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The Donner Party
The Donner Party
Actors: Crispin Glover, Clayne Crawford, Michele Santopietro, Mark Boone Junior, Christian Kane
Director: T.J. Martin
Genres: Westerns, Drama, Horror
R     2010     1hr 35min

Based on the harrowing true story, The Donner Party picks up after William Hastings steers a wagontrain, known as The Donner Party, off course by promising a shorter route to California through the Sierra Nevada Mountains....  more »


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Actors: Crispin Glover, Clayne Crawford, Michele Santopietro, Mark Boone Junior, Christian Kane
Director: T.J. Martin
Genres: Westerns, Drama, Horror
Sub-Genres: Westerns, Drama, Horror
Studio: First Look Pictures
Format: DVD - Color - Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 01/26/2010
Original Release Date: 01/01/2009
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2009
Release Year: 2010
Run Time: 1hr 35min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 1
MPAA Rating: R (Restricted)
Languages: English
Subtitles: Spanish

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Member Movie Reviews

Joyce H. from NOTTINGHAM, PA
Reviewed on 2/27/2016...
Go movie sad how things ended up

Movie Reviews

Forlorn Hope in the Sierra Nevada
Celia Hayes | San Antonio, SA | 01/18/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)

"This movie, with some moderately well-known actors in the cast, never seems to have had a general release before going to DVD. As such, and strictly speaking, it is not about the Donner Party itself, trapped high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains over the winter of 1847-47. The plot really focuses on an element of that party, who called themselves the Forlorn Hope, and made a desperate gamble to walk out of the mountains on snowshoes: They took sparingly of supplies, hoping to leave more for those remaining behind, and set out for the nearest settlement down in the foothills below. In this version of the story, the Forlorn Hope includes an older man, Franklin Graves (Mark Boone, Jr.) and his two daughters, William Eddy (Clayne Crawford) and his hired man, William Foster (Crispin Gover), the best hunter among the party, who left his own wife and child behind. Charles Stanton (Christian Kane) has come from Sutter's fort with a meager amount of supplies, and Louis, a Mexican-Indian muleteer: they will guide the rest of the party to safety - or so it is hoped. But their hopes slowly unravel, in the face of misery, starvation, madness - and murder.

Alas, this account is not strictly accurate in historical detail: There had been no food cached for them by Stanton, farther down the mountains. There was no drawing of lots, for one of the party to be killed in order to feed the rest - although it was discussed, at least once, according to survivors. There were two murders committed during the ordeal of the Forlorn Hope, but not in the way depicted in this account. The sense of despair, and the slow dissolving of so-called civilized norms are probably fairly accurate, as well as incidents such as Eddy's wife hiding a portion of dried meat in his pack, and of how he was able to bring down a deer to feed the survivors. Something of the bleakness of their experience is reflected in the colors - in that it seems there is barely any color at all. The snow is white, the trees seem black against the sky, their trunks are gray. The characters are dressed all in dark colors - seemingly only a splash of blood now and again makes any color at all.

I was actually quite interested in reviewing this DVD, having written a novel, about a pioneer wagon-train party being stranded under the same circumstances and in the same place - To Truckee's Trail - a party which proceeded the Donner Party by several years, but which survived their ordeal, and emerged from it with all members alive and in good health. So I watched this with a an especially critical eye for period detail - which was excellent. With regard to absolute historical fidelity, there were some liberties taken, as noted above. This is a movie which does manage to be psychologically accurate in relating a true story - but at the end, having put the characters and the audience through a wringer, concludes without any other resolution or insight other than having demonstrated what people are capable of doing to survive. Perhaps that was the point - but I would have liked to have been drawn into knowing a deeper knowledge about each character.

One final curiosity: "The Donner Party" was shot on location in and around Truckee, California, where the original Donner Party was stranded, and along the trail followed by the Forlorn Hope."
Mick McAllister | 03/18/2010
(1 out of 5 stars)

"It's hard to come up with a single positive thing to say about this miserable, nasty film. It was shot at Truckee (Donner) Lake, but the photography is so mediocre that even this doesn't count for much.

As for the story: It doesn't merely "stray from the historical record," it invents malicious lies about people who deserve better. As one of many examples: In the film, Bill Eddy is depicted as a selfish hoarder who refuses to share with the rest of the suffering families. In fact, the opposite was true. Eddy's entire family died, in part because he foolishly shared food with people who, when the time came, did not reciprocate. Never mind that none -- not a meager few, but NONE, not even the least friendly -- of the historical records agree with this bizarre assassination of Eddy's character. Eddy is depicted as the paid leader of the party, when in fact his was merely one small family among nearly a dozen. This would not be significant, except that "Mr. Foster" (who is depicted as the financial and spiritual leader of "the Donner Party" for reasons never explained) berates Eddy for taking money to lead them and then causing the disaster of their entrapment in the Sierras.

Foster, of course, was a minor player, a son-in-law of one of the older women, not the central figure of the group. The film goes on at great length about Eddy's refusal to share a cabin with the "Fosters" (actually the Murphys) when in fact Eddy DID share a cabin with them. But that's only the beginning, as far as twisting the facts is concerned. The Donners, the Reeds, and the Breens, making up 70% of the camp population and the real leadership, are simply not present in the film (except for one reference to the "30 people" left behind at "the Donner camp"). Will McCutcheon and Milt Elliot (two singularly different people) get conflated into one character, and then killed off in his first scene. Eddy finally makes it to help by abandoning the rest, who end up killing each other in a squabble.

So it's fiction, tricked out with historical names for no discernible reason. As fiction, it doesn't fare much better than as history. The viewer is faced with some problems that didn't need to be there. First, the cobbled-up "cabins" that we see from the outside (one appears to be bedsheets on a clothesline), turn out to have interiors that would have been spacious living quarters in the era, complete with tables, lamps, and dinnerware. Second, in the spirit of casting perversity, the characters are all plump, round-faced, and obviously well-fed (and at least three of the men appear to have made their careers on the strength of their resemblance to William Peterson), so the jawing about hunger is no more convincing than Mrs. Quayle's appeal to her missing lunch. For reasons no one explains, the "Forlorn Hope" carries the snowshoes they made so laboriously instead of wearing them; no, I did not make that up. There is one brief scene, a few seconds long, around the middle of the hour-long depiction of the trek, in which they wear them. However, they do frequently use them as walking sticks. And the "handmade" snowshoes, by the way, are beautifully crafted top-of-the-line REI specials.

Of course, the "money shot" in the story is the cannibalism (which is, frankly, the least interesting element of the real story of the Donner Party), and they even manage to botch that. The moment they run out of food, someone says, "Well, I guess we'll have to eat each other," and they immediately begin working out the details. The tone is almost, "Well, I'M not missing lunch!!" Suffice it to say that the details end up being a brave soul marching out into the snow so another brave soul can shoot him. Then a character who borders on obese (who cast this thing?) kills himself to add to the ham stock. By the time they get to "Sutter Fort" (they can't even get that right), they have killed four members of the party and chewed on some chunks of what looks like thawed chicken breast. We should be grateful, probably, that the producers couldn't afford "special effects."

Watching this film, with its dopey, stilted dialog (everyone refers to everyone as "Mr." and "Mrs.", even while chowing down on the addressee's spouse), its bizarre culture fantasies (on at least three occasions, husbands put their uppity wives in their place, once with the threat of a backhand, and the group spends as much time praying as they do marching), the cheesy cost-cutting (there is no blizzard, and the snow is at most a few feet deep), and its garish insincerity (much is made of the common humanity of the Indian "Louis," but the actor playing him is not listed in the credits!), I have to think that "straight to disc" is too good for it. What were they thinking?

Well Deserved Dramatic Approach to True Horror
J. A. Brown | Austin, TX United States | 01/20/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)

"The obvious approach for a film about THE DONNER PARTY, one of the most infamous stories of deadly misadventure in American history, would be horror. But in T.J. Martin's THE DONNER PARTY, the historic event gets a well deserved dramatic approach that makes it all the more unsettling. Like most dramatic retellings, the ultimate end is known, but the journey, quite literally in this case, is more important than the end result. Martin's screenplay is a thriller focusing on the psychological ordeal of starvation and extreme weather. Martin takes liberties creating dramatic tension between members of the party, but otherwise the story is painstakingly accurate. Film at the actual Donner Pass in only 12 days, the stark beauty of a seemingly tranquil winter forest is countered with the increasing desperation only those on the brink of survival can feel. Personal conflicts are barely kept in check, and facades slowly start to wear the longer the party goes without provisions. It seems everyone has the eyes of a villain, and is trying to figure out who might turn on the rest. It's an impressive feat considering most of the action is either walking, or sitting around a fire, requiring the actors to emote their desperation with gravitas. The cannibalism is not glorified; everyone conveys a mixture of disgust and desperation in the few scenes where flesh is eaten. While the entire cast does a respectable job, and Crispin Glover is refreshingly cast against type, the standout performance is by Mark Boone, Jr. Boone (BATMAN BEGINS, MEMENTO) is usually typecast as a thug. But in THE DONNER PARTY he is the moral compass of the story, and does it well. In a pivotal moment, with very few words and tight camera work, Boone steals the movie."