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|September Dawn: history, fiction, and fictionalizing|
Sep. 7th, 2007 at 6:52 pm
How ‘historically accurate’ is September Dawn? This is an interesting question. If we take it to refer only to the events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, stripped of context or content, ‘reasonably,’ is a fair word. That is, the attack was initially mounted by local Paiute Indians, incited by John D. Lee, as the film depicts. A rider sent from the beseiged Fancher party was the first emigrant killed by a Mormon – in the movie’s case, Trent Ford’s poised-on-the-brink-of-some-confusing-form-of-insanity brother. The film neglects to mention that a second emigrant escaped, leaving the Mormons unable to pretend that they had nothing to do with the Indian attacks, which was the initial plan. For the writers Christopher Cain and Carole Whang Schutter (she of the conspiracy), this would not do, because they wished to depict the Mormons intending to do the deed themselves from the beginning. Finally, Lee did actually convince the Fancher party to surrender their weapons, and separated them into groups as they left the circle of wagons, to be executed in segregation – though Indians participated in the final massacre, while the film leaves it solely to the Mormons, showing us (unconvincingly, with confusing and irrational motivation) the Paiutes washing their hands of the whole mess.
Other than these, the script doesn’t give the filmmakers many actual historical events or characters to screw up. As I’ve mentioned before, this is perhaps the most misguided decision Christopher Cain and the crew made; they ditched the most interesting historical material in favor of a hackneyed and thinly written love story. Presumably, however, they knew they were making it, and believed that attempting to generate sympathy through ripping off Romeo and Juliet would serve their purposes better, by giving us cute protagonists who struggle against the evil Mormon machine and look youthful and attractive while doing it. So be it. All the same, there were strenuous debates among local Mormon leaders about what to do with the wagon train in the days leading up to the massacre. A couple of local stake presidents, who were also, in standard nineteenth century Mormon style, mayors, militia officers, etc, named Isaac Haight and William Dame had furious debates with each other, with John D. Lee, with various councils. None of this appears on screen; indeed, though Haight and Dame get name checked moments before the guns start firing, it appears that the movie believes that a fictional character, namely, Jon Voight, possessor of the Portentious Looking Wrinkled Brow, came up with the massacre all by himself. We are led to believe this because Jon Voight disapproves of the Fancher party from the beginning, probably because they are able to love and experience fun. Despite his hostile stares and a particularly ham-fisted prayer in which Voight calls the Fanchers the children of Satan, nobody even mentions the possibliity of a massacre until Bishop Voight calls a meeting whereat the plan is presented in full form. Nobody seems to have a problem with it, except for Trent Ford, who I will deal with later.
The movie also believes that Voight somehow got Brigham Young to approve of this idea, even though, as General Zod’s Young points out in the movie, Young never left Salt Lake. This is presumably an attempt at irony; this Young is so brooding and grim that we of course do not believe him and accept the unspoken implication that via the ominous powers of grimmness Young transported himself south to personally oversee slaughter with his thin, pressed lips.
So much for actual historical events. What about the Mormons and the Mormonism of September Dawn? I could run through a whole slew of particular historical errors. For example: at one point, one of Jon Voight’s twenty-seven wives is ordered to move to Salt Lake in order to marry an apostle; she doesn’t like this idea, so the Danites murder her to blood atone for her sin of refusal. By my count, there are at least four and maybe five historical inaccuracies in that sentence. How many can you come up with?
A couple others:
Trent Ford’s younger brother, who is presumably about twenty, already has three wives. Whoa. Scanning any of a number of works on polygamy – this one, or this one, or, jeepers, even this one would have demonstrated how implausible that was.
The temple scene. An informed observer would know that clearly Cain and the crew tried to get things right here; the words repeated clearly were the result of research, though it’s questionable how accurate they would have been in 1857. More embarrasing is the temple stuff immediately before and after. Trent Ford, who is receiving his endowments, protests that he has not passed ‘the test,’ and doesn’t have a recommend, pleas which his father, claiming authority as bishop, brushes off. However implausible Voight’s actions here might seem, they pale in comparision to the broader anachronism; “temple recommends” did not exist in 1857. Endowments at this point were extended on invitation by local leaders, who were instructed by General Authorities in 1856 to see that their charges engaged in righteous actions, such as praying or helping the poor. So, despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, this might not actually be an error; Voight’s acting in perfect historical consistency. The fact that Trent Ford doesn’t seem to be wearing garments after his endowment probably counts as a mistake, though.
There may be a point to that decision, though, if we give Cain the benefit of the doubt. There are only three Mormon characters who are intended to be at all sympathetic (other than Dean Cain’s Joseph Smith, whose awesomeness I’ve already noted). Trent Ford, Uncle Rico’s John D. Lee, and Trent Ford’s brother, Micah. All three of them are sympathetic because they are bad Mormons. The exception here is Micah, who hates himself for being a bad Mormon and thus goes insane. John D. Lee manages to not go insane, but he still hates himself (You can tell because he furrows his brow). This is required because later on in the film Lee also gets killed by the Mormons, and everybody who gets killed by the Mormons is sympathetic. Trent Ford embraces being a bad Mormon, thus he is sympathetic, thus he doesn’t wear garments.
So, how many of these are clear errors, and how many attempts to develop a particular thematic stance? Only Christopher Cain knows.