A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie revolves around a very controversial -- and extremely brutal -- massacre that took place in 1857. The film presents most of its Mormon characters as righteous, bloodlust-driven zealots who planned and ultimately carried out the attack, which left an entire wagon train dead. The slow-motion scenes of the event itself are explicit and bloody, featuring images of young children and women being shot, chopped at with hatchets, and hit by arrows. One religious ritual scene shows a young woman nude from the front (she's covered by a gauzy curtain); another scene shows a girl with her shoulder bared as she's bathing in a river (which entrances her young man).
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What's the story?
Framed by testimony from Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), SEPTEMBER DAWN presents a fictionalized chronicle of the Mountain Meadows Massacre on Sept. 11, 1857 (an event long denied by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). Determined to lead his Mormon community against what he sees as the world's many corruptions, self-righteous (fictional) Bishop Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) plans a murderous attack on a wagon train of some 120 Arkansans en route to California. The movie draws a clear line between the innocent travelers and the Mormons, depicted here as bloodthirsty religious extremists who are still angry over the 1844 murder of their founder, Joseph Smith (Dean Cain). Samuelson is also angered by the apparent betrayal of his son Jonathan (Trent Ford), who holds his father responsible for his mother's death and also begins a romance with one of the wagon train travelers, Emily (Tamara Hope). Cagey Samuelson enlists local Paiute Indians to wage the initial assault on the wagon train. When some braves are killed, the Paiute leader backs out, so the saints have to do their own dirty work.
Is it any good?
As the awkward, Romeo and Juliet-esque plot element suggests, September Dawn is overwrought and poorly structured. The too-easy opposition between Jonathan and his indoctrinated brother Micah (Taylor Handley) leads to hugely emotional but unconvincing conflicts.
The massacre is rendered in slow motion, with dead babies and bloody girls strewn everywhere, and the Mormon killers cast as the equivalent of modern-day terrorists. Although September Dawn may be attempting to draw a parallel between Samuelson's dedication and that of a certain U.S. administration, his story remains muddled. Samuelson is so resolutely demented that it's difficult to know exactly where to start blaming him.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how history is interpreted. How do different versions of a story shape belief systems and communities? Is it ever possible to know which is the "right" version of something that took place in the past? Families can also discuss how the various groups in the movie -- the Mormons, the Fancher party, the Paiute Indians -- are portrayed. How do you think the different groups would react to the movie? How could you find out more about the events depicted here? (One option is the PBS program The Mormons, which offers other views of the Mormon War.)