The Donner Party

January 28, 2012 5 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Charlie Chaplin was said to have used the story of “The Donner Party” for inspiration for his 1925 film, The Gold Rush. The Donner Party is the term given to the 80 some odd people who ventured out west in 1846 to try and follow the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States only to find themselves struggling to make it through the rough Winter. We often take for granted some of the modern-day conveniences that we have, such as travel (car, train or airplane). What once took the early settlers of the United States weeks or months now takes us mere hours. Imagine it. After the Louisiana Purchase, the size of the United States doubled. As of that time only 20,000 people lived West of the Mississippi River and it was up to the brave souls to cross the country (literally) and start a new life on the other coast if we were going to make something of this country. Oxen, horses and cattle were used as labor (and later, food) in the fight to bring man to the coasts of California. Those settlers thinking that it was a dreamland were not far from the truth, but it took a treacherous journey to get there. The Donner Party is the story of a group that fared out a lot worse than the average settler…

A group of citizens of Springfield, Illinois was set to form a group that would take them near San Francisco. These individuals would follow a trail that had been proven to work and not be dangerous. But, as with anything, there was a shortcut and this is where we have our story. Gathering cattle, supplies and traveling somewhat in style, the group of men, women and children set out across this great country in search of a better life. Leaving in March, they had hoped to reach the coast by September, but as fate would have it; they didn’t. They made it past the “point of no return”, but were then persuaded to take a shortcut through the Great Salt Lake and found themselves fighting to beat the treacherous winter weather. They missed it by one day. Had the snow not hit and had things not taken as long as they did, then I might not be writing this; but as it is these people were forced to not only abort their trip, but resort of cannibalism to stay alive through the rough winter of 1846. While this may not be as entertaining as the movie Alive (which focused on a soccer team stranded in the Andes that was also resorted to cannibalism), this is just as true. A great documentary by filmmaker Ric Burns and for those history buffs out there, recommended.

Video: How does it look?

Watching a documentary for the audio and video quality is nearly pointless. The video, though crisp and clean when it comes to the actual people being interviewed, doesn’t really have an area to be considered a “flaw”. Naturally, there weren’t movie cameras in the time of The Donner Party, so we rely on pictures and sketches to narrate the way the story is told to us. The full-frame presentation is compliant with what PBS usually airs and this disc represents the best of what it can offer. While I don’t think anyone out there will complain as to how this looks, it isn’t perfect by any means.

Audio: How does it sound?

Again, the audio is mainly dialogue-driven in the form of narration. The Dolby Surround track doesn’t offer a lot of support, but then again it’s not really meant to. The voices and people (historians) interviewed sound clear and crisp, but it does make you realize how much you can miss a good Dolby Digital 5.1 track! This might as well be a mono track, but stereo does sound fair here. There’s not a whole lot else to say other than it more than serves its purpose.

Supplements: What are the extras?

No bonus materials are to be found.

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