Donner Pass -- The Road to Survival (1984)






Director:     James L. Conway.   

Starring:    Robert Fuller (James Reed, and Narrator),  Andrew Prine (Lewis Keyser),  Michael Callan (William Eddy),  Diane McBain (Margaret Reed),  John Anderson (Patrick Breen),   John Doucette (George Donner),  Cindy Eilbacher (Mary Graves),  Royal Dano (Sutter),  Gregory Walcott (Will McKutcheon),  Lance LeGault (Charles Stanton),  Whit Bissell (Uncle Billy Graves),   Peg Stewart (Mrs. Breen),  Reid Cruickshanks (John Synder).

some of the settlers stranded in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains near Truckee, California in the winter of 1846 turn to cannibalism to survive


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"The year was 1846.  It was a time I'll never forget.  Not many of us would.  It was the year when 87 men, women and children banded together and tried to cross this country by wagon train.  A lot happened to us on that journey and many people have asked questions -- questions that are not easy to answer about why we did what we did as we followed the trail to California.  My name is James Reed and this is our story."

Two men, James Reed and George Donner, are candidates to be elected captain of the wagon train.  George Donner is elected the captain.  A big cheer goes up for Donnor.  The cheering stops when Lewis Keyser drives up in a Conestoga wagon saying he is going with the group.  One of the men, William Eddy, says he's not going with them, because they banished him for robbing Indian graves.  But Donner says he sent for Keyser.  Robert Fuller tells Donner that he could have gotten them all killed when he robbed that Indian burial ground.  Donner just says hat he and Reed have been friends for too long to fall out over this issue.  He says he will vouch for Keyser's behavior. 

There is another issue that Reed is upset about.  He doesn't like the choice of the new trail.  Donner says the new route is going to save them hundreds of miles.  Eddy says that they will have to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains to get to California and the snow can get up to 30 feet deep.  Donner only stresses that California will make them all rich men, that is if they can get to California quickly enough.  Donner's wife comes to tell him dinner is ready and Donner excuses himself.  Eddy tells Reed that they could break off from Donner and go by themselves.  Reed answers that he has too many connections to Donner to just desert him.  So Eddy says he will stick with Reed and go with Donner. 

The wagon train moves out.  In the mountains boulders block the way andthey  have to be cleared out.  Reed says:  "The further we went, the harder it became.  Wagons began to break down and many were forced to leave their possessions behind."  Reed tells his wife Margaret Reed that it's taking much too long to get through these mountains.  Now he is thinking that he should have stayed where they were.  His wife even had servants at home.  Margaret, however, tells her husband that with all of his dreams about life in California, she certainly could not have stayed behind.   She says that his dreams are her dreams too. 

The wagon train is hit by a bad dust storm and people have to hide under the wagons and the horses are placed behind the wagons.  Then it took them many days to  cross the Denver River.  It took eight days to reach the springs.  Most of the families lost their livestock to exhaustion.  They also had to abandon quite a few of their wagons.  Reed tells Donner that someone has to ride up to Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, California, get the supplies and bring them back to the wagon train.  Two men, Stanton and McCutcheon, volunteer and give their word that they will come back because they both have loved ones to come back to.  The two men set out on their horses. 

Donner drives his horses up a steep gradient and the horses just can't make it.  All of a sudden the horses break free of the wagon.  The wagon starts rolling downhill and Donner has to jump off to save himself.  The wagon tumbles down the mountain side.   The men rush over to Donner.  Reed says this is the sixth wagon they have lost since Fort Bridger (located in the southwest corner of Wyoming).  Donner wants to go down the mountain and retrieve his wagon, but Reed says that could take a whole day and Donner has other wagons.  Donner decides to abandon his wagon. 

Tempers become flared.  A man named John tells the man in front of him to get his wagon moving.  But the  horses of the man are too exhausted to move, so John takes a bull whip and starts whipping the horses.  Reed comes over and tells John to stop that.  So John turns his anger on Reed and tries to bull whip Reed.  Reed keeps dodging the whip and eventually grabs the whip and takes it from John.  This doesn't stop John.  He pulls out his knife and tries to kill Reed.  John is a big man and Reed a thin one, and Reed can get around the man pretty quickly.  The two men tussle over the knife and John lands on it.  The bad guy Lewis Keyser says that he saw all of it and Reed is a murderer.  Keyser tries to get Reed lynched, but the group wants to hear Reed's side of the story.  Reed said John was killed in self-defense.  Uncle Billy says Reed should not be hanged, but banished.  Donner supports banishment.  Keyser says Reed can go alone and without his gun.  Reed objects that he won't last long without his gun to hunt food with.  Donner says he has to go with the decision of the entire group. 

So Reed says goodbye to his three children and his wife.  He swears he will come back for his wife and children.  Reed gets on his horse and rides off. 

Bill Eddy gets an extra gun from Uncle Billy and he takes out after Reed.  He catches up with Reed and gives him food, water and the gun.  Reed thanks his friend.  Eddy says he will look after his family.  Reed says he has to reach Sutter's Fort and bring back extra food or his family will not make it.  

Lewis Keyser is falling behind the other wagons, so he abandons an old man by the side of the road.  When Keyser catches up with the wagon train, Eddy asks him where's the old man that was riding with him?  Keyser says he got out to walk, because his bad leg was giving him troubles.  Eddy tells the others that Keyser put the old man out of the wagon to die and then volunteers to take a horse and go back to get the stranded man.  Donner and the others say they don't have a horse to spare.  Eddy asks Donner what's wrong with him?  He was so quick to brand Reed a murderer, but now what is Donner but a murderer?  Margaret Reed says she has a horse Eddy can use.  Eddy starts to get the hose when Indians attack the wagon train.  Both sides are losing a lot of men.  Even Donner is wounded with an arrow to his hand.  The Indians are able to drive away some of the cattle. After they have the cattle, the Indians retreat.

Eddy says that have two men dead and three wounded.  Uncle Billy asks Eddy if he is still going after the old man and Eddy tells him he has to.  Eddy finds the old man, but he is dead, killed by an Indian arrow in his back.  When Eddy brings the body back to the wagon train and shows it to Keyser, Keyser doesn't say anything. 

Reed is so exhausted and hungry that all he can think of  is killing a raccoon to eat.  The problem is that there is a mountain lion ready to pounce on Reed.  Reed gets ready to shoot the raccoon when the mountain lion leaps.  But a shot is fired and the mountain lion's body lands next to Reed. It is Stanton who killed the mountain lion.  He is with three other men bringing supplies back to the wagon train.  McCutcheon couldn't  make the trip because he is too weak.  But he is going to be collecting food and supplies for the wagon train.  Reed says to Stanton that he is going on alone to Sutter's Fort,  but Stanton objects that he can't just abandon Reed here.  Reed is adamant that Stanton is not to going to waste one hour on him.  The wagon train needs those supplies.  So Stanton sends a man with Reed to get him over to Sutter's Fort. 

Stanton finds the wagon train.  Eddy tells him that he didn't bring many supplies and Stanton says he took as much as he could get his hands on.  After all, there is a war with Mexico going on in California.  Stanton tells Donner that they need to move out early tomorrow, because there is already some snow in the high mountain passes.  Donner says their animals and their people need more rest.  They will stay here for two days and then go.  Stanton concedes to Donner.  Eddy tells Stanton that if he and the men with him started out tomorrow, they could make it through the early snows.  Stanton says that's right, but he wants to make sure that everyone else makes it through too.  He goes over to Miss Mary and tells her that he would like to marry her once they get to California.  She replies:  "Well, we aren't in California yet." 

Reed is now at Sutter's Fort gathering supplies.  He speaks with Captain Sutter about there being new snow storms up in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  They set out for the wagon train, but a storm comes up and drops ten feet of snow on the mountains.  Reed insists to Mac that they continue on.  Mac tells Reed that the horses and the mules can't make it.  So they will take what they can carry, burry the rest and leave a flag marker.  Reed and Mac carry their saddles and a few supplies back towards Fort Sutter. 

The Donner Party reaches the snows in the mountain and have a hard time moving through the snow accumulation.  Stanton scouts out the trail ahead and comes back to say that they'll never get through unless they abandon the wagons.  But the men don't want to abandon the wagons. 

Mac and Reed have a hell of a time getting through the snow.  And then Reed is swamped by an avalanche.  Mac sees his hand sticking out of the snow and starts digging Reed out.  But now Reed is too weak to go on and they decide they must return to Sutter's fort.  

Stanton and the two Indians with him turn around and go back to the wagon train.  He tells Donner:  "You wouldn't keep moving last night.  Now we can't move.  We have to turn back."  The snow is only going to get worse. 

Storm after storm hits the Sierra Nevada mountains and soon it is clear to all that the Donner party wouldn't be moving again until spring.  They build cabins to protect themselves from the cold. Virginia and Lem Reed and their dog are out trying to find food.  On their way back their path seems to be going to cross with a huge bear.  Eddy comes looking for them and sees the bear tracks, so he hurries up as much as he can.  When the dog and kids come across the bear the kids start screaming.  Eddy arrives and tells them to run.  The bear now charges Eddy.  Either Eddy misses the bear with his shot or it is not enough to stop the bear, because soon the bear is on Eddy and Eddy starts stabbing the bear with his knife. It's a tough bear, but Eddy is able to kill him.  And now they have fresh meet for supper. 

Reed tells Sutter and Mac that he can't wait for spring to go after the wagon train.  He says he needs some hardy men that can carry packs and they will make it through.  Sutter says the kind of men Reed is looking for are fighting the Mexicans.  So Reed says he will go to where these fighting men are and bring some back with him. 

The situation is getting more desperate for those in the snowed-in cabins.  Uncle Billy Graves starts to make a pair of snow shoes to get through the snow.  Stanton says he will help him make the snow shoes.  In about ten days they have enough snow shoes so a number of the party can get through the show.  Some of the families have to stay behind because they are too weak to make the journey.  The Reed family stays behind.  Seventeen people are going to try to make it to Fort Sutter.  Donner stays behind. 

One of the men eyes the Reed's dog as a possible source of food.  The dog barks at him. 

One week later, Reed reaches John C. Fremont's camp near Monterey, California.  Fremont says he can't spare any of his men.  Now if someone could kill General Pico then he could spare some men.  Reed says he might just do that.  Mac goes with him. 

The people on snow shoes are now crossing a lake  Charlie Stanton goes snow blind and falls through the ice.  Eddy throws him a rope and Stanton tells him that he is blind.  So Mary is going to have to crawl over to Stanton.  She does so and directs Stanton to the end of the rope.  Now the men pull Stanton out of his icy hole.  Keyser doesn't want to give up his blanket to keep Stanton warm, but Eddy demands that he turn over his blanket and Keyser gives in.

At the cabins they are down to eating mule hide. 

The snow shoe group is down to the last meat.  Keyser looks at a very cold Stanton and says they don't all have to starve.  (They didn't know it but they were just yards away from the supplies left by Reed and Mac on their failed attempt to get through to the wagon train.)

Stanton decides to stay behind the group.  Mary pleads with him to accompany them, but he just says no.  Mary has to abandon Stanton.  She kisses him on the forehead and goes. 

Reed says it took him 12 days to find the camp of Gen. Pico.  Now he wants to get up closer.  Pico tells some of his men that they all need a rest so they will rest one more day and then go conquer this Fremont fellow.  Reed gets up very close to Pico and figures he can kill the general. 

Since the people in the cabins have run out of food and Mr. Breen is going to kill the dog for food.  Virginia Reed is very upset about this, but her mother tells her that it was she who told Mr. Breen to do it.  Virginia cries. 

Eddy is watching for Stanton to catch up with them.  Mary has to tell him that Charlie won't be coming in at all.  (Charlie has frozen to death.)  One of the little boys dies.  One of the men goes crazy, takes his coat off and runs into the snow because he thinks he sees Reed and Captain Sutter out there somewhere.  Mary's dad Uncle Billy  is getting weaker and weaker.  He says:  "I can do no more for you."  He suggests that he be the food for the others.  He tells his daughter:  "You must live."  Mary promises her father that she will do it.  Her father dies.  She asks Bill to give her his knife.  Bill won't do it, so Keyser offers his knife to Mary.  Bill shouts:  "We're not animals, we're human beings."  Mary answers him:  "We have to live, William."  Bill says he will do it for Mary.  Keyser says he will go look for the body of the crazy man who just ran off into the snow.

December 25, 1846.  Five people at the cabins have starved to death.  The trapped people try to sing Christmas carols, but it is very difficult for them to sing

Now the snow shoe crew have food to eat.  Bill feels tremendously guilty over cutting up Uncle Billy's body.  Mary tells him that they had to do what they had to do. 

Back at the cabin more people die of starvation.  Margaret Reed says they will eat one of the dead men's body.  She asks Breen to help her do it.   Mr. Breen says it's a mortal sin, but Mrs. Breen tells her husband that he has to help Margaret.

With the snow shoers another man dies.  The wife of the man asks Mary to cut her husband up. 

Reed asks Freemont for six men to help him kill Pico and then get away.  Freemont says he will give him five men, because he is going with Reed.  The men mount up and go after Pico. 

The snow shoers run out of food again.  Keyser wants to kill one of the women and eat her.  Bill is going to kill Keyser with his knife, but the women stop him from doing it. 

The two Indians had run away, but now the people catch up with them.  Keyser catches up with them and draws his pistol.  One of the Indians is dying, while Keyser shoots the other one.  Bill and the women keep on walking past Keyser, while he starts cutting up the Indian bodies.

Jan. 16, 1847 they are ready to attack Gen. Pico.  They want to take him alive.  Three men go to the corral to let the horses go. They kill the corral guard.  Then Reed knocks out the guard outside Pico's cabin.  Mac kills one more guard.  In the cabin Pico is saying that they will attack the Americanos at Santa Clara.  Mac fires a shot to scare the horses off.  Now Reed and Freemont rush in.  Fremont knocks out Pico with a chair to the back of his head.

At the cabins Virginia Reed is out poking the snow with a stick.  She is trying to find Mr. Breen's horse so they could eat that rather than human flesh.  Margaret tells her daughter that there is absolutely no food left to eat, except the human flesh.  Virginia is afraid that her father will never come back to them if they eat human flesh. 

Feb. 5, 1874.  Reed and his party come upon Bill and Mary.  The pair collapses, but Reed and two Indians are there to pick them up.

Feb. 15, 1874  Two girls, Virginia and Patty, see men coming toward them.   Virginia runs to the cabin to tell her mother.  Margaret runs out and shades her eyes to see who the men are.  She recognizes her husband and the two run to each other. 

When they had left Fort Bridger, there had been 87 of them.  By the time they reached California there were only 45 left.  Reed says only Keyser was tried for murder.  The rest of them went on with their lives, living in California.


Good film but film quality of the VHS tape was very poor.  This is a real disaster story where the people in order to survive had to consume human flesh.  Donner, the master of the wagon train, decided to take a short cut, which turned out not to be a short-cut at all because of the poor quality of the trail.   Paraphrasing something one of the wagon train girls wrote to a friend:  I've seen enough of trouble to know what trouble is. She also gave a piece of advice to her friend:  "and don't take no short-cuts".   I was able to recognize a number of the male actors because they are well-known character actors, so the acting was good.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:



During the Mexican-American War, Gen. Andrs Pico commanded the Mexican forces, the 'California Lancers', in Alta California.

1846 Pico leads an attack on forces of U.S. General Stephen Watts Kearny at the Battle of San Pasqual and hits Kearny's command a hard blow.

1847 Pico is briefly the Governor of Mexican Alta California, in opposition to the U.S. provisional government established in 1846.

1847 (January 13) worried that General Kearny might execute him, Pico signs the Treaty of Cahuenga with Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Frmont. This ends the Mexican-American War battles in California.



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