Filming is under way in Canada on a Western romance set in the context of the Mountain Meadows Massacre one of the darkest and most controversial events in Mormon history.
"September Dawn" is being touted as "a love story set during a tense encounter between a wagon train of settlers that faces off against a renegade Mormon group." Starring Jon Voight and Lolita Davidovich, the project began filming earlier this month in Alberta and is scheduled to shoot through mid-September.
Voight, the Academy Award-winning actor whose recent film credits include "Ali," "Pearl Harbor," "The Rainmaker" and "Mission: Impossible" is cast as the leader of the renegade party, with Davidovich playing the role of a wagon train member who stands up to the attackers.
Christopher Cain, who directed "Young Guns" and the "Magnificent Seven" TV series, is writer and director for the project, with a budget of about $11 million.
Few additional details about the film are known, including whether Cain based his story on historical accounts of the massacre or whether he drew the details from a spate of recent books and films about the event.
Kathleen McInnis, publicity director for "September Dawn," told the Deseret Morning News that Cain and other production people are "so busy with what's going on on the set right now, there's no time at this point" to answer in-depth questions about research for the film's screenplay or what sources were used in writing it. Such queries "may have to wait for a few weeks until we can get towards the end of production."
Long viewed by historians as the darkest chapter in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the massacre of 120 men, women and children by LDS militiamen and Paiute Indians on Sept. 11, 1857, involved Arkansas emigrants following the Old Spanish Trail when they were attacked in Mountain Meadows, north of St. George. Seventeen children survived the attack.
LDS Church officials, including President Gordon B. Hinckley, have worked with state and local authorities and historians in recent years to assuage lingering animosity and memorialize the victims. The church erected a monument overlooking the site of the massacre in 1999 and held a dedication ceremony to which descendants of those involved were invited. It also reburied bones of 29 victims unearthed during construction of the monument in a separate ceremony.
"All who knew firsthand about what occurred here are long since gone. Let the book of the past be closed. Let peace come into our hearts," President Hinckley told participants.
The massacre has been written about countless times by a variety of authors with a wide spectrum of viewpoints many of them critical of church leaders and has been the subject of renewed interest by scholars in the past decade. Several major works addressing it have been published recently, including one by local author Will Bagley, another by investigative reporter Sally Denton and a novel by Judith Freeman.
Repeated references to the massacre are also part of Jonathan Krakauer's recent best-selling book, "Under the Banner of Heaven."
Three LDS Church historians have been at work for at least three years on a book they say will access source material previously unavailable to other researchers. Richard Turley, managing director of the Family and Church History department, has teamed with Glen Leonard, director of the Museum of Church History and Art, and Ronald Walker, a professor of history at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History at Brigham Young University, to produce "Tragedy at Mountain Meadows." Publication by Oxford University Press is anticipated in 2006, but no firm date has been set.
Brian Patrick, a professor of film studies at the University of Utah, said he just found out about the "September Dawn" project a couple of weeks ago. His own 2003 documentary film on the aftermath of the massacre, "Burying the Past: Legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre," has won 11 awards and been featured in some 20 different independent film festivals. He's sold 1,300 copies of it on his Web site, www.buryingthepast.com.
Patrick said he sent a copy of his film to actor Dean Cain son of "September Dawn" writer and director Christopher Cain about a year ago, then followed up with a letter, but he never heard anything back. A friend in Los Angeles called recently to tell Patrick about the feature film now in production.
He's not surprised that Hollywood has finally taken notice. "A lot of people have talked over the years about why this film hasn't been made in Hollywood. There has been a lot of speculation about that. But I found it's very difficult to make a film that is perceived by people to attack their religion, particularly a mainstream religion."
Yet Patrick doesn't believe the film will be an attack on the LDS Church but rather "an incredible story of intolerance and sort of twisted fate. It's just emotions run amok and religion run amok, and we see that today" when some use their religious faith as the basis for violence.
"Because it happened on Sept. 11, it even draws more attention to the story and there's more of a connection because of that."
Reaction to the film will vary with the audience, he said. "Will it serve as a means to add to the bitterness and prevent healing? Maybe yes and maybe no. I really don't know."
"I've always felt that bringing it out into the open was much better than trying to conceal the event under a carpet. Unless this (new film) is abusive and mean-spirited, but I don't think it will be that. It's a mainstream film, and I don't think they'll attack the LDS Church. It's already being billed as a group of renegade Mormons who were apart from the church and went against Brigham Young's advice. So, I think they'll try to do their best to not offend people," Patrick said.
Patrick expects continuing interest in the subject for the foreseeable future. The History Channel has recently done two one-hour programs on the massacre, and public television station WGBH Boston is doing its own version, he said.
"It's just a great human story and a great story of the American West that is as fascinating as they possibly can get. The fact that it's been kind of kept under wraps for so long either people didn't know about it or steered away from it that's one of the reasons why now there are a lot of people all at once trying to get it out there and possibly exploit it."
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