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Movie Review: The Donner Party

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In 1846, a group of American pioneers set out west for California. Taking what was hoped to be a shortcut, they hit a hard winter in the Sierra Nevada, and, according to the sensationalist news reports of the time, resorted to cannibalism. This is the story of the infamous Donner Party.

While recent analyisis of the campgrounds reveals no surviving evidence of cannibalism — deer and animal bones were found, but no human remains — the Donner Party remains one of the more grisly episodes of American history, and any depiction of it would seem ripe for low comedy and Grand Guignol (the myth that survivor Lewis Keesberg went on to open a restaurant is not quite true — it was a hotel). To its credit, the producers of The Donner Party dispense with camp, despite the potential that would seem to be offered by casting Crispin Glover.

One wishes casting directors would show more imagination — the whole point of the original Willard (1971) was that Bruce Davison was the kind of mild-mannered boy you'd never expect would sic rats on Ernest Borgnine. Glover, who starred in the 2003 remake of Willard, here seems typecast again; you expect the man to keep rats and would entirely suspect him of eating human flesh. Still, despite some affectation, he does alright as William Foster, one of the camp leaders. But the cast is uniformly dour and perhaps all affected in the "Man, am I a suffering pioneer!" school of method acting.

Exquisitely photographed in suitably rustic tones, The Donner Party is in all probability larded with historical inaccuracies, but if anything the problem with the film is that it's too reverent – which makes it, to my eyes, sillier. When a character says "we're running out of food," those of a macabre bent (the very audience this picture is most likely to appeal to) may snicker; a scene where the camp members draw sticks to determine who will be the first to be eaten is filled not so much with grim tension but with an active imagination wondering what the Simpsons would make of this. Dialogue like "Damn Hastings' hide!" does not help raise this much above a remarkably well-photographed episode of Grizzly Adams. Make your reservations for The Donner Party if you will; but do not expect high tea.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.