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Unforgettable… Tragic… Horrific… any one of these three worlds would be a perfect description of Ric Burns’ 1992 documentary THE DONNER PARTY ($20). Burns has taken one of the most infamous events in American history and crafted an emotional and highly disturbing film from interviews with historians, aged photographs and the journal entries of members of the Donner Party. THE DONNER PARTY establishes the migration and the settlement of the American west as one of the great boons of the nineteenth century- a time filled with history making events. One of these history making events took on an almost legendary status because bared witness to an enormous tragedy, one that demonstrated what otherwise civilized human beings would be capable of doing in order to survive.

THE DONNER PARTY recounts the calamitous events that began in the spring of 1846, when the families Donner and Reed left Springfield, Illinois in search of prosperity in a new Garden of Eden known as California. This trek across the North American Continent was expected to take roughly half a year; however due to the poor choice of taking a supposedly shorter, albeit unproven route, the members of the Donner Party found the trip taking many months more. This unproven route turned out to be almost completely unpassable by wagon, which created extensive delays that eventually stranded roughly eighty people on the other side of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains during the worst winter in recorded history. With a near continual snowfall and drifts up to twenty feet deep, the settlers ran out of food during the winter of 1846-47. Facing starvation and death, members of the Donner Party turned to cannibalism- eating those members of their company that harsh winter had already claimed.

THE DONNER PARTY comes to DVD from Warner Home Video through their association with PBS Video. The presentation is in the full screen aspect ratio of its original television broadcast and looks good. As a documentary made for television, THE DONNER PARTY does not provide the same stellar appearance as a theatrical film, but the visual quality does not disappoint. Sequences that featured period photographs and images of actual journal entries aren’t particularly attractive, but do serve to create the proper atmosphere. Interview footage with various historians and experts appears respectable, while outdoor footage of various landscapes along the Donner Party route has the biggest visual impact. Overall, the DVD produces an image that is superior to the best quality broadcast, but not significantly so. Digital compression artifacts are never a concern on the DVD.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack provides a good sense of presence for the more dramatic moments of the film. A number of well know actors provide the voices of the members of the Donner Party, and these recordings, as well as that of the narration, have warmth and a genuine sense of character. In addition, the dialogue is rendered cleanly, with complete intelligibility. Nature sounds, as well as bits of music are well recorded and nicely integrated into the mix. The basic interactive menus provide access to the standard scene selection feature. There are no real supplemental features included on the DVD, any and all materials supporting the program are relegated to the PBS website.

THE DONNER PARTY is a documentary that is guaranteed to have an emotional impact, and for some perhaps a physical one as well. Ric Burns masterfully brings this tragic historic tale to life, without focusing unnecessary attention to the more ghoulish aspects of the story. The Warner/PBS DVD offers better quality than broadcast; thus making it the best way to experience THE DONNER PARTY.



The Donner Party (1992)


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2003 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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