita Brooks’s The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Those wanting to see an absurd but entertaining fictional movie about Mormons should rent Orgazmo.
Seth Perry is a Ph.D. student in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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