The Donner Party has to be one of the best documentaries ever made, a tale of impossible hardship, a journey that tests the human endurance and puts a new meaning to the words, survival instinct.
I first watched the Donner Party on UK's Channel 4, way back in '92, with the title 'Death of a Wagon Train', and it really blew my mind, and I have been searching since then for it to no avail, until quite recently when I was pleasently surprised by its release on DVD. Thanks PBS.
In a way, we should consider ourselves lucky, for despite the atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty that palgues the 21st century, our age offers us vast technological advances that makes life much easier in all aspects. Yet we do take so much for granted, for there was another time, a time of continious struggles to survive. The 1840s in the States was also, I would imagine a very exciting time, for along with the difficulties, there were dreams to seek a better life and fulfil them through uncharted and virgin territories, a vasteness that can devour as much as lead to 'eldorado'. The 'eldorado' in question was California, and emigrants way before the Gold Rush of the 1850s, rushed there to improve their lot and seek their fortunes.These people were really brave! To decide to leave the certainty of their established lives, and jump into the unknown needed a lot of courage! But it is this courage that made the emigrants of the Mayflower leave Plymouth, and it is this courage that made America the great power that it is today.
The Donner party was one of the unlucky ones, who decided against the advise of a more experienced tracker,to take a shorter route to 'eldorado',a mistake that would cost most of them their lives, and would push some to the darkest recesses of the human soul.While many emigrants successfully made it to California and rebuild their lives and rewritten the country's history in the process, most are fogotten. The fate of Donner Party on the other hand is not, not only because most failed to reach their destination, but because of the horrors that they experienced trying.
Ric Burns brilliantly captures this ill fated journey, through the letters of both the dead and few survivors (perfectly read with an errie tone), soundbites from historians (just a few), and beautiful cinematography that captures the beauty and hostility of the landscape. Brian Keane adds so much power with his gorgeous music.(I am still waiting for the soundtrack to be released, it is worth it!!!)
You have to buy the Donner Party and look in awe and fascination at the courage of early emigrants, and in sheer terror at the tests that the human being is put under and the lenght that he/she will go to to survive. Scary Indeed!