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New movie renews controversy Mountain Meadows massacre 4-29-07

- It's a story often left out of Western history: Pioneer-era Mormon settlers with painted faces and dressed as American Indians committing a vicious, execution-style killing of some 120 unarmed men, women and children who were part of a wagon train bound for California.

It happened Sept. 11, 1857, about 300 miles south of Salt Lake City in a place called Mountain Meadows, a sagebrush-covered valley widely known as a stopover for western-bound pioneers on the old Spanish Trail.

Most of the victims from Capt. Alexander Fancher's Arkansas wagon train were marched single file through the grass and shot at close range, stabbed or beaten to death. Another wagon-load of the Arkansas immigrants, wounded in four previous days of gun skirmishes with Mormon militamen and some Paiute Indians, were also shot and killed.

Only 17 children - 6 years old and younger - were spared, most thought to be too young to remember or speak of what they saw.

The Mountain Meadows massacre is one of the darkest, most controversial moments in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For nearly 150 years, the depth of the church's involvement in the massacre has been debated in dozens of books from historians and by the descendants on both sides.

On June 22, Hollywood takes its turn telling the story with “September Dawn,” an independent feature film from director Chris Cain (“Young Guns”). The film stars Academy Award winners Jon Voight and Terence Stamp, along with Lolita Davidovich.

“The reason I made the movie about this specific incident was not to blame anybody,” Cain told The Associated Press. “At the core of the whole thing is religious fanaticism. I thought by making this movie we could take a look at how that evolved and how that can happen.”

Cain co-wrote the screenplay with Carole Whang Schutter, weaving together historical accounts from nonfiction works and original Mormon sources - including the confession of John D. Lee, the only man tried and convicted in the murders - with a fictional love story between a girl from the wagon train and the son of the church leader who orchestrates the killings by the local militia.

The movie, like some scholars, makes the case that Brigham Young, then the president of the Mormon church, shared direct responsibility for the attack.

Mormon church officials did not comment for this story but have said the movie is a work of fiction. The church, which erected a memorial on the massacre site in 1999, maintains Young had no role in the event and in fact sent word through a messenger that the Fancher wagon train should pass undisturbed.

“It's a story I've lived with my entire life, being a so-called gentile in Salt Lake City,” bookseller Ken Sanders said. “It's my belief personally that any faithful, believing Mormon will never accept that Brigham Young had anything to do with the Mountain Meadows massacre. I simultaneously feel that there's no non-Mormon or gentile that will ever believe otherwise.”

Sanders was among a gathering of booksellers, historians, authors and massacre descendants gathered in Salt Lake City last week by the AP for a private screening of the movie arranged in cooperation with filmmakers. Mormon church officials, including church historians working on a book about the massacre, were invited to the screening, but declined to attend. Spokeswoman Kim Farah said the church plans no comment about the movie once it opens.

The film drew a somber and emotional reaction, including a few tears from descendants of the 17 survivors, who said their side of the story has rarely been told.

“Speaking for the victims, it's taken 150 years of this before any type of movie about this to come out ... we appreciate it,” said Phil Bolinger, of Hindsville, Ark., who is related to 30 of those killed.

Stories about the massacre remain strangely absent from most accounts of both Western and Mormon history, even among some descendants and members of the church.

With it's “R” rating, many Mormons may not even see the film, bookseller Curt Bench said. Those who do, may walk out, irritated by what Bench and others said was a stereotypical, one-dimensional portrait of blindly obedient church members that bordered on cartoonish at times. A scene that includes a sacred Mormon temple ceremony will also offend.

“I think it went a little too far in making the Mormons bad, bad, bad, and the immigrants good, good good,” said Leroy Lee, a Mormon and the great-great-grandson of John D. Lee.

“I think if you were someone in the Fancher party and this happened to you ... this is what you saw,” countered Mormon filmmaker Richard Dutcher (“God's Army”).

And that's what separates Cain's account from many other versions of the story.

“The new part that this film brings out is that the Fanchers were probably pretty decent people just trying to get to California,” Mormon History Association spokesman Tom Kimball said. “That's the first time that's ever been presented to me as a Latter-day Saint.”

Past portrayals of the massacre suggested the Fancher party “brought it on themselves,” Kimball said.

“Here's a story that has not been accurately portrayed and has been sequestered by my people, and it's very important that this story is finally told,” he said.

Cain said the movie is not meant to offend, nor be a portrait of Mormons in general.

“The Mormons that were involved in this specific event were bad,” he said. “We didn't do a movie about the Mormon church. We did it about the specific event and the people involved.”

If Cain erred in some specifics, he may have come close in trying to establish the climate of persecution that spurred distrust of outsiders among Mormons at the time. Then a territory, Utah was at odds with the federal government over the issues of polygamy and Young's theocratic rule. The U.S. Army was marching west to remove him as governor.

“If you could have been in the (Salt Lake City) tabernacle on Aug. 16, 1857, and heard Brigham Young speak ... It was virulent hate speech,” said historian and author Will Bagley. “It was violent, it was bloody, and it was apocalyptic.”

Most of Young's dialogue was drawn directly from the church president's speeches, Cain said.

“Look. It's an ugly, dark day in their history and it happened and it needs to be understood,” he said. “If they can take a look at it for what it was and not project it to how the Mormon church is today, they can get past it, it can be opened up, dealt with and gone.”

Survivor descendant Bob Fancher of Joplin, Mo., hopes the movie will correct the historical record and foster an opportunity for discussion.

“The church ought to admit, 'Yeah, we had some people and some leaders that did this,' and let's just get it out in the open,” said Fancher. “I don't need an apology.”

After 150 years, it would be nice to lay the issue to rest, Kimball added.

“Not in the sense that we're trying to hide it,” he said. “But to finally tell the truth about our role in this horrible thing, so that we can tell our children we did the honorable thing.”