Not such a cani-ball

Pub date February 9, 2010

NEW DVD Considering that it’s the most notorious case of its kind in North American history (cannibalism for survival as opposed to lunacy’s sake), and that movies have been less than shy about portraying flesh-eating in recent decades (at least the zombie kind), it’s a little strange that the Donner Party saga has occupied so little celluloid space to date.

You know the generalities: 19th-century wagon-train emigrants from the Midwest got caught by severe winter weather, ran out of provisions, and resorted to eating their dead. This occurred among a small group (of 87 original travelers, less than half finally survived) who’d struck out on snowshoes to cross the Sierra Nevada and hopefully raise a search party to rescue those left behind. A handful made it, but by the time four successive relief expeditions reached the camps — the last in April 1847 — many of the stranded pioneers had died, and some of the others had begun to eat their corpses as well.

Ric Burns — Ken’s brother — made a good PBS documentary about this history in 1992. But there have been surprisingly few dramatizations. A new direct-to-DVD arrival simply titled The Donner Party should, then, be welcome for filling a curious gap. Add the notion of Crispin Glover top-billed as an increasingly hysterical devout Christian who’s first to propose snackin’ on his comrades, and expectations naturally run high.

Alas, debuting writer-director T.J. Martin’s film is earnest, dull, and not even particularly devoted to the historical facts. Attempting to capture the desperation and tedium of starving and freezing to death in near-hopeless wilderness conditions is a noble cause of sorts, but Party emerges so enervated and uninvolving one wishes for a little lurid exploitation.

The film starts as the portion of the larger Donner Party who became convinced to take a “shortcut” route — dubbed the Hastings Cutoff after its promoter — is already trapped by snowstorms in abandoned or makeshift shelters, running out of supplies and with no game in sight. Those who decide to strike out include Glover’s moneyed trip financier and 24‘s Clayne Crawford as the hired guide who at this point considers it’s every man for himself. Among those playing eventual jerks are Sons of Anarchy‘s Mark Boone Jr. and Leverage‘s Christian Kane.

Shot on location, The Donner Party looks handsome, though not so much so to make a good argument for winter camping. Still, a chapter in U.S. history this grotesque ought to be more squirm-inducing. The scariest thing here is Glover leading the cast in prayer — admittedly an unnerving concept. But not one that one that ought to feel freakier than chowing down on your travel companions.