“September Dawn” flops

[UPDATED 09/09/07 – 0752 MDT: Someone else has noticed possible parallels between the Utah War and the US invasion of Iraq. In the meantime, “September Dawn”has now vanished entirely from Denver theaters after just two weeks.]

[UPDATED 08/30/07 – 1742 CDT: The ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ score has rised to 16% (from 15%), and I’ve noted that change below. However, estimated daily grosses for Monday through Wednesday have been $64,000, $65,000, and $54,000 respectively, still for 857 theaters, which means that each theater is getting about 10 people/day to see it. I suspect this film will lose a lot of theaters this coming weekend.]

[UPDATED 08/28/07 – 2342 CDT: I’ve had to revise the box office figures down even more — all of the original weekend estimates (~$1 million, $635K, $615k) were too high.]

[UPDATED 08/27/07 – I’ve updated the box office figures [twice now] and made a few other edits.]

The film “September Dawn“, purporting to show the events of the horrific Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, appears to have crashed and burned, both with the public and with most movie critics. In limited release (857 theatres) and with heavy advertising (there was a full-page ad for it in Friday’s Rocky Mountain News), it still only managed an anemic $702/venue this past weekend, for an opening-weekend total of $601,857. Critics were not all that kind, either; the film has managed only a 16% ‘fresh’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes, while the (LDS Church-owned) Deseret News published a round-up of scathing comments by critics.

From what I can tell, the flop status is well-deserved. The director (and co-screenwriter), Christopher Cain, appears to have made the presentation so one-sided (evil Mormons!) as to induce incredulity even among film reviewers who have no reason to be sympathetic to Mormons. The polemics led Roger Ebert to state in the Chicago Sun-Times, “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?”

Ebert’s last statement there points out the real missed opportunity. The Mountain Meadows Massacre happened and is an horrific blot on LDS history. Contrary to some claims by film critics (probably based on promotional materials from the film), the events have not been covered up until recently; the classic historical work on the subject, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, was written and published over half a century ago (1950) by Juanita Brooks, who was a BYU graduate and an active Latter-day Saint. Mormons have been wrestling with this event ever since.

In the hands of a skilled screenwriter and director, these events could have made for a very uncomfortable and thought-provoking film. Consider the historical events leading up to the massacre:

  • The LDS Church and its members were driven from state to state (New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois), suffering violent persecution, some of it state-sanctioned (e.g., the infamous Extermination Order issued by the governor of Missouri). Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum are finally murdered by local (Illinois) militiamen while they are being held in jail on trumped-up charges, despite a personal guarantee of protection by Governor Thomas Ford.
  • The Mormons then flee the United States itself, heading out for the Rocky Mountains which at that time were part of Mexico. However, that area ends up being part of the United States as a consequence of the Mexican-American War. Ironically, the US approaches the emigrating Mormons and asks for help (in the way of military recruits) for that war; the result is the Mormon Battalion.
  • The Mormons settle in the Salt Lake Valley (starting in 1847), then start to spread north (up into Idaho and eventually Canada) and south (down to southern Utah, Arizona, and eventually into Mexico).
  • Conflicts between the LDS Church and the US Federal Government over control of the Rocky Mountain territory, not to mention polygamy, lead to the Utah War, with Pres. James Buchanan sending US Federal troops (in 1857) to invade and occupy Utah. It is while US troops are marching towards Utah that the events of the Mountains Meadow Massacre take place.

Johnson’s Army — An expensive military expedition sent in 1857 to quell a Mormon rebellion that wasn’t taking place. Ever since, Mormons have suspected that the federal government was not their friend.
— Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary (1984)

At least two major themes suggest themselves. The first is the unique nature of the massacre itself: there are no parallel events in LDS history, either before or after, despite decades of persecution, often violent. What led a group of professed Christians to commit such a horrific act — and then cover it up and go back to their normal lives? Why didn’t somebody put a stop to this? Does it have to do with the insular and difficult nature of the community (southern Utah in 1857; not a particularly pleasant or easy place to carve out a living)? The history of persecution and loss? The intensity of the religious reformation that was going on in the LDS Church at that time? The key themes here would be: what would I have done if I were there? Would I have gone along? Could I have stopped it? How would I live with myself afterwards, whether I actively participated or passively allowed it to happen? Would I have kept quiet?

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the Saints will be blessed.
“Come, Come, Ye Saints” (verse 3), LDS hymn written by William Clayton during the LDS flight from the United States (1846)

Second, and perhaps ironically, a skilled director/screenwriter could have drawn from this event parallels regarding the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the resulting insurgencies. (I say “ironically” since those most likely to oppose the US invasion of Iraq are least likely to be sympathetic towards the LDS Church, and vice versa.) As noted above, the Mormons suffered over a decade of violent persecution within the United States with no sympathy or help from state or Federal government. They migrated a long distance to a rather inhospitable area (at the time outside of the US itself) that no one else wanted, with thousands dying along the way, so that they could live their lives and their religion unmolested — only to have the US Federal government send the US Army in to attempt to impose its own ideas on government (and its own pick for Territorial Governor, in spite of local popular vote), as well as its own culture and beliefs. That was the context of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and there are enough parallels with Iraq to give pause for thought.

I love the Constitution of this land, but I hate the damned rascals that administer the Constitution.
— Brigham Young

In short, Christopher Cain blew it. From what I can tell, “September Dawn” tries to argue that the massacre is all tied into religion (and LDS religion in particular), yet that’s undercut by the isolated and unique nature of this massacre. Ten of thousands of immigrants moved through LDS-controlled or -occupied territory — which stretched from Canada down to Mexico — for decades on their way to the West Coast (remember the California Gold Rush had started in 1849), yet this is the only such incident — as opposed to weekly, if not daily, terrorist and insurgent attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Cain had an opportunity to make a very thought-provoking film based on historical events. He chose instead to make an anti-Mormon screed, and (from most reviews I’ve read) a poorly-done one at that. ..bruce..

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