Jon Voight looks like a monument in September Dawn, his jaw set and eyes granite hard. As Bishop Jacob Samuelson, he’s got a whole slew of grudges to nurse, plus 18 wives, multiple children, and an utterly faithful and God-fearing congregation. Stern, angry, and apparently power-mad, the Bishop plays something like the villain in Christopher Cain’s film, but he’s so resolutely and completely demented, it’s difficult to know exactly where to start blaming him.
In part, his strangeness is a function of his framing. The Bishop is preceded on screen by the film’s primary framing device, a testimony by Brigham Young (the intensely foreboding Terence Stamp) concerning the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which took place rather conveniently (and historically) on September 11, 1857. While the events of the day have long been denied by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, September Dawn asserts a fictionalized certainty, that on this day in Utah, a Mormon militia led by Samuelson murdered a wagon train of some 120 Arkansans en route to California. As Brigham Young has it, Church elders knew nothing of the attack ahead of time. As the film has it, Samuelson (a made-up character) was doing his bidding.
Angry and broadly metaphorical, the independently made, revisionist Western sets up a clear line between the innocent travelers, led by the ultra-decent Captain Fancher (Shaun Johnston), and the Mormons, cast here as bloodthirsty religious extremists. Their history is revealed in brief flashbacks to 1944, when their founder, the prophet Joseph Smith (played by the director’s son, Dean Cain), is killed in Arkansas by angry locals wearing Indian war paint and protesting the LDS, in particular, Smith’s practice of plural marriage and campaign for U.S. President. The incident ignites his followers’ sense of righteousness and persecution, in the film leading quite directly to the vengeance wreaked upon the Fancher party.
The film’s overwrought version of events has Samuelson referring more than once to the fact that the wagon train includes members from Arkansas (at the time, the federal government was reportedly sending troops to oust Young from his position as governor of the Utah Territory, again having to do with concerns about polygamy and separation of church and state. On meeting the travelers, whom the LDS members call “gentiles” or (odiously) “emigrants,” Samuelson is horrified by the presence of Nancy Dunlap (Lolita Davidovich), who wears pants, rides her horse astride, and carries a gun: an “abomination,” she’s a sure sign of the gentiles’ corruption by definition.
This first encounter is complicated by the fact of Samuelson’s sons (you never see another family member, none of his many wives or other children), Jonathan (Trent Ford) and Micah (Taylor Handley). While the latter is already well on his way to entrenchment in the church, with a couple of wives he can’t imagine “loving” (this portrayed in the brothers’ conversation), John is a romantic. When he spots the lovely Emily (Tamara Hope) among the travelers, he’s smitten. With this awkward Romeo-and-Julietish plot element, indicated by an exchange of glances, all slow motion panning in the sunlight, Samuelson’s total nuttiness is assured. Not only is he hysterical about the inadvertent intrusion into his land, he also sees the Fancher party as a threat to his own family.
The movie does include some historical figures, most damningly Young, who gives Samuelson the order to attack (the case has never been made against Young per se, and some historians claim he sent a letter commanding the militia to stand down, though the letter arrived, as they say, “too late”). In actuality, one man was convicted and executed, John D. Lee (Jon Gries), here a reluctant killer who only does what he’s instructed, visibly upset as he asserts he is only doing his “duty” by shooting Fancher point blank.
The film comes at the massacre by way of a long build-up: John has a talent for “talking to horses,” trains up a wild stallion the settlers have with them, receives the horse as a gift from Fancher, pledges his love to Emily (“I would die for the woman I loved!”), and declares he will leave the LDS and his very bad dad to go with her to California. John’s protests that the travelers—whom he is told to “keep an eye on” while his father goes to see Young and get his orders—are innocent only make Samuelson madder. (His very-badness is tied in the son’s mind to his treatment of John’s mother as property to be traded among LDS members, underscored by his insistence that John go through an induction and purification ritual that looks very creepy-cult-like.)
September Dawn makes an upfront argument, depicting the militia’s bloodlust as a multi-faceted and wholly devastating phenomenon. While Micah’s relationship with John is mostly cute (they tease each other about girls, obligations, and manly aptitudes), his decent into his father’s madness is abrupt and horrific. During Samuelson’s rousing “meeting of the saints,” John suggests, “We’re still part of the United States,” obliged to obey laws and not follow a man who “went to school for two months!” Samuelson asserts the need for “blood atonement,” glaring at his son the heretic: “To question the power of the apostle,” he roars, “is to question Jehovah Himself.” Micah does what he’s told, donning war paint and beads like the Paiutes whom Lee convinces to conduct the initial assault, and urging his brother to run away rather than lose himself as Micah does, dramatically.
Aside from serving as visual marker of the initially pretty Micah’s depravity, the Paiutes provide yet another indictment of the LDS. When Lee and Samuelson first press the Indian leader to attack the wagon train, he’s skeptical. “Why should we do all he killing?” he asks. Lee makes assurances, “You will be protected, we will give you ammunition.” Told they can loot the bodies, the Paiutes are turned into ignorant “volunteers” and mercenaries without investment in the LDS “cause.” When some braves are in fact killed during an initial raid, the Paiute leader backs out, so the saints have to do their own dirty work.
And it is colossally dirty. The massacre is rendered in slow motion, with dead babies and bloody girls strewn everywhere, the Mormon killers cast as terrorists that have generally been read as stand-ins for current-day Muslims. Still, Samuelson’s dedication is not so different from that of a certain U.S. administration. As hard as he may be, his story remains muddled.