A fundamentalist religious group declares, "May these children of Satan go to Hell," and on September 11 stages a mass murder of unarmed nonbelievers. Al-Qaeda and the Twin Towers? No, the Mormons and the Arkansas Emigrants. With chronological coincidence that beggars belief, a micro-Holocaust called the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place along the Old Spanish Trail in the Utah Territory on Sept. 11, 1857. On that day, following a siege by the Native-American Paiute tribe at what the tribe testified was at the Mormons' behest, 100 to 140 wagon-train travelers were slaughtered by a group of Mormons led by bishop and militia leader John D. Lee. Promising the group safe passage through Paiute ground, the Mormons separated the men from the women and children, marched the unarmed groups away from their wagons and possessions, and then summarily executed them.
Despite a vow of secrecy, which extended to a mass grave going uncovered until 1999, the massacre began finding its way to newspaper accounts and government testimony within two years; it has since inspired novels, plays, historical tomes and such documentaries as the feature Burying the Past: Legacy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (2004). Remarkably, Lee was the only person convicted and executed for the crime—though not without leaving a detailed memoir and confession that laid the orders for the massacre at the highest level of the Mormon Church: spiritual leader and Utah territorial governor Brigham Young. The Church officially denies involvement by its leaders, and in fact—in what the victims' ancestors consider a slap in the face—administers the massacre monument, which sits on Mormon land.
Writer-director Christopher Cain's didactic docudrama falls squarely within Lee's account and those of the ancestors of the Arkansans' children and infants—the eldest less than seven years old—who were spared and briefly adopted by Mormon families until a federal investigation reclaimed them. Despite the movie's Hallmark Hall of Fame-like sense of proprietary and handsome production values, it draws club-blunt parallels between the early Mormons and Islam, right down to the Mormon promise of "the crown of celestial glory and eternal joy" for those who kill the, shall we say, infidels.
Cain does this only after grinding his wheels a bit, opening with an 1875 deposition by Young (Terence Stamp) concerning the events of 1857, followed by a flashback to a seemingly typographical-error 1877, followed by an unexpected third flashback to 1857, all within the first few minutes. Real-life individuals such as Captain Alexander Fancher (Shaun Johnston) and cowgirl Nancy Dunlap (Lolita Davidovich) meet the fictional Jacob Samuelson (given scary but complex life by Jon Voight), the general of the local militia, the nearby town's mayor and a bishop of the Church, and his sons Micah (Taylor Handley) and Jonathan (the engaging Trent Ford). Though a Mormon party led by John D. Lee (Jon Gries) menacingly tells the tired and depleted wagon train that it can't stop to graze or rest, and won't be sold any food or supplies, Samuelson extends a seemingly Christian hand and gives them two weeks in the meadow.
It's a ploy, however, and once home, Samuelson seethes at the supposed "wickedness" and "abomination" of the Arkansan wagon train—they have thoroughbred racehorses that will be used for gambling in California, and Dunlap dresses in buckskin pants like a man—and what with the handsome and sensitive Jonathan falling for lovely young Arkansan Emily Hudson (the wonderful Tamara Hope), things quickly reach a boiling point. Innuendo and outright lies, justified as revelations from God, lead to absurd claims that stir up the local Mormon leaders. Soon the Mormons mislead the Paiutes into attacking, though the disillusioned natives quickly find hollow the Mormons' promise that no brave will die. That leaves the Mormon group to handle the ritual killing itself.
The film and its website come with references and citations galore, yet confusing points abound. Mormonism founder Joseph Smith (the director's son Dean Cain, in a cameo) was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, and not, as the movie seems to keep saying, in Missouri. The Mormon inner circle uses the undefined term "Mericats," and you have to do your own research to learn this was a term that the Paiutes used, to refer to white non-Mormons.
When the movie isn't doling out ham-fisted history, however, it gives us magnificent vistas of a pristine prairie that must have seen like an Eden on Earth, and there's a deep sweetness to the subplot of Jonathan and Emily falling in love.