Empty"September Dawn," opening in limited release from Black Diamond Pictures, is a solemn package of historical fiction and an exceedingly old-fashioned one at that. It is also quite controversial among Western historians and the Mormon community, but this alone is unlikely to boost boxoffice. History teachers everywhere could rent this indie for years to come; otherwise, the market is a small one.
Director/co-writer/producer Christopher Cain's ambitious pioneer picture tells the story of the little-known Mountain Meadows Massacre of Sept. 11, 1857, in the Utah Territory. The event represented a low point in Mormon history, and many aspects and details of the incident are still debated to this day. In a small but key role, an aged Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) is seen in isolated testimony and heard in voice-over, punctuating the drama with spiteful rhetoric that the filmmakers (including co-screenwriter Carole Whang Schutter) claim they lifted from Young's own words.
The principal story line is anything but verbatim history, and the screenplay is the weakest aspect of the film. Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight), an invented amalgam of extremist Mormon deacons and military generals, has two young-adult sons: Jonathan (Trent Ford), the more handsome, sensitive and progressive of the two, tames wild horses. Micah (Taylor Handley) is his more obedient, unquestioning brother.
When a wagon train of humble Christians traveling from Arkansas to California asks to settle in for a few weeks of rest in a valley outside Cedar City, Utah, Jonathan locks eyes with sweet, young Emily (Canada's Tamara Hope), who is the minister's daughter. It is the young man's first encounter with outsiders, and he begins to stand up to his own martinet father (who is less God-fearing than godlike).
Samuelson still blames Missourians not only for rejecting the Latter-Day Saints years earlier but for the death of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (Dean Cain, the director's son, in a cameo). Apparently believing in guilt by association -- since Arkansas is near Missouri? -- he stirs up Cedar City congregants into a frenzy. He enlists deacon/lieutenant John D. Lee (an effective Jon Gries) in his scheme and dupes the local Paiute tribe into believing the worst about the innocent pioneers. All this builds toward a horrific attack that Jonathan tries his best to thwart.
Samuelson and the budding Romeo and Juliet are fictitious, but John D. Lee and other bits of the film are real, or at least based on research. (The LDS Church has been denouncing this picture for quite a while.) The performances are satisfactory, including an underused Lolita Davidovich, even if Voight appears to have left restraint in his trailer. Director Cain ("The Stone Boy," "Young Guns"), a South Dakota native, has spent his film career outdoors. While this is weightier material than he typically handles, Cain has crafted a modest picture, filmed in Canada, that too often feels like a very elaborate episode of "Gunsmoke."
Black Diamond Pictures
September Dawn Llc./Voice Pictures
Director: Christopher Cain
Screenwriters: Carole Whang Schutter, Christopher Cain
Producers: Scott Duthie, Christopher Cain, Kevin Matossian
Executive producers: Michael Feinberg, Patrick Imeson, Wendy Hill-Tout
Director of photography: Juan Ruiz-Anchia
Production designer: Rick Roberts
Costume designer: Carol Case
Music: William Ross
Editor: Jack Hofstra
Jacob: Jon Voight
Jonathan: Trent Ford
Emily: Tamara Hope
John: Jon Gries
Nancy: Lolita Davidovich
Brigham Young: Terence Stamp
Micah: Taylor Handley
Joseph Smith: Dean Cain
Running time -- 110 minutes
MPAA rating: R