Dances With Wolves (1990) Director: Kevin Costner
“They were a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, so dedicated to each other. The only word that comes to mind is harmony.”
Based on a historical fiction novel of the same name by Michael Blake, Dances With Wolves is Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. It was shot during the apex of Costner’s film-making, preceded by Field of Dreams in 1989 and followed by Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991 –what a busy couple of years for Costner! Dances With Wolves was turned down by many studios following the supposed decline in popularity of westerns, especially following Michael Cimino’s box-office disaster Heaven’s Gate in 1980. Michael Blake later wrote a sequel to Dances With Wolves but Costner refused to do sequels for any of his movies. Dances With Wolves was a remarkable success, it was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning Best Picture and Best Director (Kevin Costner) among others.
Kevin Costner directs and stars in this film as Lieutenant John Dunbar, an officer in the Union army during the Civil War who transfers himself to a Fort Hays at the edge of the American frontier. He hopes to see the frontier before it disappears (in truth, Fort Hays was located inn Cheyenne territory). While residing at this remote outpost he soon befriends a tribe of Lakota Sioux Indians despite no knowledge of each other’s respective languages (this is a bit of a stretch as the Sioux would have had a fairly extensive trading relationship by the mid-19th century). Dunbar’s role is a mostly predictable, rarely complex, hardly historically accurate, roguish white knight who gradually learns the ways of the Native Americans and becomes ensconced and accepted by their leaders particularly “Kicking Bird” (Graham Greene who won Best Supporting Actor for his performance). Dunbar is given the name “Dances With Wolves.” We gradually learn about and gain respect for the Lakota culture –honoring the land, trusting their horses (brought by ythe Spaniards a century or two prior), reliance on the buffalo, and warring with the Pawnee who are led by a ruthless warrior played by Wes Studi, memorable for his role as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans in 1992. Dunbar falls in love with a white woman who was taken by the Lakota named “Stands With A Fist” (Mary McDonnell) loosely based on the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped by the Comanche in the 1830s, thus bridging a certain link to John Ford’s The Searchers. Much of Dances With Wolves is narrated through the lens of his journal entries. We witness the devastation of the plains Indians as the ruthless slaughter of buffalo persists, with buffalo carcasses carelessly strewn across the prairie for their hides. There is a final showdown and capture attempt by the arrogant American soldiers, followed by a tearful farewell amidst a snowy backdrop as Dunbar and Stands With A Fist part ways from the Lakota in order to avoid drawing further conflict from the Americans. A lone wolf howls as Dunbar successfully evades capture. At the end a title reads:
“Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band for free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.”
Dances With Wolves is a captivating albeit predictable and mostly cliche little story. Its highlights include extraordinary backdrops of big skies heaving over the Great Plains. We get a sense of the vast sea of grass that once flowed across Middle America, and there is a particularly remarkable scene of a buffalo hunt coupled with John Barry’s majestic score triumphantly announcing the centuries-old practice. Apparently, Dances With Wolves took great efforts toward making its portrayal of American Indians linguistically and physically accurate –many Native people are featured prominently, including a Lakota linguistics expert, however inaccuracies still abound but it is nevertheless an enjoyable adventure.