PBS' "The American Experience" continues tonight with a frightening and deeply moving account of one of the nightmarish episodes of the Western expansion: the tragedy of the Donner Party.
Narrated by historian David McCullough, "The Donner Party" (9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, 7 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24) is a gripping retelling of the tragedy of 87 emigrants who became trapped on the Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada at the onset of the winter of 1846-47. Most infamously, several of their number resorted to cannibalism to survive.
The 90-minute film was written, directed and co-produced (with Lisa Aides) by Ric Burns, who, with his brother, Ken, produced PBS' "The Civil War." As in that series, he uses photographs, paintings and maps, along with letters and diaries of members of the Donner Party, read by performers such as Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Frances Sternhagen, George Plimpton and Eli Wallach.
The Donner Party, as it came to be known, was part of the huge caravan of wagon trains that left Independence, Mo., headed west on the Oregon or California trails in the 1840s, for what was thought to be a four-month journey. Free land and the dream of a better life spurred these emigrants--even George Donner, who was 62 and already well-to-do.