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DONNER PASS: THE ROAD TO SURVIVAL (TV) (director: James L. Conway; screenwriter: S.S. Schweitzer; cinematographer: Henning Schellerup; editor: Trevor Jolly; music: Bob Summers; cast: Robert Fuller (James Reed, and Narrator), John Doucette (George Donner), Andrew Prine (Lewis Keyser), Michael Callan (William Eddy), Diane McBain (Margaret Reed), John Anderson (Patrick Breen), Gregory Walcott (Will McKutcheon), Lance LeGault (Charles Stanton), Cindy Eilbacher (Mary Graves); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: James Simmons; NBC; 1978)
“This not particularly tasty episode in American history is given the blandest possible treatment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A made-for-TV action-packed docudrama about the infamous incident of cannibalism at Donner Pass. It’s directed by James L. Conway (“Hangar 18”) and written by S.S. Schweitzer.

It’s set in 1846 as eighty-seven settlers from Illinois go by wagon train to California and elect George Donner (John Doucette) their leader. Against the advice of his rival James Reed (Robert Fuller), also the narrator, Donner takes a dangerous short-cut route. The closer they get to the West Coast, the worst the trip becomes and internal dissension sets in. While crossing the desert they lose many supply wagons due to Indian raids and the rough terrain. When they reach a mountain pass they send Charles Stanton (Lance LeGault) and Will McKutcheon (Gregory Walcott) on ahead to California to bring back supplies, but only Stanton returns with about a week’s worth of supplies as he complains there’s a war going on between the Mexicans and Freemont’s Californians at Fort Sutter and therefore supplies can’t be spared. As winter sets in, a fierce snowstorm traps the settlers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They soon find themselves left with only a choice between starvation and cannibalism, and the civilized rules of convention are challenged as survival by any means becomes the only viable option. In the end, there are only 45 survivors who did what they thought they must do to survive.

This not particularly tasty episode in American history is given the blandest possible treatment.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”