Picks and Pans Review: The Donner Party

updated 11/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 01:00AM

PBS (Wed., Oct. 28, 9 P.M. ET)

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This installment of the American Experience is a vivid recounting of the tragedy of that band of settlers known as the Dormer Party—for its coleader George Donner. Caught up in the Western land rush of 1846, these 87 men, women and children en route from Springfield, Ill., to California were beset by poor judgment, severe privation, horrible weather and violence. Eventually, trapped near the summit of the Sierras during an unimaginably bitter winter that brought no less than nine blizzards, some members resorted to cannibalism. As people died of malnutrition or exposure (three were murdered by their fellow travelers), the gaunt, crazed survivors wrapped and labeled the flesh so that none would have to eat their own relatives. In all, 46 people—but few of the men, who were more exposed to the harsh elements—lived through this terrible ordeal.

Written and directed by Ric Burns (who collaborated with his brother Ken on the memorable PBS series The Civil War), the documentary makes evocative use of still photographs and paintings and of the journals and letters of participants, which are read by Frances Sternhagen, Eli Wallach, Tim Hutton and others.

The film also explains the migratory fever that gripped the country at this time and the hardships that thousands of Golden Slate pioneers had to endure to make the trip, even with the best of luck, of which the Donner Party had absolutely none.

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