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This haunting film tells the story of the ill-fated party of pioneers and their doomed attempt to get to California in 1846. More than just a riveting tale of death, endurance and survival, the Donner Party's nightmarish journey penetrated to the very heart of the American dream at a crucial phase of the nation's "manifest destiny." Touching some of the most powerful social, economic and political currents of the time, this extraordinary narrative remains one of the most compelling and enduring episodes to come out of the West.

Ric Burns
Writing Credits:
Ric Burns

Not Rated.

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Digital Stereo

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 1/14/2003

• PBS Online

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TV - Mitsubishi CS-32310 32"; Subwoofer - JBL PB12; DVD Player - Toshiba SD-4700; Receiver - Sony STR-DE845; Center - Polk Audio CS175i; Front Channels - Polk Audio; Rear Channels - Polk Audio.


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The Donner Party (1992)

Reviewed by David Williams (April 14, 2003)

Originally airing on PBS, this documentary was deemed the “Best Television Program of 1992”, by the National Board of Review. Masterfully and compellingly narrated by David McCullough, Ric Burns’ The Donner Party also features the talented voices of Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen and Eli Wallach. This gripping treatment of the ill-fated party of pioneers is an essential element in any historian's collection or video-library.

Powerful and remarkable, the documentary was directed by Ric Burns and aired on PBS as part of their “American Experience” series. If the director’s name sounds familiar, Ric is the brother of famed documentarian Ken Burns (Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War) and Ric’s style is eerily similar to that of his brother. The Donner Party carries all the markings of a Burns documentary in that it uses magnificent narration, heartbreaking and engaging diary excerpts from those featured in the story, old photographs, interviews with historians and authors, and a mixture of current and period music to compliment the whole thing.

Most of you have more than likely heard at least a mention of the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey across the American West as they headed towards the promised land of California during the spring of 1846. Multiple novels and historical accounts have been written on the tragic trip and while I definitely don’t plan on trying to “one up” any of the material available to you in other places (forget the fact that I don’t have enough knowledge of the subject matter), I’m still gonna give you a Cliff’s Notes version of the story and its corresponding documentary from Ric Burns and company.

The West during the 19th century was an almost mystical land that beckoned pioneers from far and wide for those willing to make some sacrifices and a difficult journey. However, no one had as quite a harrowing tale to tell as those in the ill-fated Donner Party who made the 2500-mile journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Sutter's Fort in California.

The journey began in July of 1846, a few years before the California Gold Rush, and a large number of American emigrants were just beginning to settle Upper California. Included in this group were the families of Frazier Reed and George Donner and before they left, they decided to follow a “shortcut” that they read about in a pamphlet by Lansford W. Hastings. The shortcut would supposedly cut hundreds of miles and days off of the long journey and would take the group across the Great Basin (bordered by the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges) rather than the more widely traveled (and well-known) Oregon Trail. However, what Hastings failed to mention in his pamphlet was that he had actually never traveled the journey by wagon himself and the route was more conceptual than anything else.

When the group started out, everyone followed the same path; but when the Donner Party reached the advertised shortcut, many of the wagons – including those of the Reed and Donner families – split off from the main group and decided to go the experimental route. The route proved much more difficult than anyone had ever imagined and problems with the landscape and surroundings were immediate and harsh. Water supplies ran low – wagon wheels became stuck in murky surfaces around the Great Salt Lake – it took longer to navigate certain areas than expected – and so on.

Things only got worse from there, as the party was hopelessly behind schedule and running short on food. They didn’t reach the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California until October of 1846 and unfortunately for them, they would be stopped cold (no pun intended) by a series of blizzards that would eventually be part of the worst winter ever on record for the mountain range. With snowdrifts of up to 20 feet high, the group tried to wait things out and hope for the best. However, a couple of days of clear weather would be followed by a few days of hard snow and the group decided that a party should be formed to go ahead of the main assembly and look for better conditions and/or summon for help. The group, named “Forlorn Hope”, met some unfortunate conditions as well and things got so bad that many members of the party died and the ones who lived had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. The members of the party that were left at the camp were fading quickly as well due to hunger and severe cold.

After five months trapped on the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the remaining members of “Forlorn Hope” were spotted and rescued and this led to the eventual rescue of those left at the main encampment as well. Of the 87 men, women, and children that made up the party, when it was all said and done, only 46 survived. 2/3 of the women and children lived through the ordeal, while only 1/3 of the men outlived the elements and harsh conditions.

The Donner Party is an incredible work and even if you aren’t interested in purchasing the disc for your collection, you should rent it at the very least. With a perfect mixture of interviews, dramatic readings, and material from the period, Ric Burns has created another “must see” documentary that gives viewers of any age a better understanding of this harrowing, tragic, and ultimately, very courageous event in American history.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+ / Audio C+ / Bonus D-

The Donner Party comes from PBS with a fullscreen transfer in the shows televised aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Much like the other documentaries from Ric (or Ken) Burns, it mixes still photographs from the time/period and intersperses them with current day interviews with authors and historians familiar with the subject at hand. Being a television documentary and not a big budget film, there is a noticeable difference in quality, but much like the transfer for the audio, it fits the material like a glove.

The transfer as a whole looks fairly tight and detailed, with accurate tones and hues throughout the entire 90-minute running time of the documentary. Everything from the sepia tones of the 150-year-old-plus photographs to the recent interviews with authors and historians to the footage of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and other locales that the party traveled maintain very natural and accurate hues and always appear properly balanced and saturated.

Flaws with the transfer were easily noted, as grain and print flaws were the order of the day. There was a decent amount of flakes, flecks, and scratches noted on the image and it didn’t seem to discriminate between pans of old photographs or recent interview/location footage. While there was a bit of noise throughout the presentation, it wasn’t of the distracting variety and the flaws found in The Donner Party were expected from this type of presentation.

Overall, the video transfer for The Donner Party is a step above its broadcast appearance, but far from reference quality material. However, fans of PBS’s “American Experience” series or of Ric Burn’s stellar documentary work won’t find too much to complain about. It’s a great documentary and PBS has done a magnificent job bringing it to the home viewing market.

PBS’s Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio transfer provided for The Donner Party was acceptable for the material at hand and provided viewers with a very workman-like and undistinguished presentation. As with most documentaries and historical shows, the mainstay of the show was the dialogue and narration and the transfer handles these elements quite well. Everything is firmly anchored in the front surrounds and there was absolutely no play noted in the rears at any time. Overall, the dialogue and narration were quite clear and there was absolutely no background noise to distort the proceedings. There were some environmental effects integrated into the track such as birds chirping and dogs barking and while far from impressive, they sounded quite crisp and natural. Also included was some period music – for the most part, bluegrass in nature – and it sounded quite crisp and clean as well.

Ambience was never created in the track and The Donner Party was far from an engulfing experience. That being said, no one goes out and buys and A&E or PBS DVDs to use as demo material for their surround sound setup – they buy it because they’re consistently informative and entertaining pieces and in that respect, The Donner Party succeeds marvelously. (For the record, PBS has provided no subtitles for The Donner Party.)

Much like the DVD for Ansel Adams, there’s not a whole lot here other than a ton of Commercials from PBS sponsors that can’t be skipped when you pop in the disc and a PBS Online selection that provides a weblink to the PBS website and nothing more.

If you’re in to documentaries, American history, or history in general, PBS has hit another one out of the park with an outstanding look at the tragic story of the Donner Party and the great pioneer movement that took place during the 1800’s.

This is one of those DVDs that’s hard to recommend to just anyone. You already know whether or not you want this disc in your collection and I’d say if you’ve made it this far in my review, a rental is in order at the very least. However, for those of you considering a purchase, rest assured that PBS has handled the A/V specs here quite respectably and The Donner Party looks and sounds better than ever.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.423 Stars Number of Votes: 52
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