Hollywood’s take on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, September Dawn, should have been out for public consumption by now. The release has reportedly been delayed until August. There is a possibility, however remote and unlikely, that the producers of the film have made the decision to postpone the release until August in collaboration with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a good-faith attempt to let objective historians — and the Church and its supporters — supply details that the film consciously ignores.
In truth, it is not the case (or is virtually impossibly the case) that the producers of this film have postponed the film in order to allow full disclosure about what is known of the historical details to surface onÂ the internet. (Also, it is unlikely that the Church would have any interest in such collaboration.) But the result of the producers’ choice to postpone means that more lead time exists to pull details of the story that the film ignores into a format more readily available for mass consumption than dense history books that few have read — including the film’s producers, apparently.
Pre-releasing an Ensign article about the massacre by Richard E. Turley Jr. slated for hard-copy publication in the September 2007 Ensign this week to www.lds.org is one such move that can bring easier access to facts about the horrible massacre.
Actor Jon Voight, who features in the film as a bloodthirsty Mormon bishop, has appeared in media interviews discussing the film. He has acknowledged in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that the film does not portray that Brigham Young sent a letter expressly instructing the militia not to molest the emigrant wagon train:
Hewitt: â€œHow does the movie depict Brigham Youngâ€™s letter let [the emigrants] pass, the letter that many of his defenders say exonerates him from complicity? How does the movie treat it?â€
Voight: â€œYou know something? The movie does not get into that. The movieâ€¦it is not a court session, you know, and I donâ€™t really want to get into a court session about it. In a sense, thatâ€™s for others to do. What weâ€™ve depicted in the movie, I think is very accurate from all that I have read. And of course, when weâ€™re dealing with a film, weâ€™re dealing with a metaphor of some sort, or you know, poetry of some sort, where you have to condense things down to another form. And then you have to determine, if youâ€™re an artist, you have to determine whether that represents the truth. And in my judgment, it does represent the truth, this film under two hours, represents the events as they happened.â€
This seems a material ommission that inhibits the film’s claims, in it trailers and in statements by producers and actors alike, to historical accuracy about the matter. With the explicitly stated purpose of scrutinizing Brigham Young’s reputation on the basis of the massacre, it seems incredible to have ignored this aspect of the history.
The Ensign article — itself a forerunner of a book on the matter slated for publication soon by the Oxford University Press — provides a brief summary of what we know of the historical record on this point (and on others) that the film apparently omits:
On Sunday, September 6, Haight presented the plan to a council of local leaders who held Church, civic, and military positions. The plan was met with stunned resistance by those hearing it for the first time, sparking heated debate. Finally, council members asked Haight if he had consulted with President Young about the matter. Saying he hadnâ€™t, Haight agreed to send an express rider to Salt Lake City with a letter explaining the situation and asking what should be done. . . .
But the next day, shortly before Haight sent the letter to Brigham Young, Lee and the Indians made a premature attack on the emigrant camp at the Mountain Meadows, rather than at the planned location in the Santa Clara canyon. Several of the emigrants were killed, but the remainder fought off their attackers, forcing a retreat. The emigrants quickly pulled their wagons into a tight circle, holing up inside the defensive corral. Two other attacks followed over the next two days of a five-day siege. . . .
President Youngâ€™s express message of reply to Haight, dated September 10, arrived in Cedar City two days after the massacre. His letter reported recent news that no U.S. troops would be able to reach the territory before winter. â€œSo you see that the Lord has answered our prayers and again averted the blow designed for our heads,â€ he wrote.
â€œIn regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements,â€ Young continued, â€œwe must not interfere with them untill they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of[.] [I]f those who are there will leave let them go in peace. While we should be on the alert, on hand and always ready we should also possess ourselves in patience, preserving ourselves and property ever remembering that God rules.â€
(bold and italics added) It is unlikely that large numbers of people will ever know that Brigham Young expressly instructed the local leaders of the militia not to interfere with the wagon train, even despite publication of actual historical details that provide stark evidence against the speculative assertion that Brigham Young ordered the massacre and that therefore the massacre has something to say about the Church of Jesus Christ. But it is nice that the material is out on the web in advance of the film, which reportedly omits such details.
One source on the internet for material relating to September Dawn and the historical claims made by the movie and its producers is a Mormon blog known as the Mormon Wasp (there have also been excellent posts and coverage on other Mormon blogs about the massacre and the movie). The Mormon Wasp blog has followed the claims of September Dawn for some time and provides insight on those claims and about the Mountain Meadows Massacre itself in the following posts:
- “September Dawn” as a deconversion tool (June 21, 2007), link here
- The Church News addresses questions about the Mountain Meadows Massacre (June 2, 2007), link here
- Massacre at Mountain Meadows and the latest from the MHA Conference (May 26, 2007), link here
- “[H]istorically, this movie is as accurate as you would want a theatrical movie to be” (May 23, 2007), link here
- “[W]hen weâ€™re dealing with a film, weâ€™re dealing with a metaphor of some sort” (May 14, 2007), link here
- The role of local leaders in the Mountain Meadows Massacre (May 9, 2007), link here
- “September Dawn”‘s portrayal of Brigham Young (May 4, 2007), link here
- Reactions to “September Dawn” and a home for John D. Lee (April 30, 2007), link here
- More on the “September Dawn” script (April 25, 2007), link here
- Will “September Dawn” provoke the LDS Church to “come clean”? (April 4, 2007), link here
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre on the small and big screens (April 3, 2007), link here
- The latest on the Mountain Meadows Massacre (February 17, 2007), link here
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre trilogy: “Burying the Past,” “September Dawn,” and Tragedy at Mountain Meadows (February 10, 2007), link here
- The “September Dawn” script (February 6, 2007), link here
- The dawn of “September Dawn” (updated) (January 23, 2007), link here
- Telling the story of September 11, 1857 (September 11, 2006), link here
- Let the Book of the Past Be Reopened: The Latest on the Mountain Meadows Massacre (July 1, 2006), link here