But this one, from director/co-writer Christopher Cain (Young Guns) doesn’t even try. Instead, it cobbles together a weak Romeo-and-Juliet romance and pastes it onto something that manages somehow to be both unintentionally hilarious and borderline offensive. It does everything but gasp and insist there are horns under the Mormons’ hats.
Launched from a flashback, the story begins in earnest with the arrival of the Fancher/Baker wagon train in Utah in September 1857. Bishop Samuelson (Jon Voight) greets the travelers—who wish to stop, rest and resupply themselves on their way to California—on behalf of the Mormon settlers and, at first, seems cordial. But among the Mormons, there is great suspicion of outsiders, particularly those from Arkansas, due to the murder there of Mormon leader Parley Pratt. Samuelson secretly begins plotting against the travelers, but his feelings are not shared by his son Jonathan (Trent Ford), who falls instantaneously in love with Emily (Tamara Hope), a young woman traveling with the wagon train who, of course, instantaneously reciprocates. Can their feelings survive the enmity between their two peoples?
Cain can’t be blamed for taking a major historical event and making it all about whether or not young lovebirds will find happiness. The device has become a staple from the sublime (Titanic) to the ridiculous (Pearl Harbor), notwithstanding Casablanca’s insistence that the problems of two people, hill of beans, etc. He can share the blame, though, for making his central relationship so lame and perfunctory and for casting two such lifeless performers. Ford attempts a rebellious smolder like he’s in Mountain Meadows 90210, Hope plays sweet but chastely fascinated with this guy who can tame wild horses (metaphor alert!), and we’re expected to accept their mooning as the stuff of transcendent, star-cross’d love.
At least, however, the romantic subplot distracts from a version of the story that doesn’t merely insist that the LDS Church hierarchy, including Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), was in on the massacre. Apparently, they were also cackling in cartoonish villainy and twirling mustaches—er, beards—while plotting it. Cain creates one scene after another that seems intended simply to provoke agitation in Mormons, like portraying a temple ceremony or showing a meeting of the brethren that degenerates into lusty shouts of, “Blood atonement!” In the most egregious example, Cain crosscuts between two examples of prayer: the meek and mild supplications of the wagon-train party, and Samuelson’s request that Heavenly Father call down hellfire and damnation upon all the apostates.
It is perhaps fortunate for Cain that many viewers will be distracted from his film’s nastiness by its ineptitude. The performances range from the merely lackluster to the actively ludicrous; Voight, in particular, should thank his lucky stars that Cuba Gooding Jr. is around to top all lists of “Oscar winners who have subsequently turned into shameless, paycheck-cashing hacks.” The dialogue actually finds people saying things like, “I’ve got a bad feeling,” without any apparent irony, and the climactic bloodletting is, naturally, shot in bombastic slow-motion, punctuated by Jonathan’s brother Micah (Taylor Handley) goin’ saliva-dripping crazy. It’s the kind of movie where only the characters in it are unaware that if you chain someone to a bedpost, you could actually, you know, lift up the bed slightly and escape.
If only it had been that easy to escape September Dawn’s steaming pile of historical tar-and-feathering. Maybe Lee (played with at least a modicum of self-respect by Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Gries) was just a fall guy; maybe a paranoid Brigham Young did order the vile deed. But Cain doesn’t even pretend to try to make the Mormons human; here, they’re homesteading Nazis. His operatic nonsense accomplishes something I don’t think he intended: By treating the Mormons with such laughable contempt, he actually made me feel sorry for them.