Copyright 1995 ABC-CLIO. This review was taken from the ABC-CLIO Video Rating Guide for Libraries on CD-ROM, a 5-year compilation of over 8900 video titles and reviews, 1990-1994. For information regarding order VRGL CD-ROM, contact: ABC-CLIO, P.O. Box 1911, Santa Barbara, CA 93116-1911; 805-968-1911

This following text has been included in the UCB Media Resources Center Web site with the kind permission of the publishers.

The Donner Party

  • Series: The American Experience
  • Rating: ****
  • Audience: High School to Adult
  • Price: Public performance: $79.95
  • Date: . Released 1992.
  • Descriptors: Donner Party. West (U.S.) - History. United States - History - 19th century. Overland journeys to the Pacific.
  • Production Information: Live action, Stills. Produced by Ric Burns, Lisa Ades. Color, b&w. Closed captioned. 90 min.
  • Production Company: The History Consortium
  • Available from: PBS Video 1320 Braddock Pl. Alexandria, VA 22314-1698 (703)739-5380
  • ISBN: ISBN 0-7936-0904-6.
  • Cataloging: 978.02 Donner Party||Overland journeys to the Pacific||Documentary films
  • Print Entry #: 4:1084
  • Reviewer: Chas Hansen

    This eerie, even frightening production was originally broadcast last fall during Halloween week, for which it seemed perfectly suited. Ric Burns and Lisa Ades present the full horror and tragedy that befell these pioneer immigrants. However, while The Donner Party is deeply affecting, those wanting a detailed history of the events may have to look elsewhere.

    While this video provokes dread, it also confuses with those same affecting images. The still portraits of the participants and the photographs of the significant places are presented without dates or sources. So, the faces of the Reeds, the Donners, the Graves, and the others who suffered so terribly are presented to the viewer, seemingly, so one might read what fate has wrought upon them. Yet, you can't tell if these pictures came before or after the tragedy. Lake Truckee (also known as Donner Lake) is also shown without identification. As a result, we have an emotionally arresting video whose documentary material becomes a source of confusion.

    The Donner party fell victim to a combination of bad advice, misjudgment, and plain bad luck. The bad advice came from Lansford Hastings, whose Emigrants Guide to California promised a shortcut (around the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific Coast) which was anything but that. The misjudgment was party leader James Reed's decision to follow Hasting's route, even though he was advised not to. The party's bad luck was having the wettest winter in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevadas start the day before it was to cross them. An endless series of snow storms trapped the group at the Sierra Summit to starve.

    The production values could not be better. The haunting soundtrack by Brian Keane seems a certain award nominee. If Burns and Ades had not sacrificed the power of detail in pursuit of dramatic power, they would have produced a historical masterpiece instead of a flawed one.

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