September Dawn from Christopher Cain

“September Dawn is a dramatic recreation of historical events that occurred in the fall of 1857. The religious fanaticism, betrayal and subsequent massacre that serve as a background to the Romeo and Juliet love story are part of Americas history.

The Idea

The film started as an idea that tickled Chris Cain. Enjoying a comfortable retirement in the mountains of Colorado, the director had no intention of doing anything more than writing a screenplay or two. That was until Carol Whang Schutter told him about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the most tragic and horrific events in American history. Cain found himself intrigued by the possibility of a cinematic tale grounded in the real life events and set out to find a way to tell the story. I came up with the Romeo and Juliet idea, to personalize the event.”

As Cain started doing the research, he discovered that this slaughter occurred, in a strange coincidence, on September 11, 1857. It was then he began to draw on the many parallels and similarities between what is happening in todays world of religious fanaticism with the attitudes that led to the grisly events of that September morning 150 years ago.

You watch the news and you wonder what makes people today do what they are doing. You ask yourself, what makes a kid strap a bomb to himself, go to a public place and blow it up. And then you read Brigham Youngs speeches and what hes saying and you see his ability to fire people up to do things. This flashes back to the days of Hitler and Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid party and you think that world of religious fanaticism can be a very scary thing, says Cain.

Pertinent Today

The story is so pertinent today because people look at recent events world wide that are born of religious fanaticism as if it is something new. They should know that 150 years ago, it happened right here on American soil. Cain qualifies, Having said that, religions also build hospitals and schools, educate people and takes care of the poor.

Making the decision to finance the film privately to be free of artistic compromise, Cain quietly put together the budget and shot the film independently in Calgary, Canada. It was important that there wouldnt be a false note in it if I had to shoot someone in the head, it wasnt going to be a flesh wound. There was no way to stumble through this story.
Cain was determined to portray the historical facts accurately and looked to many sources on which to base his script. He settled on a 27-page confession by John D. Lee, the only person convicted for his part in the carnage. He also tapped the actual transcripts of Brigham Youngs speeches and sermons from the time.

If any miserable scoundrels come here, cut their throats was the message in Youngs Blood Atonement Sermon found in the Journal of Discourses, Vol. II, page 311. Using the Mormon leaders own words, Cain incorporated that attitude into the script, Youngs words are taken verbatim from his preaching, sermons and writings. I dont think I would have believed the things that were being said at the time, if they hadnt been historically and factually recorded, Cain observed. But, you can look up the quotes.

Citing more research directly from The Churchs archives, Cain noted, The other document that was the most damning was Brigham Youngs deposition. If you read his deposition and compare that to what was coming out of his speeches at that time, clearly he was urging this kind of behavior. At the same time Young is saying that he knew nothing about the massacre. From what Cain surmised, this was not true, as illustrated in a quote from one of Youngs transcripts where he says, I will loose the Indians on them, we will slit their throats from ear to ear.

Young also declared himself to be the voice of God, and anyone who doesnt like it will be hewn down. He even commanded his followers to take a solemn oath to never discuss this, even among ourselves.

Message from Above

Turning to the Lee confession, Cain found that Lee stated, in plain language, the circumstances surrounding what happened leading up to the massacre as well as the event itself. Lee describes persuading the Paiute Indians to attack after getting this message from above (God), telling him exactly what to do, how to approach the settlers, deceive them with the white flag, and lead them into slaughter. At first, he resisted it, but did it anyway, because he was told to. So that was the document that told me how to stage the end of this movie.

The confession, Cain explains, states specifically how the member of the wagon train marched single file, babies and the kids in one wagon and the guns in another. Women marched single file ahead of the men and the men marched single file, which is exactly how it is done in the movie. I believe his documents because he is the only person who was there who wrote anything that has any relevance to the case.
Cain wanted the look of the location to be a part of the story as well. I wanted our locations to very much resemble Mountain Meadows where the massacre took place. The area where we shot was just a little greener and doesnt have the sagebrush. There was also a big river and the actual place had a little stream. Relying on his Academy Award nominated production designer Rick Roberts, Cain felt he more than met the films needs.

Shooting in Canada

“I shot the film in Canada because it isnt Utah, he says, knowing the controversy this film would cause in the Mormon state. Cain also chose Canada for the infrastructure of people who were available to staff the crew. He praised the quality of the crews and attributed that to the amount of filming occurring in the area. We got the cream of the crop with everybody, probably the best crew I ever had. Everything I needed was up there; from the people who provided the wagons, and probably own the most extensive group of western wagon, buggies and tents, to all the props for this type of film. We had all the cast, horses and the stock and anything else you needed, including the wide open spaces.

Cain says, This movie is about two people coming from two very different groups and two very different ways of life. It becomes quite difficult to understand somebody with whom you have absolutely no frame of reference regarding their sensibility, their background, their upbringing. There are such strong parallels to todays world. But this film is about tolerance. We all could learn from the destruction and heartbreak that violence brings to all.

Christopher Cain's Bio

Producer/writer/director Christopher Cain was tempted out of retirement to make September Dawn, fascinated by the parallels of this 150-year-old tragedy and present-day religious fanaticism.

Cain is best known for his breakout picture, Young Guns. His earlier The Stone Boy made many Ten Best lists in 1984. Cain's film Where the River Runs Black was also well received.