PBS “The Donner Party”

                         The Donner Party


Structure: The structure is chronological, starting with the preparation and departure to the arrival of the survivors in California.  The documentary uses three main devices for telling the story. These are a narrator, historians, and readings of primary sources. The visual elements include old maps, photographs and shots of the wilderness.  The primary sources are mostly letters or diaries written by the members of the party.


            The main argument of the documentary is the tendency of Americans during this time of westward expansion to pursue the dream of prosperity often disregarding common sense.  Manifest destiny became a race, with many overextending themselves and taking shortcuts.  The Donner party decided to take a shortcut against the advice of others who had been there and suffered the consequences of cutting corners.


            The supporting points are generally made by historians who have written a book on the Donner party.  These are examples of how this group of immigrants made several fatal decisions during the course of the journey in their rush to California.


            The film begins with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville with a quote that supports the main argument, that Americans chase prosperity with great intensity until death eventually halts them in their tracks.

            We start with a description of the beginning of the westward expansion which began in the 1840s.  Motivated by disease in the east and the promise of prosperity in the west, more than half a million people started along the trails to California. Among these were the Donner party who above all others retains a grisly legendary status.  This is followed by a segment supporting the main point.  Interviews clips with two historians speculate as to the motivations that lead to the party’s downfall, ambition and greed among them.

            We now turn to Lansford Hastings who will be one of the main characters in the narrative. He made the maps the that the Donner party follows, despite the fact that Hastings had never been on his own trail and was completely ignorant of the inherent dangers it contained.  He sees prosperity for himself in “aiding” the immigrants in their journeys.  There are also reactions to Hastings from historians who see him as highly driven but also very irresponsible.

            The next segment is the introduction of the Donner party.  Despite already having achieved prosperity in Illinois the Donner and Reed families decide to go west for the land rush in California.  James Reed is the originator of the trip and the description also includes that of the extravagant two story wagon of the Reed family.  This is supported by primary source quotes.  The narrator advances the story to independence, Missouri where the party resupplies and Lansford Hastings decides to see what his trail looks like.  The trail coming out of independence is very hard for the Donner party with mud, rain and the first death, Sarah Keyes.  Alternating between the narrator and primary source quotes, the party reaches the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

            Here the Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Here we have the second sequence supporting the main argument. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”

            Summer finds the Donner party heading to Fort Bridger where Hastings has promised to personally lead wagon trains through his shortcut. When the party arrives, however, Hastings has already left with another group.  James Reed reasons that the shortcut will save hundreds of miles and so they will be able to make the trip in only seven weeks. They elect George Donner as the captain of the wagon train and take Hastings cutoff where the traveling is smooth for about a week until they reach an impasse. Hastings has left and note and later advises them to find a different route through the mountains.

            With James Reed at the lead, the party leaves the trail and goes into the mostly uncharted wilderness.  This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California.  This was the point of no return.

            It took a month to get across the first mountains and to the shore of the Great Salt Lake and it was supposed to take a week to go this distance.  Still following the notes left by Hastings the party slowly went on until they reach the salt plains. Another member dies of consumption.  Contemporary historians call the attempt to cross the salt desert, “foolishness”. Hastings had underestimated the distance across by about half and without enough supplies oxen became heat crazy and many were lost, which meant the abandoning of several wagons.  The misery of the situation is described by primary sources.  Hastings arrives in California but the Donner party still has a long way to go.

            Fall finds the party with tempers wearing thin and James Reed kills John Snyder and is banished.  The Reed family continues with no sign of the patriarch.  The Donner party finally reaches the beginning of the sierras and receives some supplies as well as two Indian guides.  Just a few days away from crossing the mountain pass, it starts to snow and the settlers are completely stuck on the shores of the lake.  James Reed survives until Sutter’s fort and finds that his family is stuck in the snow covered mountains.  He is unable to raise a rescue party because everyone is fighting the Mexicans in California.

            The settlers build a winter camp and much of the information from this point is from the diary of Irishman Patrick Breen.  The snow continues and the pioneers watch for a relief effort and eat their livestock.  The snow becomes hopelessly deep, animals are lost and a third member of the party dies of malnutrition.  “The Forlorn Hope” describes fifteen men and women who decided to make another effort at escape.  Five people died quickly and the remaining ten committed the first act of cannibalism.  Several people had died back at the lake but six members of the forlorn hope made it out of the mountains and were fed.

            With the war in California over, two rescue teams were assembled with James Reed leading the second.  The first relief party reached the lake in mid February and found most people dead or dying.  Leaving a few supplies with the people remaining at the lake, the first party heads back and encounters James Reed on the way. The second relief party finds the camp alive only by eating the flesh of the dead.  The third relief party found only seven people left alive and the fourth and final rescue effort found one man alive, delirious and surrounded by human bones stripped of meat.  About half of the Donner party survived and most of them went on to lead normal lives in California.  When gold was discovered the rush to the west became a flood and what is now known as the Donner Pass became a tourist attraction.  It had taken one year for the Donner party to travel from Illinois to California in search of prosperity.
















This is the first sequence that supports the main point, a historian commenting on Hastings view of the American dream, “It’s all mixed up with the romance and the so-called ‘heroism’ of the westward migration and the big American dream. The American dream has some nightmares attached to it and this is one of the ways the American dream could go. The American dream probably resulted in for most of the people who followed it like a marsh light in disaster.”


This is the second segment that supports the main argument. The Donner party gets some good advice and decides to ignore it.  Primary and secondary sources show that the party got advice from an experienced mountain man telling them not to take the route Hastings had mapped out because it would be impossible and longer than the normal wagon trails. Historians analyze why James Reed decided not to take the advice, “He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.”


This is a third segment that supports the main argument. When the party reaches this impasse and learns there is no real trail through the mountains, they decide to improvise instead of going back to fort Bridger and taking the normal route.  Looking back it seems ridiculous that an inexperienced group of settlers would head into unmapped woods hoping to find a quick route to California. 


“Devil in the White City” treatment and promotion

This nonfiction work by Erik Larson has strong potential to be a successful three part series on HBO or Showtime. Each part would fill an hour and a half time slot and would premier on Columbus Day due to the fact that the fair itself was a celebration of Columbus’s arrival in America and also inspired the national holiday.  The first part of the series would focus on the events leading up to the fair, the second part would show the events occurring during the fair, and the third part would focus on the events after the fair centering on the investigation of the serial killer.


Plot Summery

Although the book goes into excruciating detail about the designs and trials of the architects, it would be best to avoid this plot line as it will most likely only be interesting to people with a subscription to architectural digest.  The fair and its novel architecture would be mainly a visually exciting background to the main story of a charming, methodical psychopath, “Dr.” Holmes.

            The first part of the series would show the killer as he establishes himself in Chicago by defrauding creditors and construction workers.  There would be great contrast value in showing his construction of a “gloomy castle” complete with sound proof vaults, gas chambers, and a crematorium and the construction of the grand Romanesque buildings for the fair.  The killer also had several relationships during this period, all of which ended with the disappearance of the women involved.  One possible subplot that could be explored is the union struggles associated with the construction and the rise of Mayor Harrison, who would be killed by an altogether different kind of lunatic at the beginning of part three.

            The second part of the series would show Holmes as his hotel filled up with victims.  He appears to have done the majority of his killing during the fair because of an abundance of visitors to the city. We also see him romancing his victims by taking them to the fair and enjoying the exhibits before taking them home and killing them.  Holmes also has creditors piling up and letters from his victim’s families coming in as well.  One darkly humorous part of the story is the fact that Holmes sold his victim’s skeletons to medical schools as a way to dispose of the bodies.  Again there is a great contrast between Holmes canvassing the fair for victims and historically famous people visiting at the same time such as Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley as well as visiting dignitaries.

            The third part of the series would show primarily the detective work that led to the arrest and execution of Holmes.  The final part would begin with the murder of the mayor at the hands of a disturbed lunatic and the deterioration of both the economy and the once majestic white city. This would set the tone for the more disturbing elements uncovered during the investigation of Dr. Holmes.  The investigation itself would be compelling because of the techniques used in those days compared to the criminal justice system we are used to seeing on TV or film.  There is no forensics, profiling or even fingerprints so the detective simply went to an enormous number of hotels in many cities, asking questions and showing low quality black and white photographs.  One novel aspect of criminal investigations was the unrestricted access the press had to crime scenes.  This would be effective in showing the progress of the investigation in conjunction with colorful headlines.



The author has had great success with his previous book “Isaac’s Storm”, a non fiction national best seller about the Galveston hurricane in 1900.  Reviews of “The Devil in the White City” often compliment the author’s ability to take historical events and show them in an accessible and interesting way.



The serial killer Genre has been very successful with films like “Seven” and “Taking Lives”, among other films.  Particularly successful have been the ones where the killer is outwardly charming and inwardly disturbed and homicidal.  This series would not be as graphic as the average serial killer film mainly because the killer used gas and suffocation with explicit violence and gore occurring rarely.  This would make it more acceptable for the mainstream audience.



Dr. Holmes—Vince Vaughn (has played a serial killer in two films), Jeremy Irons

            –Both actors can be very charming as well as very disturbing and dangerous

Mayor Harrison—John Goodman

Burnham (inspired Architect)—Television actor fitting description

Olmstead (oversaw fair) — Donald Sutherland



The first major promotional possibility would be with Westinghouse INC, whose founder George Westinghouse introduced large scale electric power at the fair, outbid Tomas Edison for the concession and also pioneered the alternating currant system.  Because Westinghouse is now a large corporation, it would be a significant product placement.


Another product placement strategy would be to tie in the consumer products first presented to the public at the fair.  Aunt Jemima’s Pancake mix, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Juicy Fruit Gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon were all pioneered at the fair.  The fact that these products have been in popular use since 1893 gives the product placements added power.


Advertising for the series could be placed across all media platforms.  As HBO is part of Time Warner, the possibilities for cross promotion are huge.  Ads could also be placed in the monthly cable bills of HBO subscribers.


Like it did with “Rome”, HBO could make several short ‘making of’ specials.  These could include a virtual tour of the 1893 exhibition, an examination of the working conditions and labor problems leading up to the great depression.  HBO could also include interviews with cast members and historians.  These specials would also be available online and on demand. They would serve to create buzz and give the viewer more context that will not be shown in the series itself.


The book is a #1 national bestseller and a finalist in the national book award and as such, an audience for the series already exists.  A new edition with the movie cover and perhaps a short promotional DVD with extras and previews would insure readers’ interest in seeing the series.  All this could be co-financed with the publishers as the series would in turn provide increased book sales.


The potential for DVD extras is also significant because there is an abundance of material that could personalize the fair for viewers.  A copy of the original fair maps, an admission ticket, or a replica of the Ferris wheel could all aid in creating a unique package fans of the series would want.  There could also be expanded documentary extras in this area.



Dr. Death by Jonathan Kellerman–Treatment and selected scenes

Dr. Death could be made into a feature length film but the story and the number of characters make the book more suitable for a crime drama episode.               The main characters are Alex the narrator and his friend and colleague on the homicide squad, Milo. Alex is a physiologist who does consulting work with the LAPD.  A “doctor” Mate resembling Jack Kevorkian has been brutally murdered and cut to pieces and Milo has caught the case.  There are three main suspects in the crime: Richard Doss, a prominent businessman whose wife was killed by Mate. A serial killer called Michael Burke whose existence is introduced by an FBI agent Fusco. Mate’s son Donny, who is a homeless criminal type. The killer is Michael burke, who “discovered” the body of Dr. Mate. He is killed by agent Fusco before being arrested. The story begins with Alex and Milo examining the scene where Mate was murdered, a parking lot on a deserted road. They spend a good deal of time examining the scene where they talk about the mind and motivations of the killer. The scene is chaotic, with CSI type people running around.  They also interview the people who found the body, one of whom turns out to be the killer.  This is a brief interview because the “witness” is not a suspect until near the end.We see the other side of Alex’s professional life after this as he talks to an old patient Richard Doss who needs counseling for his daughter.  Richard Doss is immediately a suspect in the story because Mate killed his wife and he was extremely angry.  Doss is bossy and obnoxious and very happy to hear Mate has been killed.            Since the story revolves around the search for Mate’s killer, it would be effective to have a montage of the research Alex does on Mate.  We discover that Mate was an attention seeker and might have killed for personal satisfaction rather than for moral reasons.There is a growing tension between Alex and Milo concerning Doss because Alex wants to keep his patients confidentiality and Milo thinks he is a prime suspect.The second suspect is introduced by a visit to Mate’s house where the landlady reports a bum sneaking in.  Mate’s previously unknown wife is near the house and tells Alex and Milo about her son with Mate, who might be hostile towards his father. The son Donny is now a suspect and his whereabouts are unknown.An FBI agent Fusco contacts Alex and Milo and says he has something that could help their investigation.  They all meet at a coffee shop where the agent gives the pair a large folder on a Michael Burke.  The FBI man acts strangely and we don’t know why at this point.  According to Fusco, the killer is probably Burke, who has been a serial killer for a long time and many of his victims were similar to the patients of Dr. Mate. Both Doss and Donny Mate become more suspicious as the story progresses. Doss becomes a more suspicious character because of the therapy Alex has with his daughter, who reveals how unbalanced her father is. Donny becomes more suspicious when they find a gruesome painting done by him at his father’s house.During a therapy session with Doss’s daughter, Doss is arrested for hiring someone to kill Mate.  A former employee made a deal with the police and told them that Doss hired him to kill Mate.  The former employee did not go through with it but the detective thinks he may have tried again.Finally looking through the file agent Fusco gave him, Alex finds a clue that makes it seem very likely that Michael Burke is the killer. Alex sees a hypodermic needle in an old crime scene photo that matches one found at the scene of Mate’s murder.Alex has a meeting with Doss, who claims that he did hire someone to kill mate but that when that didn’t happen, he didn’t attempt it a second time. We don’t know if he is lying at this point.Mate’s son appears, beaten up and taken to an LA hospital. The man is mentally unstable and a drug addict but an intense questioning session with Alex reveals that he probably did not kill his father.  He wanted to but he didn’t get the chance.While searching for the elusive lawyer of Mate, Alex stumbles upon the dead bodies of the lawyer and a friend of Mate. They are tied to a tree and are carved up just like Dr. Mate and the victims of Michael Burke.  At this point it is pretty clear that the person from Fusco’s files is the person who killed Mate.  Milo believes that Burke was a covert assistant to Dr. Mate, which would explain why he killed the lawyer also.  There is a problem with agent Fusco because when Alex calls the FBI to talk to the agent, two other FBI agents tell him that agent Fusco has gone AWOL and is under investigation.  It appears that Fusco believes Michael Burke killed his daughter and has taken the case too personally.With this new information in mind, Alex and Milo take another look as Fusco’s file to find a fresh lead.  Through discussions about the motivations of the killer, Alex notices a similarity in the descriptions and statements of the people who found many of the victims.  One statement in particular catches his attention and we get a flashback to the witness at the scene of mate’s murder.  Alex has solved the case but the killer is still out there. Alex and Milo can’t find anything on the killer so they go searching for a lead on the girls he was with. They manage to locate the girl’s sister who tells them how creepy her sister’s boyfriend is and a few places they might be able to locate her.Milo and Alex go on the search immediately because they believe that Michael Burke is planning to kill the girl.  Eventually they trace her car to a remote cabin in the woods and they approach the place with caution.They sneak up and spy on the cabin where they see the killer and the girl.  It appears that the killer is planning another murder and just as Milo is about to jump out and arrest Burke, he is killed by a sniper rifle.  The killer of Burke is assumed to be the renegade FBI man Fusco.

The case has been solved and Alex and Milo return to write their reports on the serial killer Michael Burke. Richard Doss goes to jail for the attempt to hire someone to kill mate and the other suspects are released.  Special agent Fusco has taken revenge and is not captured or proven to be the shooter.


Scene I






MILO is sitting on hood of orange car and ALEX pulls into parking lot in own car.






Big guy.

Going cowboy?



My Georgia O’Keeffe period.


Milo laughs and turns to look at van



No attempt to conceal.


Milo shrugs and walks to the van



We know where the van came from.

The rental sticker traces back to an avis in Tarzana,

Mate rented it last Friday, got the weekend rate.



Preparing for another mercy mission?



That’s what he uses vans for, but so far

no one has come forth claiming mate stood

him up.



I’m surprised the companies still rent to him.



They probably don’t. The paperwork was done

by an Alice Zoghbie, a right to die activist who

is out of the country as of Saturday.



She rented the van and split the next day?



Apparently. I called her and the machine said she

Will be back in a week. She’s on my to do list.

(taps notepad)



I wonder why Mate never bought a van.



From what I’ve seen so far he was cheap.

He’s got a budget car and a barren apartment,

He used to use cheap motels.


ALEX (nodding)

He liked to leave the bodies on the bed for

The maids to find. I saw him on TV defending

 himself, saying the setting doesn’t matter.


MILO (suspiciously)

You’ve been following Mate’s career?



Didn’t have to, he wasn’t exactly media shy.

Any tracks of other cars nearby?


Milo shakes his head



So you’re wondering if the killer drove

Up with Mate.



Or parked farther down the road, or

Left no tracks, or forensics missed something,

I mean no one even noticed the damned

Van and its been sitting here for hours.



What about shoe prints?



Just the people who found the van.



What’s the time of death estimate?


MILO (looking at watch)

Between one and four am, Mate

was found just after sunrise.



The paper said the people who

found him were hikers, they sure were

up early.



Couple of yuppies walking the dog,

 they were headed up the dirt road when they

noticed the van.



Any other people come by? There is a large housing

development nearby.



High-priced development. Guess the rich

get to sleep in.



There might be someone else we missed.



Its possible but how many cars have you seen

on this road?


Alex turns and looks at deserted road



And even if someone saw the van there

is no reason to stop and look inside, it just doesn’t stand out



It stood out to the yuppies.



Their dog wouldn’t stop barking at it

so they went and looked and I think its

 safe to say they won’t be taking this path




That bad?



Dr. Mate was hooked up to his own machine.



The Humanitron.



Yeah I figured the machine would be high tech but

it looks like a failed grade school science project.



It worked.



It worked fine fifty times and that’s what I

have to go on, fifty potentially angry families.

I have a long list.



Maybe Mate hooked himself up to

the machine



The machine was just for show, the

killer carved him like a turkey and Mate

probably bled to death during the cutting.






He was castrated and there were eight other cuts

using a scalpel or scissors, Squares, like the killer

was playing around.



Proud of himself. He preformed surgery

and it sounds like a mess. Are you sure

there’s no blood outside the van? (looking around)



Not one speck, this guy was extremely careful.



The killer wanted the body to be found, he

left everything in the open, like he is saying look at what I did.

What was the body position?


Laying on his back head near the front seat.



Mate prepares the van, the killer uses it.

What a power trip.


MILO (after thinking for a minute)

There’s something that needs to be kept quiet,

the killer left a note nailed to Mate’s sternum

“Happy traveling, you sick bastard.”


Scene II




ERIC and Alex are sitting in chairs facing each other.  Eric looks at boards games



 Hey lets play candyland, see who gets to the

 top of the mountain first.



Nothing wrong with having a sweet life.


ERIC (emotional)

Everything’s a punch line with you, making

your fucking point. Well thanks for the

fuckin insight doc!


The intercom buzzes and the receptionist comes on.



Sorry for interrupting you but we have a problem out here.




RICHARD and STACY are standing next to two cops, KORN and DEMETRI as Alex and Eric enter.



These two gentlemen are waiting to take me to the police station



Hey doc, nice place.



You know him!



What’s going on?



Like Mr. Doss said, we’re taking him in.



For what?






In regards to?



This is not your business. We interrupted you

so Eric can take his sister home.





Richard looks away and doesn’t answer.



First I’m calling my lawyer.


KORN (sighing)




This is Richard Doss, please get max on the line…

Whats that? When?… ok its really important  that

I talk to him…No no I can’t get into it right now,

 just call him in aspen…I’ll be at the west LA police




Let’s get going.


Scene III




ALEX and MILO are standing next to the car looking up the driveway.



No sense announcing ourselves, lets

 see if we can get a view of the cabin.




Alex and Milo crouch behind some bushes with a view of the cars and the front door of the cabin.





                        Separate cars…



Maybe she is going to work early.




                        He might have evidence here so I can’t

 mess up the search warrant.  Maybe we

should back off for now.



                        She might be in danger.


PAUL ULRICH comes out of the door with coffee in hand. He walks over to the car and pops the trunk, pulling out a black bag.



                        Not good.




Two more shots and Paul is down on the ground. Milo jumps out of the bushes with gun drawn and looks around franticly.


                                                ALEX (whispers)