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Case Number 02550: Small Claims Court

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The Donner Party

Warner Bros. // 1992 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // January 24th, 2003

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of The Donner Party, published February 5th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

The sole reason the "Worst Case Scenario" book was conceived.

The Case

In 1848, a group of pioneers attempted to travel from Springfield, Illinois, to the great state of California via horse and wagon. What should have been a rather simple trip ended up as one of the most horrific journeys in American history. This trip took place at a pivotal time in United States history, most notably during the nation's "manifest destiny." Urged on by Lansford Hastings—a man with absolutely no sense of direction—who thought he knew a shorter route to California, the citizens of Springfield found themselves buried in snow as they slowly sat dying in the brutal winds of winter. After running out of food and sustenance, the poor souls had no choice but to eat the flesh of those who had perished along the way. Though there were survivors, the story has not passed into American legend as a tragedy of almost Greek proportions. As directed by Ric Burns (brother of famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns), The Donner Party is a harrowing tale of human endurance and why you should never listen to a man whose first name is "Lansford."

The Donner Party is a documentary that sends shivers up the spine. How lucky we all are to be alive at this crucial point in history—though we haven't found a cure of cancer yet, we can rest assured that most of us won't freeze to death in the mountains on our way from the Midwest to California. The Donner family and their colleagues had no such luck; without modern conveniences like radios and radar, the Donner party was in trouble from the get-go. This often-fascinating documentary chronicles the Donner party's trek across the states and the unbearably bad luck they encountered—everything from heavy snowfall to murdering Indians fell into their paths. Oh, and then there was that whole eating human flesh thing. Sadly, on the last leg of their trip the Donner party came within only 150 miles of safety; if they'd have been just one day earlier, the pioneers might have made it to safety without numerous casualties. This documentary is both informative and chilling—set to ominous music and drab voiceover, the viewer receives a small taste of the terror felt by the Donner's lost souls. Burns was able to wrangle some fine talent for the diary and document readings: Amy Madigan (The Dark Half), Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People), author George Plimpton, and Lois Smith (Dead Man Walking) all give skilled performances as the doomed party members. From real life recollections to scholarly thoughts, The Donner Party reaches deep into history and probes into what went wrong during that fateful American year. Though the film is interesting on many levels, it sometimes feels a bit overshadowed by Burns' brother's work on such grand documentaries like Mark Twain and Baseball. This isn't to say The Donner Party isn't good filmmaking—just not as dense as other films of this nature. Either way, The Donner Party is well worth the watch, though it's not recommended right before your cross-country skiing trip to Vail.

The Donner Party is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. This film was originally broadcast on TV in 1992 and shows a few signs of wear and tear. There is a noticeable amount of grain in the image, though this isn't always the filmmaker's fault—the archival footage and photographs used are often dark, ancient, and decrepit. While there are a few imperfections to be found within this image, overall I think PBS/Warner has done a fine with a film that's well over a decade old. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo in English. This is a decent audio track that aptly supports the film. Though there isn't a lot to this mix—directional effects and surround sounds are floating at the bare minimum—overall the track is free and clear of any excessive hiss or distortion. No alternate subtitles or soundtracks are available on this mix.

Unfortunately, there isn't a single extra feature available on this disc. I think that's a real shame, as I would have enjoyed seeing an interview with Ric Burns. Or at least a recipe for femur strudel.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 87

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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