An intimately scaled, well acted little frontier drama based on a true story, The Donner Party examines one of the more oft-cited history book anecdotes of the great American spread to the west from the 1840s. Ignoring some of the limits of its own production means, and the fact that its three stars (Crispin Glover, Christian Kane and Clayne Crawford) taken in sum represent a righteous tongue-twister, the movie is a solid, crisply shot and engaging period piece morality play — ready-made for high school classroom viewing and subsequent discussion about group-benefit analysis in grim life-and-death situations.
In April of 1846, a group of settlers left Independence, Missouri, heading west to California in nine covered wagons. On the insistent advice of their leader, William Hastings, they tried a new route through the Sierra Nevada mountains, which they hoped would offer shorter passage to Sutter Fort. Whoops… not so much. The film picks up in December of the same year, with rations running low and no game left to hunt. After several early snowstorms, the group and its remaining at-odds leaders, William Foster (Glover) and William Eddy (Crawford, who comes across as Josh Duhamel, except with gravitas), find themselves lost, freezing and without any source of food. Sent west to rally a rescue party, Charles Stanton (Kane) returns and urges the group on, but when they do not come across a promised cache of food and supplies, all hell breaks loose. As snow falls, the threat of death and imminent starvation dissolves whatever remaining camaraderie between Foster, Eddy, Franklin Graves (Mark Boone Junior) and the rest of the group might remain, and they’re forced to entertain the notion of sacrificing one another as a source of nourishment.
Written and directed by T.J. Martin, The Donner Party benefits from some nice location filming, but is obviously shot on a shoestring, which handicaps a few scenes. Still, apart from some awkward and unnecessary voiceover narration that mars its opening, the plainness and straightforwardness of its narrative most benefits the film. This story is about individuals’ moral compasses and how extreme duress warps those — about weighing one’s conscience against a will to survive. Heady, complicated, gritty stuff, really, with no single, simple answer. So it helps that the performances — starting with Glover’s quivering turn, in which delicateness morphs into effete bravado and then something more animalistic — are for the most part smartly modulated things. With all the overemphasized talk of meat, one sort of starts to wonder where the veggies are, or at least some dug-up roots or tree bark; there’s a spoof lurking just off-frame here. Still, the story is inherently a dramatic one, and it’s capably rendered here.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, The Donner Party comes to DVD presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language stereo audio track and optional, lazy English and Spanish subtitles that leave more than a bit to be desired in their translations. Apart from chapter-stop selection and a gallery of start-up trailers for other First Look DVD titles, like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Lost City Raiders, there are no supplemental features included herein. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) D- (Disc)