August 30, 2007

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September Dawn (R)
A group of 19th century Mormons kill a group of wagon-trainers passing through Utah in a massacre on Sept. 11, 1857 (religious extremism, deaths of the innocent ó analogy much?) in the historically questionable, low-budget-ish September Dawn, yet another bad summer movie starring Jon Voight.

I donít know nearly enough about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the history of Utah to know how much of this movie is true and how much is hooey. But I donít think the religion or its current members should be judged on this low rent movie or the bad acting of Jon Voight (seriously, is he that hard up for money?). September Dawn has clearly decided that the Mormons of mid-1800s Utah are the unrepentant bad guys in this equation and spares no opportunity make them look like dangerous rubes. Perhaps my squeamishness the tone of this movie belongs in some Jeff Foxworthy-like book called You Know Youíre a Knee-Jerk Liberal WhenÖ but all this subtlety-free portrayal of an entire religion as hateful gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Jacob Samuelson (Voight) and his many wives and children live in Utah and are part of a community that is wary of strangers and feels it could at any time be under attack. When a wagon train shows up in his valley, heís suspicious. When the leader of the wagon train casually mentions some of the members of the train are from Arkansas and some are from Missouri (site of the death of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith), Samuelson decides they must be up to something and sends he sons Jonathan (Trent Ford) and Micah (Taylor Handley) to keep an eye on them.

As yet scandalously unmarried, Jonathan has no problem keeping an eye on the wagon train members, especially Emily (Tamara Hope), herself a single lass. Even through sheís feisty and not Mormon, Emily begins to fit Jonathanís ideal image of a wife (perhaps even a solitary wife). For her part, Emily finds Jonathan charming despite his strange background (perhaps itís his horse-whisperer abilities). Can our some-kind-of-Protestant Juliet and our Mormon Romeo find a way to make their love work even as religious violence builds around them?

Hmm, what other American tales of mass murder can we set romances against? I think September Dawnís just discovered a whole new genre of bodice rippers.

A few Wikipedia entries do not a history expert make, therefore Iíll refrain from picking sides in the whole how-unfair-is-this-movie debate. So forget the political implications and historical accuracy of this movie. Letís focus instead on the craftsmanship.

Ever see Little House on the Prairie, the TV series than ran from 1974 to 1983? After careful consideration of the sets, acting, dialogue and insufferable moralism of that show, I would say that September Dawn is, quality-wise, about on par. Sure, the picture quality is better on September Dawn but the character development is much worse. Fewer cornball Michael Landon speeches, but youíve got the hell and brimstone rants of Jon Voight, which are unintentionally hilarious. As is a line later in the movie, when, after the settlers have been attacked by people they think are the Native Americans (itís really some mix of Native Americans and Mormons dressed like Native Americans) one of the wagon train members looks up and says something to the effect of ďthank goodness, the Mormons are hereĒ mere minutes before, as we know, the slaughter is about to begin.

The romantic scenes are particularly cringeworthy. Emily and Jonathan do a little kissing in a lake while on a horse ó and somewhere the fantasies from 12-year-old girlís diary made it in to the development process.

Near the end of the movie, Micah, the son whoís all gung-ho about following the rules, goes nuts, morally repulsed by what his father asks him to do but afraid to go against him. The scene should be all sorrow and heartbreak but instead itís like watching a junior high school production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or maybe of Teen Wolf. Micahís eyes are all red and his face is dyed-corn-syrup-blood-soaked. I read (on Wikipedia) that the intent of the movieís creators was to make people think about religious extremism and results of religious hatred. With all the snorts of derisive laughter, through, I donít know if thereís much room for quite contemplation. D-

Rated R for violence. Directed by Christopher Cain and written by Cain and Carole Whang Schutter, September Dawn is an hour and 50 minutes and is in wide release by Slow Hand Releasing and Black Diamond Pictures.