HTF REVIEW: "The Donner Party" A film by Ric Burns (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) (with screenshots)

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Ronald Epstein, Jan 2, 2003.

  1. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Founder

    Jul 3, 1997
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    Ronald Epstein

    The Donner Party
    A Film by Ric Burns

    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Year: 2002
    Rated: NR
    Film Length: 90 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: Full Frame
    Subtitles: None

    Lately, it seems that no-one can take a historical
    event and make it more seemingly real than filmmaker
    Ric Burns. You may recognize the last name --
    both Ric and his brother Ken Burns began their
    filmmaking career in the mid-eighties, and are
    well-known for their work on the acclaimed 1987
    PBS series THE CIVIL WAR. Told through
    pictures and heart-felt narration, their stories
    are so well told that the viewer actually feels the
    passions of the people of which the story is about.
    If you ever doubted the impact that these stories
    have upon a viewer, then you need you to watch
    The Donner Party, perhaps the most disturbing
    story that this filmmaker has ever told. This is
    a film not only about a great tragedy, but the
    ultimate test of human character.
    The Donner Party was the most famous tragedy in
    the history of the westward migration. This is the
    story of the families of James F. Reed and George
    and Jacob Donner, 31 people in nine wagons, who left
    Springfield, Illinois in April 1846 in pursuit of
    a dream for a better life. The journey to
    California was expected to take about 6 months.
    Other families joined them along the way. At some
    point, there were over 80 cars and more than 300
    people with the group.
    Perhaps the most tragic mistake that the Donner-Reed
    party made was to listen to the carnival barkings of
    Lansford W. Hastings whose published Emigrants'
    Guide to Oregon and California
    promised a route
    through the West that would save 350-400 miles of
    journey. Despite warnings from many that the route
    was unpassable, the Donner-Reed party decided that
    they would take the Hastings cut-off across the
    barren reaches of the Great Basin which is bordered
    by the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains.
    From here the documentary tells the story of the
    party's grueling crossing of the Salt Flats where
    afterwards tempers flared so high that James Reed
    kills John Snyder, the Graves family's teamster.
    James is deemed a murderer by the rest of the party
    and is banished from the group. For months to come,
    the emigrants would endure many more obstacles, but
    none as harrowing as their experiences at Truckee
    Lake with the pass over the Sierra just a few
    miles beyond. It is here where the emigrants are
    forced back by the snow, where they slaughtered
    their cattle in order to fend off starvation. The
    most harrowing part of this story is just about
    to be told as we learn how the party on the verge
    of starvation resorted to cannibalism, eating
    members of their own family.
    How is the transfer?
    Please understand that I cannot hold a TV
    production like this to the same standards as a
    theatrical presentation. For the most part, this
    full-frame presentation is broadcast quality. In
    other words, the DVD format does nothing to better
    the small amount of noise, picture blemish and
    color impurities one would expect from a film made
    for broadcast television. Sound is quite clear,
    with a noticeable amount of stereo separation
    within the film's music selections. Visually this
    is nothing to rave about, but you find yourself so
    emotionally involved in the story that you soon
    forget about things such as picture quality.
    Special Features
    There are no added features here except redirection
    to the PBS on-line site where you can further read
    about The American Experience.
    The one major gripe I have about this DVD is that
    like all other PBS presentations, there are no
    subtitles available. Though the disc is closed
    captioned, I find that many television sets display
    these captions in an obtrusive blackened area of the
    screen. It is my hope that PBS considers adding
    subtitles to future releases.
    Final Thoughts
    With all the theatrical reviews that appear on
    this forum week after week, it becomes easy to
    forget that this format offers so much educational
    material that often gets overlooked.
    It is my hope through these reviews to convince more
    people to watch powerful documentaries like this. In
    fact, I dare you to find a recent theatrical release
    that will effect you as emotionally as The Donner
    Party, a harrowing and highly disturbing story
    that I promise will haunt you days after watching.
    Anything that emotionally moves me in this manner
    deserves a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED status....and you know
    what? It can be had for under $15 on-line.
    Release Date: January 14, 2003
    All screen captures have been further compressed.
    They are for illustrative purposes only and do not
    represent actual picture quality
  2. Felix Martinez

    Felix Martinez Screenwriter

    Aug 27, 2001
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    South Florida
    Great review Ron!
    Was not aware of this title and it looks intriguing. Will check it out.
    I always recall this story when Jack Torrance and family discuss on the way to the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's The Shining [​IMG]
  3. JoeyPalmiotti

    Nov 23, 2002
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    Thanks! A little bit different sounding then Cannibal: The Musical, looks VERY interesting though.......
  4. Chris S

    Chris S Cinematographer

    Apr 9, 2000
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    Chris S
    Sounds really interesting. I love the Ken Burns films so I have no doubt that The Donner Party is just as good. Its sad that titles like this sometimes go unmentioned or become over shadowed by some higher profile titles from the major studios. Ron thanks for pointing this one out. I'll definitely be picking up a copy on Jan 14th.

    Chris S.
  5. ScottR

    ScottR Cinematographer

    Apr 1, 2000
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    I saw this when it originally aired and it is a film that has stayed with me. Can't wait to pick this one up.
  6. Ron-P

    Ron-P Producer

    Jul 25, 2000
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    My brother bought me this many years ago on VHS. I watched it once. Not one I'd add to the collection or that has a high re-watch factor.
    It is an excellent one time see and recommend everyone to at least rent it.
    Peace Out~[​IMG]
  7. Stephanie T.

    Stephanie T. Stunt Coordinator

    May 26, 2002
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    Although it would make a most excellent double feature when paired with Ravenous. [​IMG]
    Seriously, though, I remember watching this in horror and thinking, "I can't believe PBS is broadcasting this!" And I thought I knew about the Donner Party before the documentary... but oh, the horror, the horror!

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