The Donner Party
directed by Ric Burns, Direct Cinema, 81 mins.
It is the great cautionary tale of the westering frontier, the group of emigrants who jumped off from Independence, Missouri, in the spring of 1846 and raced winter across half the continent only to have it catch up with them when they were a day’s journey away from safety. Then the worst winter ever recorded in the Cascade Range volleyed its snows down upon them, sealing them high in the Sierra Nevada for mortal months. From a grisly tale of despair and cannibalism, Ric Burns—who, with his brother Ken, produced the PBS Civil War series—has fashioned a remarkable epic of folly and courage and human resilience that is the more remarkable for the fact that despite the scarcity of archival photographs, he keeps a tense and engrossing narrative pelting along from the documentary’s beginning to its most satisfying conclusion.