has been unfair to the Donner Party. While they are often collectively referred
to as “notorious,” the Uruguayan soccer team’s 1973 plane crash in Andes is
considered an inspiring story of survival. Yet, both did similar things to stave
off starvation. While many factors hindered the Donner Party’s passage to
California, none were as punishing as the storms that left them snowbound on
the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Somewhat logically, The Weather Channel branches
out into original documentary production by chronicling and dramatically
recreating the ill-fated 1846 expedition in Doug Glover’s Dead of Winter: the Donner Party (promo here), which premieres
this Friday on the network.
so many who came before and after them, the group that came to be known as the
Donner Party saw California as the land of opportunity. George Donner and James
F. Reed were relatively successful in Springfield, Illinois, but they were
convinced they could make substantially better lives for themselves with the
California land grants. Their company of covered wagons was eager to get there
as soon as possible, so they took a speculative shortcut called Hastings
Cutoff. Obviously, it was a disaster.
who only know the Donner Party from its hazy reputation, might be surprised how
quickly circumstances turned desperate for the group of pioneers and how long
they resisted resorting to cannibalism. Arguably, their torturous crossing of
the Great Salt Lake Desert was just as grueling as the snowstorms on the Sierra
Nevada, but it came earlier in the trek, so it did not generate as drastic a
screenwriter Raymond Bridgers, and the assembled historical experts are all
good storytellers, who happen to be refreshingly forgiving of the Donner Party.
With a few terrible exceptions, the pioneers conducted themselves just as well
as the Uruguayan football players. Men like Donner, Reed, and diarist Patrick
Breen just wanted their children to have better lives than they did, but they
sacrificed horribly for the sake of their American dreams.
The quality of Dead of Winter’s historical commentary is considerably better than average,
while having Powers Boothe (Red Dawn and
24) as narrator gives the film some
seriously cool cred. The dramatic recreation cast also look period-appropriate
and eventually quite weathered and bedraggled. It is a well-produced documentary
that convincingly shifts the focus on the Donner party from the lurid details
of cannibalism to their harrowing exploits of heroism. You could almost say Dead of Winter is revisionist, in a good
way. Shrewdly, it is scheduled for the night after Thanksgiving (making turkey
leftovers look all kinds of appetizing). Recommended for history and weather
buffs, Dead of Winter: the Donner Party premieres
this Friday (11/27) on The Weather Channel.
Labels: Documentary, Donner Party, Weather Channel