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September Dawn: Criticism or Sabotage? By: Ken Eliasberg
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, September 03, 2007

A few months ago, I had an opportunity to attend a pre-opening screening of the film, September Dawn, a movie based on an unpleasant event that occurred 144 years prior to 9/11: the massacre by a group of Mormons of a wagon train of Christians on their way to California. The massacre occurred in Mountain Meadow, Utah, on September 11, 1857. I found the film to be artistically pleasing, theatrically well done, and, based on my less-than-exhaustive research, historically correct. I had the opportunity to view it on two occasions before its official release on August 24th. After speaking to the star and the director, I got a very good picture of the thinking that went into the decision to make the movie, and it was clear to me, no matter how prudent that decision may have been, anti-Mormon bias was never a consideration. Indeed, the makers of the film and I have great respect for the Mormon religion, the Mormon community, and the positive contribution that both have made to America. It was realized at the outset that the subject matter was sensitive and would be made more sensitive by virtue of the fact that a Mormon might be a candidate for the presidency (although this fact was not known at the time the initial decision to make the film was made).

Nonetheless, it was anticipated that the film might be judged based on its artistic features, its historical accuracy, and, hopefully, on its contemporary relevance, i.e., that all religions have, over the course of their existence, trafficked in intolerance from time to time. And, in this vein, we are now dealing with a strain of religious fanaticism that threatens our very existence. It was hoped that the film might drive this message home and highlight the need to maintain a constant vigil against such fanaticism. I repeat, there was never even the slightest measure of animus towards Mormons felt or expressed. And, I have always personally felt a sort of allegiance to the Mormon Community.

While I did not expect the Mormon Community to be enthusiastic about the film, as noted, I hoped that, in view of their having now become part of America’s mainstream, they would allow the film to be judged on its merits as an artistic undertaking and not a political statement of any kind. However, the commonality of certain language contained in a number of reviews have caused me some concerns in this regard. Specifically, the expression “ham-fisted,” or similar derivation thereof, while not unusual, is certainly not apt to appear in more than one or two criticisms of almost any particular effort; yet it appears in more than a dozen reviews of this movie, all published on the same day. It has been suggested this abundance strains any notion of mere coincidence, especially due to the fact that several noted film critics such as Jeffrey Lyons, and Rex Reed praised the film without hesitation. Even Michael Medved, while disapproving of the subject matter, praised the director, Christopher Cain, and the star, Jon Voight, for their respective talents. Indeed, Medved called both of them “some of the good guys in Hollywood.”

While the Mormon hierarchy denies any effort to directly or indirectly sabotage the film, it seems possible much of the criticism dealing with the film is derived from some common blueprint. Perhaps the suggestion is wrong – indeed, I sincerely hope that it is – but, while not being prone to embrace conspiratorial theories, I can understand those who question coincidence in matters of this nature. However, any effort to suppress speech in such a manner would not be in keeping with the thinking of friends of mine in the Mormon community. No matter how upset they might be with what they considered to be an unfair criticism of their religion, they are Americans first and Mormons second. As a consequence, they respect our freedoms, particularly freedom of expression. They would grit their teeth and let the film rise or fall on its artistic merits, secure in the knowledge that it is merely a film and their religion is more than strong enough to withstand any criticism – accurate and profound or unfair and derivative. And, again, no such criticism of the present day LDS Church was ever intended. Moreover, it concerns me that members of a great religion, such as Mormonism, may feel the need to sabotage a film in order to preserve their version of history.

I hope that this notion is mistaken, and that there is no effort on the part of the Mormon establishment to do this film in. If there is such an effort, I have to believe it emanates from certain individuals who are acting on their own, who have so little faith in the power of their religion that they think a mere film about one isolated historic incident could do it harm.

Mormons have historically been committed to American rights and values. They know freedom of expression is not to be taken lightly.

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