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Question: Does the film "September Dawn" about the Mountain Meadows Massacre accurately portray the historical events?
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Question: Does the film "September Dawn" about the Mountain Meadows Massacre accurately portray the historical events?
The creators of the film have used negative stereotypes to create a piece of anti-Mormon propaganda for the big screen
September Dawn is not only bad history, it is an altogether bad film. The creators have used negative stereotypes to create a piece of anti-Mormon propaganda for the big screen. They are so committed to their vision of perfidious Mormons, that they can't accept non-Mormon criticism at face value—they "know" their film can't be bad, so it must be the Mormons' fault. But, non-LDS observers and film critics simply recognize the film for what it is—yesterday's shrill anti-Mormonism on today's big screen.
When an independent film company produced a grossly distorted version of the Mountain Meadows Massacre two years ago, the Church ignored it. Perhaps partly as a result of that refusal to engender the controversy that the producers hoped for, the movie flopped at the box office and lost millions.
—The Publicity Dilemma, LDS Newsroom, March 9, 2009.
Joseph Smith has ordered us to destroy everything. He is the voice of God. Burn the papers! Burn the papers! Burn everything!
—Jon Voight, portraying a fictitious bishop, as he burns the printing office of the Nauvoo Expositor
Burn! Let their lies burn!
—Dean Cain, portraying Joseph Smith in "September Dawn"
September Dawn is an ill-informed and poorly-done piece of propaganda. Rating it the worst film of 2007, movie critic Roger Moore wrote:
You don't have to be a Mormon, Mormon sympathizer or adhere to any religious creed to realize, sitting through this, that you're in the presence of evil. A movie about an infamous Mormon massacre that is old-fashioned hate-mongering at its worst. Badly acted, too.
It is true that a group of Mormons, under the influence of local leaders, orchestrated a cold-blooded massacre of men, women, and children on 11 September 1857. The film's claim that this behavior was typical of Mormons, insistence that Brigham Young ordered or orchestrated the massacre, and its uncritical reliance on the account of John D. Lee are grave flaws.
Furthermore, claims that the Church continues to "suppress" the truth are false. Those wishing resources on the historical facts behind the Mountain Meadows tragedy can click here. A article in the Ensign (the Church's official magazine) appeared before the film's distribution, and is available here.
Articles on the film and Mountain Meadows Massacre generally:
- Ben Arnoldy, "Ahead of 'September Dawn,' Mormon Church revisits dark period," Christian Science Monitor (24 August 2007). off-site
- "...a bigoted hatchet job...This isn't a movie review so much as it is a warning. "September Dawn" is not a poorly made movie, it is an expertly crafted attack on the Mormon Church. It is an anti-Mormon sermon projected onto the silver screen, as replete with distortion and bigotry as any of the Web sites, pamphlets or books conjured up to vilify the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since it was founded more than 175 years ago. The movie reviewers don't quite get it. Without a background in Mormon history and doctrine, and without a knowledge of the favorite themes of the anti-Mormon industry, the sinister detail of the movie would not be evident." - Bob Lonsberry, "Commentary," The Washington Times (2 September 2007): 1. off-site 2nd off-site
- "But the theme of the movie is larger and more subtle than the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The movie, under cover of being a historical drama, is really a religious attack. It is chapter and verse out of the books and sermons of anti-Mormon evangelists who believe God has called them to attack other people's faith. There is, unfortunately, a large tradition among some Christian ministers of mocking Mormon beliefs. Some of these ministers literally travel from town to town, congregation to congregation, preaching against Mormonism. Sacred aspects of Mormon worship and dress are ridiculed by these ministers." - Bob Lonsberry, "Commentary," The Washington Times (2 September 2007): 1. off-site 2nd off-site
- "A great body of anti-Mormon literature has built up over the years. This movie's most hateful aspects are drawn not from history, but from that anti-Mormon literature. Details are included that can only be intended to offend and insult Mormons who see the movie, and alienate from the church those who consider becoming members of it. The material contained in the movie is not historical, it is hateful." - Bob Lonsberry, "Commentary," The Washington Times (2 September 2007): 1. off-site 2nd off-site
- "...the notion of "blood atonement" — a theme harped upon by anti-Mormon preachers — is all through this movie, woven into the plot and at least four subplots or tangents. The belief — that people must die to make up for their sins — has never been a doctrine of the Mormon Church, but is the essential premise of 'September Dawn.'" - Bob Lonsberry, "Commentary," The Washington Times (2 September 2007): 1. off-site 2nd off-site
- "The horrific way in which Brigham Young, a character presumed to be Apostle George A. Smith, pioneer John D. Lee and a fictional bishop are depicted is patently demonic. These characters could have come from nowhere other than the imagination of someone with an intense personal loathing of the Mormon Church and its leaders. Not since Adolf Hitler depicted Jews has Western cinema been used to so spitefully destroy the history and reputation of religious leaders." - Bob Lonsberry, "Commentary," The Washington Times (2 September 2007): 2. off-site 2nd off-site
- "...this entire movie is a vendetta. It is not about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it is about using the medium of the commercial motion picture to advance an anti-Mormon bigotry that is typically only shouted outside Mormon conferences, temples and pageants. And that is not a hypersensitive response. It is an earnest assessment of the movie's content. The instances of pointed anti-Mormon insult are so gratuitous and abundant in this movie that their presence cannot be accidental. The movie intended to offend, and it did. The movie attempted to defame the Mormon Church, and it did. It is a heavy-handed smear job...It is not a badly made movie. But it is an evilly intended movie. It doesn't seek to entertain or inform, it seeks to tear down and destroy. And, sadly, it does a pretty good job." - Bob Lonsberry, "Commentary," The Washington Times (2 September 2007): 2. off-site 2nd off-site
Non-Mormon critics have also realized how biased, sensationalistic, and poorly done the film is. A sample of media quotes about the film (quotes are by author's last name):
- "In its retelling of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, 'September Dawn' takes a mysterious, incendiary historical event and turns it into a one-sided hatefest.... [Director Christopher Cain] relentlessly villainizes those who are historically proven to have participated in the massacre, adding a condemnation of Mormon prophet Brigham Young as the mastermind.... While it portrays interesting and forgotten history, this period piece mostly turns into a biased waste." - David Berngartt, The Daily Tar Heel (30 August 2007). off-site
- "Director Christopher Cain...paints a damning, one-sided portrait of Latter-day Saints in this irresponsible, ham-fisted morality tale that plays off our cultural ignorance of the Mormon religion...The events surrounding the killings are historically cloudy, but not according to this film...He stops short of calling Osama bin Laden a Mormon sympathizer, but maybe that'll be on the DVD." - Ty Burr, Boston Globe (24 August 2007). off-site
- "It's not torture porn; it's massacre porn...the pic is ultimately less interested in understanding its Mormon characters than in demonizing them..." - Justin Chang, Variety (). off-site
- "September Dawn was made primarily as a history lesson, to bring to light an atrocity that took place 150 years ago, and to underscore the parallels between the religious fanaticism of the past and the religious fanaticism of the present.... And here's where things get a bit dodgy. The film clearly pins responsibility for the massacre onto Brigham Young (Terence Stamp), the head of the Mormon church and the Governor of Utah at that time; but historians...say it is unclear whether Young was directly involved. If the film was assuming his responsibility for dramatic purposes, and using it to explore an even larger theme, that would be one thing; but instead, Young's alleged responsibility is itself the point that the film wants to hammer home.... What makes this portrayal even more questionable is the stark contrast the movie draws between the Mormons and the settlers.... Those who want to know what really happened...are advised to look elsewhere." - Peter T. Chattaway, Christianity Today (24 August 2007). off-site
- "...the project has the appearance of melodramatic sectarian propaganda.... The film feels less like historical drama than a venomous religious tract printed on celluloid." - Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune (23 August 2007). off-site
- "Zero stars...The vast majority of the members of all religions, I believe and would argue, don't want to kill anybody. They want to love and care for their families, find decent work that sustains life and comfort, live in peace and get along with their neighbors. It is a deviant streak in some humans, I suspect, that drives them toward self-righteous violence, and uses religion as a convenient alibi...There isn't anything to be gained in telling this story in this way. It generates bad feelings on all sides...The Mormons are presented in no better light than Nazis and Japanese were in Hollywood's World War II films. Wasn't there a more thoughtful and insightful way to consider this historical event?" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (24 August 2007). off-site
- "While historians are divided on exactly what role Mormon leader and then territorial governor Brigham Young played in the event, Cain and his cowriter, Carole Whang Schutter, have decided that Young orchestrated the massacre out of a combination of religious zeal and paranoia concerning the U.S. government. The point is that this might be true, but it also might not. Choosing to present it as fact guarantees the film a certain tabloid-esque controversy, of course, but it’s a dubious choice that makes the movie play as little more than wild-eyed anti-Mormon propaganda." - Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress (29 August 2007). off-site
- "The film’s other attempts to demonize Mormonism (really, what else can you call this?) are equally as unsubtle (in the manner most closely associated with Dr. Goebbels)—that is, when they’re not just peculiar...Ultimately, it’s a toss-up as to whether September Dawn is more offensive as history, as allegory or simply as lousy self-important filmmaking. It hardly matters since on all three levels the movie smells of herring." - Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress (29 August 2007). off-site
- "September Dawn presents a ham-fisted cautionary tale of religious fanaticism that would have been hooted out of even 19th-century theaters as melodrama of the most lurid kind.... Such ham-fisted earnestness does no one any good, least of all those who believe there's a big difference between historical fact and emotional screed." - Chris Kaltenbach, Baltimore Sun (24 August 2007). off-site
- "The film and its website come with references and citations galore, yet confusing points abound.... When the movie isn't doling out ham-fisted history, however, it gives us magnificent vistas of a pristine prairie...." , Frank Lovece, Film Journal International (24 August 2007). off-site
- "Cain has co-written and directed a film that only the most bigoted of Mormon detractors could enjoy. Most viewers, if any are willing to part with their money or time, will simply laugh derisively.... [Director Cain] has created questionable history and boneheaded drama.... Thanks to a cheap production...and even cheaper thinking, anyone who has seen the movie knows that there’s nothing to discuss." - Dan Lybarger, eFilmCritic.com, (24 August 2007). off-site
- "Imagine a half-baked remake of “Schindler’s List” by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and you get the idea." - Wade Major, Boxoffice.com (24 August 2007). off-site
- "Religious bias clouds Dawn...The obvious bias in this scenario is so flagrant as to be cartoonish...[the authors] are anything but subtle with the film’s message which can roughly be summed up as Mormons=bad, Protestants=good... Though Young’s involvement has never been established, speculation about such has been a favorite pastime in anti-Mormon Evangelical circles for years, which is where this film was seemingly hatched. Not only is co-writer Schutter an avowed Evangelical, but the film also reportedly enlisted as advisor Brigham Young descendent Sandra Tanner, a practicing Evangelical who, with her husband, runs a Utah-based ministry that specializes in attacking the Mormon Church...Not that “September Dawn” is likely to stir much of a controversy, anyway. Apart from a handful of Bible Belt markets that will devour it like red meat, the self-distributed picture is more likely to be greeted by Mormons and non-Mormons alike with exceeding apathy – more offensive for its slapdash storytelling than its willfully slanderous bias." - Wade Major, Boxoffice.com (24 August 2007). off-site
- "...disturbingly awful..."September Dawn," written by an evangelical Christian, may be the worst historical drama ever made...it trivializes one of America's ugliest and least understood events." - Jack Matthews, New York Daily News (24 August 2007). off-site
- "...the movie leaves no doubt at all — using fierce quotations by Young, but using those words wildly out of context..." - Michael Medved, "Hollywood's Terrorists: Mormon, not Muslim," USA Today (13 August 2007). off-site
- "...The measured response to public smears of Mormonism in effect rebuts the September Dawn suggestion that the church represents a relevant example of violent religious fanaticism. Despite the turbulence of their founding generation, Mormons have been conspicuously peaceful, patriotic, hard-working and neighborly for at least the past 117 years...This sort of prejudice seems not only unjust but also downright un-American...the Mormons' restrained response to even the most mean-spirited challenges to their beliefs says more about the present nature of their faith than anything in September Dawn." - Michael Medved, "Hollywood's Terrorists: Mormon, not Muslim," USA Today (13 August 2007). off-site
- "It has the chilling certitude of the self-righteous.... This misguided 9/11 allegory and fictionalization of that history utterly demonizes the perpetrators of that massacre and those who may have given the orders.... Every religion, when scrutinized by a skeptic, is open to mockery. Tune in to South Park if you want satire that ridicules, sect by sect, all comers in the world of religious zealots especially Mormons. But September Dawn isn't mockery. It's practically a call to jihad.... We can probably count the days until this shows up for sale on fringe Christian TV channels, its virtues trumpeted by some minister or other marketing his or her version of 'The Truth.' There are facts here...but there's the unmistakable air of evil about this enterprise, and not just an atrocity the Mormon church caused to happen 150 years ago." - Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel (24 August 2007). off-site
- "Cain and Schutter want so desperately to frame their story with clear-cut heroes and villains that they steamroll over much of the nuance that not only leaves the events open for interpretation but also shows the futility of retrofitting the world into absolutist terms of black and white, us and them. Cain and Schutter instead prefer to simply bang the 'Mormons are freaky' drum just a little too hard and insistently." - Mark Olsen, Los Angelas Times (24 August 2007). off-site
- "There will be many who will see September Dawn as an anti-Mormon film. And there's no question that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is portrayed in the film as a cultlike religion of fanatics. Mormons no doubt will feel personally attacked, and they should." - Richard Nielson, The Arizona Republic (24 August 2007). off-site
- "The point of the picture appears to be the blunt mockery of the Mormon culture, but surely “Dawn” would be far more controversial if it didn’t try so hard to be raw and unpleasant. [Director Christopher] Cain has turned the Mormons into baby-eatin' Nazis to suit his argument, parading around these black-clad, chin-bearded, testicle-slicing gunslingers without any thoughtful consideration. To Cain, the Mormons were hulking, borderline insane fundamental gorillas who flung excrement at anyone daring to besmirch the name of Joseph Smith.... It’s a trashy, tasteless, and ridiculous film about a serious event in prairie history, eliciting laughter instead of education." - Brian Orndorf, eFilmCritic.com, (24 August 2007). off-site
- "‘September Dawn’ not worth seeing...the director gives a rather one-sided perspective on a highly debated issue. It’s hard not to notice director Christopher Cain’s bias towards the Mormon treatment of “gentiles”...This is my biggest problem with the film...Instead of keeping the film close to history, Cain bases his tale on a questionable 27-page confession, and subsequently portrays the Mormons as animals and zealots...." - Norris Ortolano, The Advocate (25 August 2007). off-site
- "'September Dawn' oozes biased zeal...uses tragedy to bludgeon home its anti-Mormon agenda...a pedantic, cable-TV-caliber melodrama that bullies the audience into accepting its rather slanted, selective agenda...The filmmakers intimate that the murder of Smith was more or less justified, and frame the Mountain Meadows bloodshed as the final culmination of the sect's extremist arrogance. It makes for a sordid display" - Craig Outhier, The Orange County Register (23 August 2007). off-site
- "The jarring MTV-style filmmaking is so distracting and the 'messaging' so unsubtle that after two long hours you find yourself leaving the theater with a massive headache, wondering when you started to hate Mormons." - Brett Register, Orlando Weekly (23 August 2007) off-site
- "a solemn package of historical fiction and an exceedingly old-fashioned one at that. It is also quite controversial among Western historians and the Mormon community...The principal story line is anything but verbatim history, and the screenplay is the weakest aspect of the film." - Luke Sader, Yahoo News (24 August 2007). off-site
- "...the clunky, heavily skewed means by which this tale is presented is nothing short of egregious, with its Mormon characters demonized with such laughable gusto, and its Christian victims cast in such a holy, noble light, that the project quickly feels less like an attempt at historical truth-telling than like shameless anti-Mormon propaganda.... This cartoonish demonization persistently seems tied to a religious-political agenda." - Nick Sager, Slant Magazine (20 April 2007). off-site
- "D minus.... Clearly “September Dawn” is constructed as an anti-Mormon diatribe disguised as a historical narrative.... Like most 'historical' pictures, [it] has serious problems in historical terms. But in this case they're exacerbated by the simple ineptitude of the filmmaking." - Frank Swietek, One Guy's Opinion off-site
- "But it can't shake the implication that it's some sort of attack piece on the Mormon religion and, in turn, conspiracy theorists may believe, Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Some dialogue negatively likens Mormonism to Islam and paganism. Cartoonish scenes detract from the film's plausibility, including Mormon characters' referral to Brigham Young as 'the Mormon god on earth,' and a group of Mormons chanting 'blood atonement! blood atonement!' over and over as though it were a softball rally cry.... 'September Dawn' is a stirring love story that dabbles uncomfortably close to hate." - Phil Villarreal, Arizona Daily Star (23 August 2007). off-site
If readers are aware of quotes about the film not available here, they are encouraged to contact FairMormon.
The film's creators react to criticism
On 29 August 2007, Carole Schutter, creator of the film's story and co-writer of its screenplay, sent the following email to several ex-Mormon critics:
- I am the co-writer of the Screenplay "September Dawn," and Author of the book by the same name. We have been heavily slammed in the press and perhaps I'm being paranoid but the apparent sameness of their opinions are too coincidental. I have heard floating rumours of Mormons being told to slam the movie in reviews and one blog reporting it on yahoo.com has been pulled. Would like to correspond with anyone who can give me any info on this.
- I did two years of research, talked to many ex-Mormons, and descendents [sic] of the perpertrators [sic]. We are being called liars by the press and the user movie reviews on yahoo are very interesting. Any help you can give me would be appreciated. And, may I say, although we have taken literary license, our facts are facts supported by sermons by Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, confessions of Danite Chiefs, letters by Supreme Court Judges and military officers, speeches by Presidents Buchanan, Pierce and Lincoln, etc., etc., etc. Would like to fight this smear campaign and banning. I believe everyone has the right to free speech, but we have the right to fight back.
- I am a Christian and have attached for those of you who are Christians a statement that will go on the religious wire. I am aware of persecution of ex-Mormons who have become Christians in Utah. My brother-in-law pastors a church with many ex-Mormons including ones whose families were involved in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.
- I understand this movie is helping ex-Mormons who feel persecuted, giving them the strength to remove their names from the lists and face ostracism.
- Please help me try to learn the truth as to whether or not the church is directing their members to help destroy our movie and credibility. Thank you.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not "direct[ed its] members to help destroy" September Dawn, and has made no comment about the film itself. Virtually all of the critical reviews reprinted above were written by non-Mormons. Instead of taking the criticism of her film at face value, Schutter resorted to paranoid conspiracy theories.
Two days later, on 31 August, Schutter issued the following press release, emphasizing the controversial nature of September Dawn and the supposed Mormon backlash against it:
- HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 31 — September Dawn fires controversy not only between Christians and Mormons, but within the media. Catch phrases from media reviews such as "anti-Mormon," "ham-fisted tale," and "a distortion of history" have only fueled the flames.
- The movie's controversial screenplay, co-written by Carole Whang Schutter and Christopher Cain, is based on the true life story of a wagon train of Utah settlers who venture into Mormon territory and stop there at the wrong time. On September 11, 1857, in Mountain Meadows, more than 120 innocent men, women, and children were slaughtered because they were not Mormons.
- According to Wayne Atilio Capurro, the great-great grandson of Philip Klingensmith, the Mormon Bishop of Cedar City, Utah, in 1857, his ancestor, portrayed by Jon Voight in the film, was a participant in the Mountain Meadows Massacre and one of three men assigned to deliver personally to Brigham Young the valuables taken from the murdered immigrants.
- The controversy regarding Mountain Meadows Massacre began in 1857 and continues today following the airing of September Dawn:
- "September Dawn presents a ham-fisted cautionary tale of religious fanaticism that would have been hooted out of even 19th-century theaters as melodrama of the most lurid kind..." —Chris Kaltenbach, Baltimore Sun
- "The early reviews are in on September Dawn, the long-gestating drama set against the Mountain Meadows Massacre—and it's a critical slaughter." —Sean P. Means, movie critic, The Salt Lake Tribune
- "The leadership of the LDS religion has a 150-year history of blaming the Indians, blaming the victims and scapegoating their members while denying all responsibility for a crime that disgraced humanity. They continue to do so in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary." —Wayne Atilio Capurro, ancestor of Mormon Bishop and author of White Flag
- Carole Whang Schutter, born in Honolulu, Hawaii, began her writing career at age 54. She is a motivational speaker and has appeared on TV and radio shows. Her enduring interest in religion and passion for history led her to write September Dawn, her first screenplay, in collaboration with Director/Producer Christopher Cain.
With the film savaged by critics and drawing a minuscule paying audience, Schutter apparently decided to manufacture a controversy, with hints of a conspiracy, in the hopes of filling a few seats. (Her press release uses the term "controversy" or "controversial" three times.)