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September Dawn

Although it's slightly more entertaining than a history lecture, September Dawn in no way works as a compelling drama.


On July 30, 1875, an elderly Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) flashes back to the events leading up to the massacre of a group of settlers heading west to California, known as the Mountains Meadows Massacre. The story begins in 1857, when a wagon train stops in Mormon territory needing supplies and rest. At first, the Mormons urge the settlers to move on, but Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) finally allows them two weeks on their land, even though he privately prays for these abominations to go to hell. It seems these settlers' way of life threaten the Mormon principles, including that fact they practice monogamy and the women wear pants. But this doesn't stop Samuelson's son, Jonathan (Trent Ford), from falling for the young settler Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope), which leads Jacob to begin spreading rumors about the settlers—and setting into motion the inevitable violent conclusion. September Dawn is anything but subtle.


Voight hams it up (as he's wont to do) as the two-faced Jacob Samuelson. but he's the bad guy and in this simple tale, his over-the-top performance is actually welcomed. On the other hand, Stamp is a bit scarier as Brigham Young. Even if it's a tad one note, Stamp's portrayal of Young's obvious paranoia and xenophobia gives you chills. As the young, attractive lead, Ford (How to Deal)'s character actually evolves, questioning the ways of his people and fighting for a new life. Of course, this performance calls for much doe-eyed innocence, which gives way to screaming until he's hoarse—but again, this is not a subtle movie. Hope (Shall We Dance?) is perfectly sweet as the young lass on her way to a new life in California. In fact, she's so agreeable, there's no way you could wish any harm to her. Lolita Davidovich has a truly thankless role as one of the settlers wearing pants who foreshadows the impending violence. And Dean Cain makes a quick cameo as Joseph Smith, the great Mormon deity, but doesn't give it much oomph.


Director Christopher Cain's last film credit was the 1997 film Gone Fishin', which should tell you something right there. The director (who is father to Dean) creates a credible 1857 milieu--although no one is as dirty or grimy as they should be in those conditions. These people have been outdoors for months, for pete's sakes. But when the violence occurs, Cain fails in setting up a tense situation and the result ends up looking ridiculous. In fact, it looks like the action sequences were set up by one guy, instead of a team. Also, the quick cuts look like a student film montage slapped together, while the sweeping, epic camera moves are jerky, as if the cameraman can't keep up. Whether or not the massacre happened this way, September Dawn's portrayal of this violent conspiracy is one-sided—and unfortunately, poorly executed.

Bottom Line rated this film 1 1/2 stars.