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|The Christianity and paganism of September Dawn|
Sep. 16th, 2007 at 12:17 am
This is part III of a three part series discussing the Christopher Cain film September Dawn. Part I, discussing the craft of the film, can be seen here. Part II, discussing the film and history, is here.
I mentioned before how bland and generic the Christianity of the film is. There’s really very little attempt to invest it with theological or spiritual depth, let alone to place it convincingly in the nineteenth century evangelical context. Indeed, it’s characterized best in terms of jarringly modern platitudes about tolerance and tiresome “Jesus-said-not-to-judge” rhetoric. However, it is pervasive. Every member of the Fancher party gathers together at night to sing cheery hymns around the bonfire; every one of them, it appears, wears a cheap little plastic cross over their clothing. Now, historically, there was a Methodist minister with the wagon train; however, the filmmakers clearly emphasize and exaggerate the party’s religiosity for effect. What the film wants to do is directly set its purposefully vague generic Christianity up against Mormonism – a religion clearly depicted as un-Christian, authoritarian, and vaguely pagan.
The opening scenes of the film are a good example. We cross cut between a comforting, cheerful prayer offered by the Ned Flanders-esque minister, a prayer that repeatedly invokes Jesus and asks for nothing in favor of generally praising God and thanking everybody, and Jon Voight’s harsh prayer cursing the Fanchers and invoking God’s rage against them. While the minister praises Jesus to conclude, Voight ends his prayer with an abrupt ‘Amen.’ The Fanchers stand in a circle on a pleasant sunny day, holding hands while the minister stares peacefully up to heaven; the Mormons are represented by Voight’s massive polygamist family, rigidly organized in rank and file in a dim and shadowy room, with Voight sitting at the head of a massive table, eyes fixed on his feet.
This is a particularly interesting depiction because it (perhaps unconsciously) vividly echoes the Protestant polemics of the nineteenth century. Preachers like Josiah Strong and Lyman Beecher frequently lumped Mormons and Catholics together as slave religions, smothering under the weight of institution and hierarchy the spiritual independence and personal relationships with the divine that Protestants, and American Protestants in particular, touted. Cain is re-opening old, old wounds here; I have no way of knowing if he’s aware of this.
Anyhow, this is perhaps the most blunt use of filmic technique to make the point, but it’s hardly the only one. We see it again in the dialogue. Cain does lift some stuff from actual sources, but he does so selectively, looking to drive home his thesis. Most interesting is Joseph Smith’s monologue, claiming the title of “a second Muhammad.” There’s some historical basis for this; it’s from Thomas Marsh, who was president of the Quorum of the Twelve early on. He and Orson Hyde left the church for a while, shaken by the counter-attacks Mormons waged against some rivals in Missouri. This sort of rhetoric is not something I’d put past Joseph Smith, certainly, but to choose this as the monologue to introduce Joseph to an audience in 2007 is certainly an attempt to push buttons. It’s placed out of context in the film, incidentally; Cain puts it in Nauvoo rather than Missouri, in order to use the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor as a backdrop rather than the much more complicated situation of the Mormon War.
When the rest of the Mormons in the movie talk about religion they don’t sound much like any Mormons I’ve known or researched. They say things like, “I will do my duty to the Mormon God Brigham Young.” Screenwriter Carole Whang Schutter has claimed that this was a mistake; there was supposed to be an “and” in between the words “God” and “Brigham.” This is a sketchy excuse, as anyone who’s at all familiar with the huge amounts of redundancy built into the process of moviemaking sould be aware. But even so, the phrase still sounds awkward and supremely foreign. What religious group defines their God by the name of their particular sect? Well, the Old Testament does (“God of Abraham” and so forth. The Catholic example doesn’t count; when that’s invoked, ‘catholic’ is being used as an adjective). Indeed, the Mormons frequently refer to their God as “Jehovah,” and use a lot of Biblical phrases like “smite” and “hew down.” All of this, it seems to me, is an attempt to portray Mormons as advocates of a sort of stereotypical, shallow Old Testament-type religion that modern liberal Christians tend to project into the first half of the Bible; a violent, strict faith that worships an angry, vengeful, petty, sectarian God, foreign to the mercy and love of the New Testament. Indeed, in one particularly odd scene, Trent Ford doesn’t recognize a particularly common quotation from the Gospel of Matthew. This is fairly anachronistic; indeed, I am sad to say that nineteenth century Mormons knew their Bible much better than we do today (we’ve become a Book of Mormon-centric people, which is fine for itself, but it also means that we don’t read the Bible anymore, a profound and crippling tragedy). However, it is also particularly on point if you want to show how Mormons aren’t Christian.
Of course, there’s enough real doctrine you can use if you’re an evangelical and want to show how weird Mormons are, and Christopher Cain doesn’t hesitate. There’s a scene in which he has Jon Voight preach to his recalcitrant son, inserted, it seems, in an attempt to develop Voight’s character. The scene is probably intended to make Voight seem simultaneously sympathetic and pitiable. He tells his son that he was a hobo on the street before Joseph Smith found him and turned him into a bishop. Then, Voight presumably goes off the rails and starts talking about becoming a god. The jarring bluntness of the Mormon theology is likely supposed to detract from the human pathos and show a good thing gone wrong, but if the theology doesn’t bug you like it’s supposed to, it’s an affecting scene, because Voight’s a good enough actor to pull it off.
It’s moments like this that show what September Dawn could have been; there’s a good movie about faith and frailty in the story here, waiting for somebody like Richard Dutcher to pull it out. Cain, however, has a theological axe to grind. It’s a pity, really.