Donner Party Cover

This movie, with some moderately well-known actors in the cast, never seems to have had a general release before going to DVD. As such, and strictly speaking, it is not about the Donner Party itself, trapped high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains over the winter of 1847-47. The plot really focuses on an element of that party, who called themselves the Forlorn Hope, and made a desperate gamble to walk out of the mountains on snowshoes: They took sparingly of supplies, hoping to leave more for those remaining behind, and set out for the nearest settlement down in the foothills below. In this version of the story, the Forlorn Hope includes an older man, Franklin Graves (Mark Boone, Jr.) and his two daughters, William Eddy (Clayne Crawford) and his hired man, William Foster (Crispin Gover), the best hunter among the party, who left his own wife and child behind. Charles Stanton (Christian Kane) has come from Sutter’s fort with a meager amount of supplies, and Louis, a Mexican-Indian muleteer: they will guide the rest of the party to safety – or so it is hoped. But their hopes slowly unravel, in the face of misery, starvation, madness – and murder.

Alas, this account is not strictly accurate in historical detail: There had been no food cached for them by Stanton, farther down the mountains. There was no drawing of lots, for one of the party to be killed in order to feed the rest – although it was discussed, at least once, according to survivors. There were two murders committed during the ordeal of the Forlorn Hope, but not in the way depicted in this account. The sense of despair, and the slow dissolving of so-called civilized norms are probably fairly accurate, as well as incidents such as Eddy’s wife hiding a portion of dried meat in his pack, and of how he was able to bring down a deer to feed the survivors. Something of the bleakness of their experience is reflected in the colors – in that it seems there is barely any color at all. The snow is white, the trees seem black against the sky, their trunks are gray. The characters are dressed all in dark colors – seemingly only a splash of blood now and again makes any color at all.

One other curiosity – much of “The Donner Party” was shot on location, in and around Truckee, California, where the original Donner Party was stranded, and along the trail followed by the Forlorn Hope. This is one of those movies which manages to be psychologically accurate in relating a true story – but at the end, having put the characters and the audience through a wringer, concludes without any other resolution or insight other than having demonstrated what people are capable of doing to survive. Perhaps that was the point – but I would have liked to have been drawn into knowing a deeper knowledge about each character.

The Donner Party will be available January 26, from and other retail outlets.

Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her first novel “To Truckee’s Trail” told the story of an early wagon-train party, which like the Donner Party, became trapped in the same mountains by winter snow – and yet survived. Her current book project – The Adelsverein Trilogy is also available through More about her books is at her website

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