Donner Party, The (2009)

The Donner Party (click for larger image)Reviewed by Elaine Lamkin

Starring Crispin Glover, Clayne Crawford, Michele Santopietro, Mark Boone Junior

Directed by T.J. Martin

Distributed by First Look International

Back in the winter of 1846-1847, an event occurred that is spoken about to this day, sometimes as a joke, sometimes in horrified disbelief; but the Donner Party was a real event that took the lives of 39 settlers out of the 87 original, and cannibalism was a contributing factor to many of the deaths. Now, director T.J. Martin has taken the history of the Donner Party and focused on one group that tried to go for help.

A group that called itself “The Forlorn Hope” and was led by William Foster (Crispin Glover, suitably subdued in this performance) set out in mid-December, 1846 for Sutter’s Fort (about 100 miles away), wearing homemade snowshoes. The group consisted of ten men and five women. After being caught in a blizzard where four men died and were subsequently cannibalized, the group continued on, losing three more men, who were also cannibalized. The remaining members of “The Forlorn Hope” finally reached the western side of the mountains in January, 1847. Two Miwok Indians, Luis and Salvador, brought supplies from Sutter’s Fort to the group but were shot and killed by William Foster and then cannibalized. The group finally reached Sutter’s Fort after 33 days of hell.

T.J. Martin’s cinematic version of this dreadful episode in American history is carried off rather well although, as always seems to be the case with films based on historical events, a lot of what transpires in the film never happened, which IS annoying to history buffs like myself. At least the film was shot during the winter in the Donner Pass near Truckee, California, which helped with the verisimilitude.

Other cast members include Mark Boone Junior as Franklin Graves, Clayne Crawford as William Eddy, Cary Wayne Moore as Jay Fosdick, Catherine Black as Ann Fosdick, and Michele Santapietro as Amanda McCutcheon.

I recommend this film with the caveat that it has some MAJOR historical inaccuracies (“Ann” Fosdick instead of “Sarah” Fosdick for one) but looks great, and Glover and Boone Junior lead a pretty good cast who look as miserable shooting in all of that snow as the real Donner Party probably looked. If you want to read about what really happened to “The Forlorn Hope” as well as the rest of the Donner Party, try Ethan Rarick’s Desperate Passage or Daniel James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above about Sarah Graves, Franklin Graves’ daughter, who was newly married to Jay Fosdick when she and her sister, Mary Ann, left their mother and other siblings behind to try and get to Sutter’s Fort.

3 out of 5

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  • Floydian Trip

    This review is right on. I do know a bit more about this and yeah it was nothing at all like the factual events. Meh, it was a bit ebtertaining and I watched the whole movie. I didn’t even recognize Crispin Glover. Overall it was kind of blah. Like they shot it in a day. But a better watch than most that’s for sure. I’ll watch this again over Whiteout.

  • Floydian Trip

    I just rented this 2 days ago but haven’t watched it yet. Will today. It looked decent but they all do. I don’t know any of the historical facts, I guess that is a good thing. I mainly rented it because it reminded me of The Shining when Danny, Jack and Wendy have their little talk about The Donner Party on the drive to the Overlook. That’s the extent of my knowledge on it.

    “You mean they ate eachother up”

  • Terminal

    I only want to see this because it has Alison Haislip in it. Otherwise, I’m not too interested.