“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be.”
– Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, Dances With Wolves
Dances With Wolves
The epic revisionist Western that was Kevin Costner’s directing debut clocks in at a hefty 175 minutes, or three and a quarter hours. Or at least the sellout theatrical version does. The director’s cut doesn’t concern itself with such crass commercial pandering and pulls out all the stops, sauntering in at 236 minutes.
It’s become somewhat fashionable to criticise Dances With Wolves in the two decades since its release, and even to despise this. While we’ll get to the criticisms in a moment, they should not be allowed to totally eclipse the real achievements of this film.
Dances With Wolves opens on Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, a Union officer in the American Civil War, in a medical tent. WhenDunbar realises his foot is to be amputated, he instead takes a horse and rides out in front of the enemy stockade in a suicide attempt. When he miraculously survives, and unintentionally inspires a charge, breaking a stalemate and winning the battle.
Cited for bravery and offered his choice of posting,Dunbarelects to be posted to the western frontier, saying he would “like to see it before it’s gone.” Once there, he finds the fort to which he’s been posted deserted, but chooses to stay and man it alone while he waits for reinforcements.
As he waits, he slowly grows closer to the local Sioux Indians (more correctly known as Lakota tribesmen), eventually marrying one of their tribe, Stands-With-A-Fist (Mary McDonnell), an orphan of European settlers who was adopted by the tribe as a child, while developing an animus toward his own people as he witnesses the dark side of encroaching white settlement.
In terms of production, Dances With Wolves in many ways works in the finest traditions of the open plains Western. With its sprawling plot, a soaring orchestral score over glorious location shots from Dakota andWyoming, in many ways it’s reminiscent of the John Ford horse epics of which it is the polar opposite in politics and sentiment.
Its core love stories, between Dunbar and Stands-With-A-Fist, Dunbar and the Lakota, andDunbarand the frontier, are hauntingly affecting, as all are doomed by the steady onward flow of time, and the knowledge that all of them are doomed to pass into history.
In a sense, Dances With Wolves is the extreme end of an arc of moral development in the Western that began with the doubts and subtexts of The Searchers 34 years previously. For the first time in a mainstream film, a native American tribe were the heroes, and all of European settlement the villain. While most Western films had moved well away from tradition of using Indians as antagonists during the 1960s and ‘70s, they had (excepting 1970’s Little Big Man) simply avoided the issue of the American genocide, whereas Dances With Wolves grappled with it directly, as the tragic, brutal and aggravated erasure of entire peoples and their way of life.
But it is an extreme. The main reason it has been so criticised is that it sounded the bell on an entire decade of mawkish and worthy film-making, at the same time earning a great deal of ill-will by beating out Martin Scorcese’s brilliant and uncompromising gangster story Goodfellas.
There is some substance to the criticism. Just as the Indians of the 1950s were two-dimensional merciless murdering savages to be held off by the heroic United States Cavalry, Costner’s Sioux are a pure and spiritual tribe of beautiful, healthy and somehow spotlessly clean noble savage archetypes, while all the white characters other than the thoughtful and ethically anachronistic Lieutenant Dunbar are leering caricatures, greasy, violent and deliberately wasteful.
Not only are the Sioux treated as qualitatively superior to whites in every way, but so are the animals. Costner bonds with both the horse he rides throughout the film, who we are to believe is so faithful and intelligent that it thwarts multiple attempts at theft throughout the film, and a wild wolf Dunbar dubs Two Socks. Both are given fairer treatment and a deeper characterisation than any non-Costner European character throughout the film.
It’s a bit rich to feel too persecuted by this, of course. In more than a century of Westerns, Indians have been soulless villains in perhaps thousands of films and many other manifestations, so leaping to arms after seeing European characters treated the same way in just one would be incredibly hypocritical. More egregious, however, is how Costner circumvents the need to depict occasional villainy on the part of native Americans.
For this purpose, the Pawnee tribe becomes the all-purpose antagonist, murdering any innocent Europeans who need murdering, and attacking and slaughtering the Sioux to add drama and give Dunbar a chance to be their saviour. This is aggravated by the historical fact that the Pawnee were as much victims of Lakota aggression as the other way around.
Despite its flaws, Dances With Wolves is a triumph, and its claim to be the Best Picture of 1990 is an honest one. It marks an important point in the moral development of Western civilization, and should be viewed in that context. Indeed, so successful and significant was Dances With Wolves, it actually persuaded someone to finance and authorise Costner’s next film, the history-making bomb Waterworld.