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American Experience - The Donner Party

American Experience - The Donner Party (1992)


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From the PBS series "The American Experience" comes this harrowing tale of survival. Like many others with the pioneering spirit, the Donner party headed west for California in 1846, following their American Dream. Hitting difficult terrain and even more difficult weather, they were forced into some of the most excruciating survival techniques known to man, and their name has become synonymous with their hardship--and their curse.


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All Critics (8) | Top Critics (1) | Fresh (4) | Rotten (1) | DVD (14)

Enough material to fill a movie script of epic proportions

January 1, 2000 Full Review

Audience Reviews for American Experience - The Donner Party

This documentary film traces the history of the Donner Party, an ill-fated pioneer group from Springfield, Illinois. Three years before the Gold Rush, 87 pioneers took a shortcut westward to California, only to get caught in the snows of the Sierra Nevada. The emigrants' fateful journey culminated in death and cannibalism.

Rick Burns did a good job to bring us to life the disastrous journey of 2500 miles made famous by the tales of cannibalism the survivors told upon reaching their destination. The film is excellently narrated by David McCullough. I will be using it now in my lectures as a recommended viewing, and I am glad that finally got a chance to see it.

The film was produced using traditional way of historians: combination of archival materials, including letters, photograph, paintings and diaries from members of the Donner Party. New footage was shot of the trail the Party journeyed along in Oregon and California and added as well as animated maps which were showing the route the Donner Party took. Plenty of experts were available to express their views and they included Harold Schindler, Joseph King, Donald Buck and Wallace Stegner. Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, George Plimpton, Lois Smith, and Eli Wallach read the letters and diaries written by the Donner Party before, during and after their journey.

It was a documentary which forced me to stay quiet and carefully listen every detail about this gruelling, unforgettable trip because this historical narrative had something in it, some rare dire beauty which I could not let go. Ric Burns is usually considered a "low key" director but I am not sure if anyone should say that about him after watching this documentary full with heroism, cowardice, stupefying folly and price and a truly terrible irony perfectly combined together.
August 15, 2013
Panta Oz

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