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PBS Home Video presents
The Donner Party (2002)

"The farther we went up, the deeper the snow got."
- Virginia Reed, 12-year-old survivor of the Donner Party

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 19, 2003

Stars: David McCullough
Other Stars: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, George Plimpton, Lois Smith, Frances Sternhagen, Eli Wallach
Director: Ric Burns

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (cannibalism)
Run Time: 01h:23m:38s
Release Date: January 14, 2003
UPC: 794054880229
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB+B D-

DVD Review

The way West during the 19th century was never easy, with a variety of terrible hardships afflicting those brave enough to make the journey. But no wagon train west suffered in such an excruciatingly terrible manner as the fabled Donner Party. Misled by a pamphleteering lawyer, this band of 87 men, women and children endured a nightmarish journey of incredible cruelty marked by madness, murder and cannibalism.

This documentary details the story of the party as it made its way west from Springfield, Illinois in the summer and winter of 1846. Believing in a shortcut to California in a book by lawyer Lansford Hastings (who had never actually made the trip with a wagon), across the salt desert and into the mountains, the group arrived one day too late to cross the pass that now bears the Donner name. Trapped in the Sierra Nevada by 20 feet of snow, the group tried at first to wait out the storms. But as matters just continually grew worse and worse (the winter was one of the harshest on record), they attempted to send out a party they called the "Forlorn Hope," to stumble across the mountains into California and summon aid. Some of that group made it, but not until after they had resorted to eating several of their number; meanwhile back at the camp the remaining settlers were rapidly perishing from hunger and cold.

Directed by Ric Burns, brother of Ken, this documentary, originally aired as part of The American Experience series, is firmly in the Burns® style. Using narration, diary and letter excerpts, period music (especially the highly appropriate Sweet Betsy from Pike) and photographs, punctuated with onscreen interviews with historians. The style is well-suited to the material here, particularly the diary excerpts that really bring the agony of the expedition home. There unfortunately aren't quite enough photographs of the members of the party, and the same few have to be displayed over and over, lending a bit of repetitiveness to the program. Along with these historic materials, we often see aerial views of Donner Summit, a frankly astonishing route that is almost unthinkable to travel with an oxen-pulled wagon. One can hardly believe that they attempted to do so.

The documentary does tend to focus, not unexpectedly, on the cannibalism angle, detailing the horrific sights that greeted the rescuers. No photographs or drawings are provided, however, limiting the carnage to the verbal and allowing the viewer to conjure up his own nasty visions. One is struck by how important luck and happenstance were in the story of the party; had they not rested for five days before trying the Pass, they probably would have arrived more or less unscathed. Had James Reed not been exiled for killing a man in the party, he would not have been ahead and able to organize a rescue party for the stranded pioneers. The pacing is good and the story gripping, holding the viewer's attention from beginning to end.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame transfer generally looks pretty good, though it is interlaced and may not look its best on progressive setups. Colors are bright and blacks are deep and solid. The photographs are detailed and crisp, and the interview segments come across nicely. There is very little to complain about here.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The sound is clean and crisp as well, with David McCullough's narration tending to dominate with a booming quality. The notable guest stars read from diaries and letters and their parts come through cleanly and without problem. The music is a shade bright but solid and has a good presence, using the surrounds well. The last segments have a bit of hiss and noise present, but it's not terrible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Nothing much is provided for extras. A weblink for The American Experience is provided, but there are also unskippable ads at the beginning that are fairly annoying.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

A gripping documentary about the most horrific trip of the pioneers to the West, in the standard Burns tradition. The film is entrancing throughout, and is given an attractive transfer, though not much in the way of extras.


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