Sunday, January 31, 2010

Okay, so I watched the movie

Well, all you aspiring screenwriters can take comfort: there's still no Donner Party movie. At least, not one that you need to worry about competing with.

As you probably all know, Anacapa Entertainment's new film, The Donner Party, was released on DVD on January 26. I got my copy yesterday and have watched it twice. I don't quite know what to say, but that won't stop me from saying it.

Donner Party fans will notice a certain similarity between the movie and the story of the "Forlorn Hope" snowshoers who set out from the lake camp in December 1846 to seek help. While reference is made to a wagon train stuck in the Sierra Nevada snow, to someone named Hastings who misled them, and to other emigrants camped elsewhere named Donner and "Kessyberg," the story centers on characters named Foster, Eddy, Graves, Fosdick, Stanton, etc., who set out on snowshoes to California to get help; some people die and are cannibalized. Sound familiar? Good. Because not much else will.

I could go on at length about all the discrepancies, but it would take ages and I don't want to rag on the producers too much. I've talked to enough screenwriters over the years to know how hard the Donner story would be to capture on film: large cast; quantities of animals; wagons; costumes; number of sets; varied terrain (prairie, desert, mountain); varied weather conditions (thunder, searing heat, snow); length and complexity of the story; and so on. Obviously, some liberties have to be taken and events telescoped.

What I don't get, however, is the necessity to butcher the plot. Why? Why not stick closer to the truth? Why, for instance, make Foster the rich fop and Eddy his teamster? Why make up an imaginary cache of provisions left along the trail? The truth just isn't dramatic enough? While he lay dying, Franklin Ward Graves besought his daughters to use his body for food, but apparently that's far too tame. This Mr. Graves (the least gaunt person in the flick) kills himself so his daughters -- his clean, well-kempt, full-fleshed daughters -- will have something to eat.

This leads me to my major beef with the movie: there's no real desperation, no real suffering. There's no cabin full of thin, crying children, no reference to mothers whose milk has dried up from starvation watching helpless as their babies die a slow, agonizing death -- no sense of the real fear that motivated the snowshoers.

Nor of their subsequent trials. There's no Christmas blizzard huddled under blankets, no raving Patrick Dolan, no Sarah Foster comforting her dying little brother in her lap, no powder horn blowing up or axe getting lost. There's some violence but little enough gore for a movie about cannibalism: somebody dies or is killed, then there's a scene of people eating -- which was actually a pretty good way to handle it, IMO. But there's little sense of their growing weakness, the toll the journey has taken on them:

""[Eddy] staggered like a drunken man; and when he came to a fallen tree, though no more than a foot high, he had to stoop down, put his hands upon it, and get over it by a sort of rolling motion. They were under the necessity of sitting down to rest about every quarter of a mile. The slightest thing caused them to stumble and fall. They were almost reduced to the helplessness of little children in their first essays to walk. The women would fall and weep like infants, and then rise and totter along again." -- J. Quinn Thornton, Oregon and California in 1848, II, 151.

This just doesn't come across in the movie.

When the real Forlorn Hope finally reached the settlement, they were skeletal and nearly naked because their clothes had fallen apart; their trail was marked by blood from their frostbitten feet. In Anacapa's parody, the Forlorn Hope was a bunch of well-fed, spiffily dressed day trippers who offed one another the first time their tummies rumbled. With no depiction of their physical and mental deterioration, they come across as depraved, not desperate.

The film does get a few things right. For instance, the pioneers' use of "Mr." and "Mrs." instead of first names, and the emigrants eying each other around the campfire. I also liked the version of "Barbara Allen" sung during the closing credits. On the whole, however, it's a shame for the producers, the viewers, and the memory of the Donner Party that the film didn't turn out better.


Anonymous said...

Great blog! Hopefully, following the show on PBS on 2/1 you'll get more visitors. Thanks!

malkasten said...

Hi, Kristin:

Your line, "The Forlorn Hope was a bunch of well-fed, spiffily dressed day trippers who offed one another the first time their tummies rumbled" is priceless! Now I've gotta watch the movie!

Kristin Johnson said...

Well, I might have exaggerated a little, but they're sure not nearly naked, bloody-footed skeletons, either!

rojo99 said...

Hello Kristin..

Great site on a most compelling story. I watched Rick Burn's fascinating PBS documentary last night, which I've seen before, and still ranks as one of the most gripping TV documentaries I've ever seen. So well done by a master storyteller, and superbly narrated by the great David McCullough.

I've always thought that given the right director, this story would make an incredibly powerful movie. Too bad this latest attempt isn't the one. Maybe some day.. and I agree, Forlorn Hope would be a great title for it. Keep up the good work, and the search for a Forlorn Hope screenplay that does this story justice. Cheers..

Theresa said...

Hi Kristen - great review.

You might be interested to know that our version of the Donner Party, which is finally in ready-to-show form, placed as a top ten finalist in Francis Ford Coppola's prestigious screenwriting competition. I'd be happy to send you the final version -- it is a true epic tragedy. And under consideration with several A-list directors, so keep your fingers crossed! Thanks for all you do!

Kristin Johnson said...

Congratulations -- you must be very excited! You bet I'd like to see it, and thanks for thinking of me. Sorry, can't type with my fingers crossed any longer!


Dave said...

Watched the 2/1 show on PBS and here we come! I'm sending a link to your site to a few other history obsessed soles similar to myself. More clicks to come.

Billy said...

I just saw this movie last night and of course I came to your site because I do consider you the authority on all things 'Donner Party' and wanted to know your opinion. I am happy to see it is almost the same as mine. I am so disappointed in the choices made on this film. From the beginning, I recognized no one, but heard them calling each other familiar names. It's mind-boggling to me that anyone would think the story was not exciting enough and they would have to make up things that didn't happen to keep interest up. How else can you explain it? But this story has endured over a hundred and fifty years in countless books, I would think that would speak enough for it to convince someone the real story is enough for people and there is no need to re-write it. I agree with you- there is still no 'Donner Party' movie- this sure as hell wasn't it!

Riley blake said...

Over the last few months, I've been doing some research on the Donner party. I've read Eliza Donner's book, and a couple others. I first got exposed to the Donner Party in the 7th grade. I shied away from learning more about them for several years, then recently, I decided to visit that tragedy again. I'm going to watch this movie, but since I'm blind, I'll listen to it, and try to follow what I can.