Before the debacle of The Postman or Waterworld, Kevin Costner directed the movie that helped him to fall in love with the epic. Ironically, Dances with Wolves was a seriously entertaining and thought provoking movie to be followed up by such flops. But at the time Costner was at the height of his popularity, and his directorial debut was indeed quite surprising.
Despite some historical inaccuracies, Dances can be applauded for its portrayal of the Native American in direct opposition to their traditional portrayal in Westerns. Indeed, Dances was deeply appreciated by many Native American groups as a refreshing change. When the credits roll, one cannot help but walk away with an appreciation for the 'Indians' and their terrible treatment by the US Army. Dunbar is also a unique character that exists outside of historical fact. He comes to us as a clean slate born through his act of suicidal courage. After his rebirth, Dunbar possesses the one quality needed to cut through the entrenched racism of his time: He is able to look another man in the eye, and see the man, rather than his attitudes about the man.
It is partially with its historical inaccuracies intact that Dances is so groundbreaking. By portraying Lieutenant John J Dunbar (Costner) as an open minded (read, not racist) Union soldier, and the Sioux Indians as curious tribesmen completely unaware of white culture, we get a unique idea of what the meeting between white and native-american culture could have been like. I, for one, do not discount the movie for this fact. History is just that, a story, and is far more valuable for its ability to help us understand the motives and circumstances of people of the past. In light of the traditional Western, Dances gives us a new view of the plains Indians and their relation to white infiltration that is important to note.
To summarize, the movie starts out in the midst of a battle between Confederate and Union forces. Dunbar has been wounded in the leg, and the doctors only have time to amputate in order to save him. Rather than lose his leg, Dunbar would rather lose his life, and pulls off a reckless diversion for the Union side to gain the edge in the battle. He is rewarded with any post he chooses, and Dunbar chooses the frontier because he wants to see it before it disappears. What follows is Dunbar being posted to an abandoned fort (Fort Sedgwick) with only a local Sioux tribe for company. The story mostly focuses on his perception of Sioux culture and the interaction between the two cultures, culminating in a violent showdown between the Sioux and Union soldiers. Obviously, in a three hour movie a lot more happens, but then, I've always hated reviews that blow an entire movie's plot. If you haven't seen it yet, do. The film's soundtrack and cinematography are right up on the same caliber as the plot and the acting.
Lieutenant John J Dunbar
Director: Kevin Costner
Producers: Jim Wilson and Kevin Costner
Screenplay: Michael Blake, based on his novel
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Music: John Barry
U.S. Distributor: Orion Pictures
Running time: 181 minutes, PG-13
- Kevin Costner
Stands With a Fist
- Mary McDonnell
- Graham Greene
- Tantoo Cardinal
Wind in His Hair
- Rodney A. Grant
- Floyd Red Crow Westerman
- Robert Pastorelli
7/25/03 update upon repeat viewing
:: spoilers follow ::
The white man's unstoppable encroachment of the prairie and the frontier is easily comparable to Western excess, with modern America of course the embodiment of gross over-consumption. The full version sees Timmons throwing trash out of the wagon without regard, Dunbar finds about a dozen animals killed for unknown reasons and left to poison the fort's water, and then there is of course the wasteful and heartless slaughter of the buffalo. Dunbar's evolution sees him throwing off the ways of the 'whites' and embracing the harmonious life of the Sioux. His detachment from white culture progresses as he witnesses the aforementioned events culminating in the buffalo hunt.
The plot literally changes his character by changing his clothes, maybe to make it easy for the audience to follow his transformation. Even before that transpires the audience is given visual clues of the changes to come, when upon interrupting his future wife's suicide ritual he uses the American flag as a tourniquet. He is then recognised as a man with medicine and given the gift of the buffalo skin, then he trades his jacket for Wind in his Hair's chest ornamentation (armor?) and his hat for a Sioux knife. After the defensive battle against the Pawnee and his marriage to Stands with a Fist, he has completely absorbed himself within the Sioux community much like his wife had before him. It will take nothing less than the unflappable force of American military, arrogance and violence to tear him from that world. But rather than end the movie on the idealistic notion that he can get away from this world, the conclusion of the film necessitates that he must leave both worlds, thankfully at least with his wife.
On a repeat viewing I found it interesting to note the striking resemblance between the character of John Dunbar and Thoreau. Both men sought solitude and kept a meticulous record of the events that transpired on paper. Both men gained great insight because of their experience, and in a way that they never suspected. Now I have to go reread Walden.