If you want a sense of what makes, or should make, the movies different from television, you won't find it in "September Dawn," about the infamous 19th-century Mountain Meadow massacre of settlers by Mormons. Competently staged, with a good cast, it still feels out of place on the big screen, like it was born to debut on television. Though sympathetic, the movie is so firmly fixated on its terrible central event that what human interest is included feels contrived.
The result comes off like an expensively staged re-enactment; hence the need for a pair of young lovers, one from each side of the feud, to provide a sense of emotional investment. But the contrivance only trivializes. On the one side are the Mormons, represented by a powerful family led by a severe church elder (Jon Voight). One of his sons (Trent Ford) falls for a pretty settler girl (Tamara Hope) who, according to the prophecy of Hollywood romances, has been saving herself for just this inconvenient moment.
The Mormons live with a watchful eye toward anyone passing through. Their suspicions are somewhat warranted, because they have recently seen their founder and leader, Joseph Smith (Dean Cain, laughably cast), killed at the hands of nonbelievers. Though the movie shows that these settlers are the most peaceful, humble, giving, caring, friendly people on God's green earth, the wicked Mormons are unmoved.
That the Mormons were already riled up when the settlers arrived is well-documented, but surprisingly, most of the reasons behind their decision to kill are pushed to the background. Church leader Brigham Young (Terence Stamp, almost breathing fire and brimstone) is convinced a hostile U.S. government sent the settlers there to help in his ouster as governor of the Utah Territory. The movie plays down these wider politics in order to beat us over the head with a refrain: Young and his minions, save a lone scapegoat, never answered for their crimes. "September Dawn" strenuously wants you to loathe them for it, but it's hard when all they did was kill a bunch of extras. Unless it has some weird Asian ghosts in it, a movie can't get by solely on a grudge. (R) 111 min. S