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Fanatics and a forgotten massacre

'September Dawn' tells of a still-controversial 1857 attack attributed to members of the fledgling Mormon faith.

August 19, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

Depending upon which version of history you believe, the terrible events of Sept. 11 -- the wholesale massacre of innocent victims -- can be explained as either an act of war or the result of religious fanaticism taken to a horrible extreme.

But some might call it the "other" 9/11. On that day in 1857, in a remote quadrant of southeastern Utah territory, a wagon train consisting of 140 homesteaders -- men, women and children striking west for California from Arkansas -- were gunned down, bludgeoned and stabbed to death in an attack attributed to local Mormon militia.

Approaching the 150th anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, as this marginalized chapter of U.S. history has come to be known, modern Mormons in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints continue to struggle with its legacy. But "September Dawn," an independently financed historical drama that arrives in 1,000 theaters Friday, takes a critical view of the religious fundamentalism it presents as having precipitated the attack -- most controversially, the alleged influence of the Mormon leader referred to as the "American Moses," Brigham Young.

The movie, originally set for release in May, has reportedly prompted hand-wringing in the Mormon community, where some worry it will perpetuate outdated notions about the homegrown American religion, arriving as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, strenuously campaigns to win the Republican Party's presidential nomination. (A spokeswoman for the church declined to comment about the movie.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 2 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
"September Dawn": An Aug. 19 Calendar section article about the movie "September Dawn" quoted Tom Kimball, a book review editor for the Mormon History Assn., as saying the film has been put on a "do not watch" list by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials. Kimball told The Times that Mormons who have seen the film have called it anti-Mormon and that this sent a strong message to Mormons not to see it. The church says it does not issue a "do not watch" list of movies.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 02, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
"September Dawn": An Aug. 19 article about the movie "September Dawn" quoted Tom Kimball, a book review editor for the Mormon History Assn., as saying the film has been put on a "do not watch" list by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials. Kimball told The Times that Mormons who have seen the film have called it anti-Mormon and that this has sent a strong message to Mormons not to see it. The church says it does not issue a "do not watch" list of movies.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
"September Dawn": An Aug. 19 Calendar section article about the movie "September Dawn" quoted Tom Kimball, a book review editor for the Mormon History Assn., as saying the film has been put on a "do not watch" list by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officials. Kimball told The Times that Mormons who had seen the film had called it anti-Mormon and that this sent a strong message to Mormons not to see it. The church says it does not issue a "do not watch" list of movies.

Co-writer-director of "September Dawn" Christopher Cain dismisses the idea the movie puts a bad light on Mormonism, correlating the religious zealotry the film depicts with the clash of cultures that has led to America's "war on terror" and twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I don't have an agenda with the Mormon Church," Cain said. "What I do have is a theoretical view of how we can look at what's happening today."

"We live in a time where the news is dominated by the religious, fanatical world -- a time where a 20-year-old kid with his whole life ahead of him can walk onto a bus and blow himself up and war is being waged by a bunch of nut-cases 'over there.' Well, it happened here 150 years ago. I just saw this [movie] as an opportunity to look at how this happened in our own backyard -- and not that long ago."

Pioneers in peril

"September Dawn" opens with former Arkansas militiaman Capt. Alexander Fancher (played by Shaun Johnston) leading a wagon train through rural Utah toward the gold-rich West Coast. They make camp, intending to rest for a few days but are met with deep suspicion by locals.

Terence Stamp portrays Young as a territorial governor who declares martial law and warns church members to turn away any "Gentiles" who stray into Mormon territory: "If any miserable scoundrels come here, cut their throats," Young is recorded as having said in a sermon, his siege mentality a holdover from earlier persecution and the murder of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith in 1844.

Mormon Bishop Jacob Samuelson (played by Jon Voight) permits the wagon train a two-week grace period in Mountain Meadows but instructs his son to spy on them.

The movie's central narrative, a Romeo and Juliet-style romance between the Mormon boy and a homesteader girl, accounts for most of the action leading to its heart-rending climax -- an attack the movie portrays as having begun as a siege by Paiute Indians in cahoots with the Mormon on Sept. 7 and finished four days later: The Fancher party was offered a truce, but every homesteader older than 6 was ultimately shot at point-blank range.

According to Tom Kimball, a sixth-generation Mormon who is book review editor for the Mormon History Assn., the film has been put on a "do not watch" list by LDS Church officials.

"It's blacklisted already," he said.

Nonetheless, Kimball said the Mountain Meadows Massacre has been the subject of intensive discussions this year. In May, the association held a conference hosting more than 800 Mormon scholars at which the massacre was Topic A.

"Here's what's not in dispute: There was a siege, on the 11th the Fanchers were offered a negotiation, and when they accepted it, they were walked off and shot," Kimball said. "What's in dispute is why and who ordered it. Some people are pointing the finger at the Fanchers and the Indians."

Most church-sanctioned histories portray the Mountain Meadows Massacre as a war crime -- an overreaction to intruders they perceived as a threat to Mormon sovereignty. Others say the motive was economic: a chance to loot the wagon train.

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