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American Experience - The Donner Party

52 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Of all the 19th-century pioneer stories, none exerts such a powerful hold on the American imagination as the tale of the Donner Party in the high Sierra Nevadas in the winter of 1846. The excursion became a terrifying tale of misery, death, madness, and cannibalism. Through family journals, newspaper accounts, and interviews with historians and descendants of the party, the program re-creates the Donner Party's now legendary journey.


Special Features

None.

Product Details

  • Actors: David McCullough, J.D. Cannon, Timothy Hutton, Gene Jones, Amy Madigan
  • Directors: Ric Burns
  • Writers: Ric Burns
  • Producers: Bob M. McCausland, Chas Norton, Joseph Tovares, Judy Crichton, Larry LeCain
  • Format: Closed-captioned, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS Home Video
  • DVD Release Date: January 14, 2003
  • Run Time: 90 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00007G1YL
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #142,585 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "American Experience - The Donner Party" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Pete on August 2, 2007
Format: DVD
I watched this when it was on PBS and I finally understood what reviewers mean when they use the word "gripping." It's suspensful, engaging, and shocking. And educational. Of course, we all know the story already. At least we think we do, but this documentary will tell you more of the story that you ever thought you wanted to know, and presents the evidence in an unbiased manner to allow the viewer to decide whether to condemn the unthinkable acts. Make sure you have a blanket handy; it'll make you really feel the cold.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 25, 2003
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
Like most people raised in the west I had heard the story of the Donner Party many times, though badly and inaccurately told. In fact, the Donner Party was in many cases the butt of many a bad joke rather than the historic and tragic story that should have been told.
I blundered onto the Burns' Donner Party documentary on my local PBS station and was immediately corrected of years of misconception.
Here is the story, not of a bunch of bumbling fools who planned things badly and suffered the consequences, but rather of a group of well-meaning pioneers who were doomed by the benighted vision of an enterprising fool named Lansford W. Hastings. Bad information led to bad decisions and ultimately to the most tragic of consequences.
A marvelous story of the indomitable human spirit and beautifully narrated by David McCulloch (author of Truman, John Adams), The Donner Party will be a haunting addition to the most complete western video collection. This one can absolutely not be missed.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Dave on November 9, 2004
Format: DVD
I first saw this incredible documentary as a child & for several nights afterwords I had terrible nightmares! This is one of the finest PBS documentaries I've ever seen, & it's also one of the most grusome tales in American history. While dozens of books have been written about the Donner Party, I believe this is the only documentary that's been made about it so far. The story is told through eyewitness accounts that make you feel like a member of the doomed wagon train. What's even more interesting is how the weary survivors rebuilt their lives after returning to "civilization". If you want compelling, horrifying, & unforgettable entertainment, this is the documentary to get!
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Steve on February 13, 2008
Format: DVD
The American Experience: The Donner Party Maybe you think you know the essentials about what befell the Donner Party as it tried to fight its way across the Sierra Nevada range in 1846, but chances are this masterful documentary will surprise you with little-known facts even as it freezes the blood in your veins. A superb job all around.
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Format: DVD
In the late 1970s, I did a foolhardy thing. Armed with a used $10 Argus SLR camera, I walked through a blizzard in downtown New Haven, taking b&w snapshots of the havoc that a raging storm could cause. As afternoon turned to evening, winds grew to near-hurricane strength and pushed me toward home, three miles up Whitney Ave. Had the gusts blown in my face instead of on my back, I might've died from exposure. As it was, I barely made it to safety after two hours of struggle. The backs of my legs were bright red and numb to the touch for a full day. I'd escaped frostbite by inches.

Having first-hand experience of the blinding snow, bitter cold and fierce gusts of a blizzard, and the pain these cause, I cannot imagine how any of the Donner Party's remaining 46 survived NINE such blasts, way up in the Sierras where the temps are much lower, with no food and little shelter, for nearly five long months. Drifts 20 feet deep... it's incomprehensible!

Everything seemed to conspire against these emigrants to California: bad advice on a "short-cut" that proved longer by far and more treacherous, a band of attacking Indians that killed much of their cattle, and a snowfall that closed the mountain pass only one day before they reached it. Had their small wagon train left Missouri just a little earlier or taken the well-worn, proven path by the Great Salt Lake. If they'd only rested their oxen four instead of five days before making that last push up the pass...

So many what ifs, so much tragedy.

The starving were forced to strip what little flesh that remained from the dead, cook and eat it, just to survive. And yet, some time after the ordeal, Virginia Reid claimed in a letter to a cousin that her family were the only ones that didn't resort to cannibalism.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Melissa Seco on November 16, 2008
Format: DVD
this movie is a really good documentary. It's very detailed and tells you everything about the Donner Party and the horrible things that they went through. It might be a little boring for high school students because it's not a real life movie; meaning that it has old pictures and some scenery. However, once all of the horrible ordeals start to happen these students become very interested in it. I personally love this movie as a history teacher.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Nancy Sherburne on November 6, 2009
Format: DVD
After putting this title in my Amazon Wish List I rented it from Netflix and viewed it on November 5. I remember watching it on PBS when it aired and this DVD brought to mind also the book I had just recently read called Desperate Passage. While these are actors reading excerpts from various diaries and recollections of some of the survivors of the Donner Party it still seemed so real. You can't expect a 90-minute spexcial to go into the depth a long book can as to all that the early pioneers endured just reaching the passage leading over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846, let alone what one terrible winter did to those holed up in cabins, lean-tos, or holes dug into the snow itself. Add to that the fearful conditions the four different rescue parties had to cope with just to reach the survivors, and you get an idea of what these humans perished from, and triumphed against. The weak, tired voices you listen to, and the somber music, make this a chilling retelling of this tragedy in our history. Just as an afterthought on the timeline, I read A Terrible Glory right after finisheing Desperate Passage and was interested to learn the Battle of Little Bighorn took place only 30 years later, in 1876.
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