Movies We Like
Dances with Wolves
It’s easy to be cynical about Dances with Wolves. Some might call it a three hour goody-goody vanity project for director and star Kevin Costne. Some may laugh at his blown-dry '80s mullet. For most, its worst crime was beating Goodfellas for the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1990. It’s no Goodfellas, but don’t blame Costner; blame the stupid Oscar voters and take Dances with Wolves for what it is. For the less cynical it’s hard not to be totally engrossed, even mesmerized, and eventually heartbroken by the film. Dances with Wolves was beautifully shot by cinematographer Dean Semler, who earlier shot the amazing The Road Warrior (1981) and would later shoot the stunning Apocalypto (2006). The film uses its South Dakota/Wyoming landscapes beautifully to elicit the loneliness of the frontier and the self-reliance of Native American culture.
I’m not sure if there ever was a “Western” before that so strongly presented such a powerful Native American point of view. After decades of offensive Indian stereotypes and John Wayne, by the late '60s attitudes were changing and the Western was evolving. Even John Ford tried a sympathetic approach to the plight of the Indians with Cheyenne Autumn (1964). There was Paul Newman’s half-breed gunslinger, Hombre (1967). Richard Harris was a Brit who took over a tribe in A Man Called Horse (1970). Dustin Hoffman brought a pro-Indian satire to the genre as Little Big Man (1970). Sergio Leone had a lot to say with Duck, You Sucker (1971). Ulzana's Raid (1972) went out of its way to showcase the brutality of the white man, and Clint Eastwood had an interesting fresh take on old stereotypes with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since that golden age of “revisionist Westerns,” Jim Jarmusch got all post-moderny (or something) with his Dead Man (1995). Now, generally, the Indian is no longer automatically the bad guy or a monster. But what really makes Dances with Wolves notable is, though it stars a white man and the Indians are supporting characters, the film still manages to bridge cultural divides as well, if not better than any of its predecessors.
After leading his side to victory with a suicidal act during a Civil War battle, the eccentric, free thinking Union Lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) is given a choice of assignments. He takes the abandoned Fort Sedgwick on the Western front so he can see the new frontier. He spends time alone, renovating the Fort, hanging with his horse and trying to make friends with a wild wolf out of loneliness. He also makes contact with his Sioux tribe neighbors, led by the kindly Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and the more aggressive warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant). It’s a slow transition from suspicion on both sides to eventual friendship, and the length of the film gives these relationships time to build slowly. At first the language differences are a barrier in the fledgeling bro-ship, but the tribe has a white orphan girl who grew up to become Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell) and she remembers a little English from her childhood. Also lucky for Dunbar, she has recently became single (her husband has died). Eventually Dunbar is accepted by the tribe, Stands With a Fist, and the wolf, to the point where he basically joins the tribe and learns their lingo. He even gets permission to wed Stands With A Fist and move with his homies to a new location, but first he must return to the Fort to collect something.
It’s back at the Fort where Dunbar encounters white people again. The military has returned and, thinking he’s an Indian, they treat Dunbar as such. This may be one of the most gruesome (and truthful) views of how whites treated the Native Americans ever put on film. Like the romantic Doctor Zhivago it becomes an endurance test of how much horror Dunbar can take in the hopes of returning to his love and his Indian lifestyle he now fully embraces. He sees his old life through new eyes and is sickened by the white man who comes off as cruel and evil. The audience roots for him to be able to get back to the more pure Sioux. In less than forty years the American Western has come a long way since the hatefulness of movies like Ford & Wayne’s The Searchers.
Ironically enough, it’s not just the whites who look like savages (of course, except for Costner). The Pawnees are portrayed as barbaric war mongers (the one part of the film that has been well debated by scholars), and they manage to fit the American Western stereotype mold of the Indian. The Native American appreciation for the land and the buffalo is as powerful an ecological statement that can be made. If you didn’t think the white men are horrible enough, not only do they kill the Wolf, they also kill Coster’s beloved horse. If it sounds like an Indianploitation flick, it’s not quite; there is too much love around for that. Although Costner may come off at first as an awkward and needy host to his new Sioux buds, by the end he’s a full-on asskicking, revenge-driven machine. But in the end it’s the usually macho Wind In His Hair’s reaction to Costner’s final decision that won’t leave a dry eye in the theater. Yes, in the end Wind In His Hair becomes the little kid from Shane (1953) and that is the most beautiful act of goofy revisionism this special movie can give us.
Dunbar’s future looks challenging, but for Costner, his future looked bright. Dances with Wolves was an unexpected smash hit and awards darling and Costner was the man of the moment. Now an important director, Costner was on top of the world. Unfortunately his directing follow-up is truly one of the worst movies ever made. After The Postman (1997), in which he plays a post-apocalyptic pseudo mailman or something, he had to go back to being just another actor with a golden but fading mullet.
Dances with Wolves won seven Oscar Awards and was nominated for an additional five. The film won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Music - Score. It was nominated for Best Actor (Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Greene), Best Supporting Actress (McDonnell), Best Art Direction - Set Direction, and Best Costume Design.