When we look back one day on the cinema that emerged in response to 9/11 we’ll undoubtedly notice among the successes, failures, prophetic messages and reactionary propaganda a handful of films that can be rightfully designated as downright laughable and nearly delusional in their attempts to fashion political statements out of dubious thinking. One imagines future generations of culture scavengers ironically appreciative of this historical drama “September Dawn,” also doubling as a Bush Administration allegory, as amusing in its hysteria and all too representative of the wacky time in which it was born. But as of now I can’t take much pleasure in ridiculing “September Dawn.” It’s not that I’m offended by the film’s charge that Mormon leader Brigham Young authorized the massacre of innocent gentile travelers making their way into the Utah territory, it’s that I’m weary of its brand of sloppy, platitudinous filmmaking.
Not that anyone should expect a subtle treatment of American history from Christopher Cain, the director of “The Next Karate Kid” and “Young Guns.” Written by Cain and Carole Wang Schutter, “September Dawn” looks as though many of its key scenes were shot on a barren field between elementary school playgrounds; as though protagonists Jonathan Samuelson (Trent Ford) and Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope) were being photographed for a teen magazine spread; as though Jon Voight‘s disturbingly reconstructed face (if it isn’t recently overhauled, then it’s even more disturbing) were a natural occurrence.
But the film’s biggest offense is presenting a highly controversial incident–the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which more than 100 members of the Baker-Fancher party were slaughtered by Mormon militia in mistaken retaliation for Mormon persecution by “gentiles” in Arkansas–through the lens of a sophomoric Romeo and Juliet love tragedy. Jonathan and Emily just want to freak: can’t we put the religious bigotry aside? Jonathan’s humorless father, Jacobs (Voight), is an upstanding member of the Mormon community and a Brigham Young underling who aids in the nefarious plot to crush the harmless emigrants, of whom Emily is one.
Everyone involved goes overboard, including an embarrassed Terence Stamp as Young, in the vain effort to compensate for the stiffly melodramatic dialogue, interpreted without a moment’s hesitation in modern diction. “September Dawn”‘s only driving tension comes from its contradictory intentions–either a straightforward lesson in religious fanaticism, a parable about political righteousness and the false wars concocted in the name of ideology, or both. Certainly, the film seems to be cashing in on the current fascination with and fear of Mormonism, but is too shallow to probe the paradoxical strains of this religion and culture’s complex relationship to mainstream America; meanwhile, the hints of anti-Iraq War critique (the killings took place on September 11, 1857) remain undeveloped. As Cain and Schutter wallow in confusion, the film builds to a delirious climax that represents the massacre in slo-mo superimpositions. It’s almost haunting, in a strange way, but the thing about kitsch, especially post-9/11 kitsch, is that it can’t attain the transcendence of the lowest trash. As fun as it is to laugh at, it’s still too fatuous to let off the hook.