The Donner Party (1992)   Leave a comment



Written and directed by Ric Burns, Ken Burns’ brother, The Donner Party chronicles the journey and trials of the ill-fated pioneers who left the midwest in search of the promised land in California.  Burns uses actors Eli Wallach, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, Lois Smith, Timothy Hutton, and writers David McCullough and George Plimpton to read the words written by the Donners, the Reeds, the Breens, and the rest of the group that made Truckee Lake famous.  The story, one which starts with such promise and ends, for some, with such tragedy becomes even more dramatic when told in the participants own words.  Fortunately for us, many of the 87 who started the trek from Springfield, Illinois in 1846 kept diaries and wrote letters describing their journey.  The actors do a lovely job with the material and the historians interviewed describe the events with obvious knowledge.   Then there’s the story itself.  That so many things can go so wrong for a single group of people strains credulity and yet we know it to be true.  The families, their wagons, and their cattle drove 2500 miles through rough terrain, believed the advice of Lansford Hastings and took an untried shortcut (which added 125 miles to their trip) and missed traversing the Sierra Nevadas in clear weather by one day.  During their ordeal, some emerged as heroes and heroines, risking their lives to rescue the dying or bolster their hopes. Some showed cowardice and savagery, murdering their comrades.  Some members of the party resorted to cannibalism to survive, and as ugly as that sounds, it’s certainly better than murder.   Burns does an admirable job  telling the pioneers’ stories, but I wish he had delved a bit more deeply into the backgrounds of his subjects and their lives after their return to civilization.  That could be nit-picking though.  I’m a bit of a Donner Party nut.


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