By Marc S. Sanders
The western motif of filmmaking really comes alive with the 1990 winner for Best Picture, Dances With Wolves starring Kevin Costner in his astounding directorial debut. Until now, this film eluded me. I just never got around to seeing it. Watching it now is to recognize the parallels of current events in the year 2020. A Native American Facebook friend of mine recently lauded the takedown of a statue of Christopher Columbus. At the risk of sounding like I’m taking political side (I insist that I’m not!), I think understand her position a little more. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this topic. I’m just saying I understand.
After committing what was seemingly an act of suicide, but instead is recognized as heroic in the eyes of the Union army during the Civil War, John Dunbar (Costner) is offered the pick of location for his next post. He opts for Fort Sedgwick because he wants to witness the frontier out west before it will likely be taken over by the white Americans. As Dunbar waits for fellow infantrymen to arrive, he gets the old fort into shape with his trusty horse Sisco. He also encounters companionship in a lone wolf he names Two Socks. The wolf only gradually learns to trust Dunbar, but that’s a project for the infantryman to occupy himself with. That, and keeping his personal journal.
Shortly after he’s settled in, he comes upon a Sioux Indian named Kicking Bird (an excellent Graham Greene). He and Dunbar are the first to develop trust with one another. Eventually, Dunbar’s good nature allows him the opportunity to rescue a white woman who lives with the Sioux tribe known as Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell). She has attempted to kill herself following the death of her husband. As the film continues, she becomes the translator between Dunbar and the other Indian leaders, allowing the story and relationships to move along.
The script by Michael Blake is fascinating simply because we are granted plenty of opportunities for the tribespeople to speak in their native tongue. Forgive me, I thought for a little about Hollywood’s most famous Indian, Tonto, and his laughably limited English. Here, language is instead limited for the white man as Costner does his best charade of buffalo to find initial common ground with the tribe’s holy man played by Greene.
Hollywood westerns seem to equate American Indians as savages, the bad guys of the films, complete with tomahawks and bow and arrows and bellowed battle cries for expression. Not here. Dunbar’s loneliness at the fort without another white man in sight does not allow for the ease of prejudice to interfere. Instead, he is a character who must learn to be accepted by the greater populace. When he is, he realizes that his true name is Dances With Wolves and not John Dunbar. That’s a fascinating character arc of change. The setting and the community within that location change the character. I was really moved by it.
As well, there is struggle and disagreements among the Indian population. Perhaps it truly is in the nature of humanity to be that way. The Sioux tribe must contend violently with the Pawnee tribe in a struggle to protect their territory and their food and supplies. Yet, that is wholly different from what drives the war that Dunbar has heroically served in. It’s not until Dunbar fights alongside his Sioux friends that he realizes he’s not an infantryman. This is another example of Costner effectively directing himself to find a new and enriching identity for his character.
A third example of character change stems from the eventual and expected love story that unfolds between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist. It’s something I’ve seen in countless other films. However, Mary McDonnell is quite good as the white woman whose English is close to being entirely replaced by the Native American tongue. She seems so indoctrinated within the Sioux tribe that when she first comes on the screen I questioned if she was a natural born Indian or an actual white woman.
Costner’s film is full of magnificent imagery. Gorgeous landscapes of the filming locations of South Dakota are like perfect paintings of open fields and endless blue sky. The blu ray transfer I watched was eye popping.
One of the greatest moments was a sequence involving a buffalo stampede. Costner with cast all on horseback ride within, as well as parallel to the animals and if ever a widescreen shot should be appreciated, this is a moment to turn to. The score moves beautifully with the pounding of the horses and buffalo stampeding across the open plains.
A personal sidenote is in regards to John Barry, the film’s music composer. I know this is an unfair criticism but at times his score is so strikingly similar to his work on various James Bond films that it was a distraction for me. Other times, Barry’s work lent well in some of the action scenes.
Nonetheless, what an incredible achievement that Costner commanded. He gives a terrific performance, but his direction is what truly stands out. Particularly, with the battle scenes and animal footage, I questioned how he managed to accomplish all of it. It’s just spectacular.
Dances With Wolves is certainly worthy of the accolades it attained and the reputation it still holds. The production value is easy to admire and unforgettable. Beyond that though, is the converse nature the film adheres to as a Hollywood western. The culture of a Native American tribe never seemed so authentic to me as it does here, accompanied with their sense of humor or even their temptation at playful gossip when observing the central love story between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist. We see what the Sioux tribe does to survive, yes. Still, we also see how they interact with one another and converse, as well as how they respond to a new neighbor, for example.
Dances With Wolves is an authentic masterpiece of a modern western. It’s a must-see film.