American Experience: Season 5, Episode 3

The Donner Party (28 Oct. 1992)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
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Ratings: 8.5/10 from 231 users  
Reviews: 5 user | 1 critic

Doomed attempt to get to California in 1846. More than just a riveting tale of death, endurance and survival. The Donner Party's nightmarish journey penetrated to the very heart of the ... See full summary »



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Episode credited cast:
David McCullough ...
Narrator (voice)
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Paul Roebling ...
George McKinstry (voice)


Doomed attempt to get to California in 1846. More than just a riveting tale of death, endurance and survival. The Donner Party's nightmarish journey penetrated to the very heart of the American Dream at a crucial phase of the nation's "manifest destiny. Touching some of the most powerful social, economic and political currents of the time, this extraordinary narrative remains one of the most compelling and enduring episodes to come out of the West. Written by Joshua Mueller

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Release Date:

28 October 1992 (USA)  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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Did You Know?


Fear and Loathing at 4th and Butternut
Performed by John Fahey
Courtesy of Varrick/Rounder Records
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User Reviews

Excellent documentary of the triumphs & horrors of history's most famous wagon train to California.
11 September 2000 | by (Warren, Arkansas) – See all my reviews

THE DONNER PARTY is an excellent, engrossing historical documentary about the famous (infamous?) Donner Party, who immigrated to California from Illinois in 1846-47. Ric Burns uses narration by David McCollough, comments by historians, still photos from the period & of individuals, diary excerpts read by noted actors, spectacular film of areas travelled by the Donner Party, and moving music that fits the storyline. As a high school history teacher (I've shown this film each year for the past 7 years) I appreciate Burns'information about Manifest Destiny & the pioneer spirits' need to move westward. Details about the conditions endured by the Party aid in understanding the experience of all those who travelled west on wagon trains (though the Donners et al do have their own unique experiences).

The situation of those trapped in the snowy Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47 does not need "gruesome" exaggerations to keep a captive audience; the testimony of survivors more than adequately tell the horrendous story. I have to admit, some 16 & 17-year-olds find parts of the 90 min. film a bit slow. But they certainly express interest in the hardships endured, the choices that must be made to survive or die, and the determination to endure insurmountable hardships by so many pioneers. I also find Burns' inclusion of what happened to some survivors after their rescue to be quite interesting. I can't say this is real "pleasure-viewing" material, but it is certainly informative & extremely well-made.

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