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American Experience - The Donner Party (1992)

David McCullough , J.D. Cannon , Ric Burns  |  NR |  DVD
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)

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DVD 1-Disc Version $11.49  
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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 (40 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00007G1YL
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #337,108 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "American Experience - The Donner Party" on IMDb

Special Features


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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The perfect documentary August 2, 2007
By Pete
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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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ONE OF THE MOST TRAGIC TALES OF THE AMERICAN WEST August 25, 2003
By A Customer
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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A chilling depiction of a real-life horror story! November 9, 2004
By Dave
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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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good movie November 16, 2008
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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Horrifying and Informative February 13, 2008
By Steve
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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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound, astonishing story August 21, 2007
The fate of Donner Party is one of the most human stories I know. Everyone should have a deeper understanding of what happened at truckee lake in those horrible months to these unfortunate families. Ric Burns' documentary is one I have revisited many times.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Testament to Human Strength November 6, 2009
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I first saw this American Experience documentary on PBS on the night it premiered in 1992. I was riveted to my TV set from start to finish, the hour went by so quickly. I later bought the VHS tape and recently got the DVD from Amazon. The Burns brothers are excellent story tellers through their films and Ric Burns is just as much a master documentarian as his famous brother Ken. The story of the Donner Party is haunting, their tragic ordeal seemed almost as if it was predestined. This is one of the best documentaries ever made. The movie has a 'you are there' feeling to it, the actors' voices sound believable and are well matched. Even the music carries a sense of hopelessness and doom hanging like a dark shadow over the whole tale. If you like watching history on film, you definiately want to see this one. It lingers in your mind long afterwards and it might make you wonder what you would do if faced with similar awful circumstances. Some life lessons learned the hard way indeed.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best
Ric Burns way outshines his more famous "politically correct" brother Ken in this masterpiece. Important note: This flick is about survival so many not care for it.
Published 15 hours ago by Thomas M. Kensil
5.0 out of 5 stars One of best documentaries ever made.
As Virginia Reed of the Donner Party wrote to a friend in the east after the Donner Party experience, in case the friend comes west, "Never take no shortcuts, and hurry along... Read more
Published 2 days ago by Bpollen
5.0 out of 5 stars The Donner Party
A little pricy but this DVD is an excellent one. I highly recommend this one. David McCullough does a great job.

Bernie D.
Published 6 days ago by BernieD
5.0 out of 5 stars The Donnor Party
This American Experience about the Donnor Party is haunting. The story telling is stunningly performed and the music is simply mezmorizing.
Published 1 month ago by Robert S Dolce
5.0 out of 5 stars If you need the real story
This DVD explains it all. I have seen several other versions of the Donner Party but this DVD captions the details and the leaves you the pieces of how certain decisions and the... Read more
Published 2 months ago by W. R. Dodd
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping story of being trapped in an inescapable situation and...
This is the story of a wagon train which met an incredibly disastrous winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains because of a foolish decision to take a shortcut to California, even... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Christopher Schwinger
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful, beautiful, film.
A beautiful, beautiful, film. I can't say enough about this. A true, Americn story, beautifully told. I cry every time I watch it.
Published 5 months ago by Peter Kaufman
5.0 out of 5 stars The Donner Party
Excellent story. Tragic events of trying to start a new life in the west. I believe hell came up and froze over Donner Lake that winter!
Published 5 months ago by johnsonl
4.0 out of 5 stars History
This was a documentary ,but I wished it could have been a little more like a movie. It was good.
Published 7 months ago by Donnie Townsley
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was looking for.
After I received this movie and watched it, it was not what I wanted. This is a documentary and is very informative, but I later found out what I wanted was a "made for... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Judy L. Peck
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