As Kevin Costner’s directorial debut, Dances with Wolves is an accomplishment of the highest order. It earned seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Score, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Sound, and Film Editing. Though Costner fell from Hollywood’s good graces for a time since then, Dances with Wolves stands as a triumph of which he can always be proud. That being said, the end of this film irritates me.
I could claim that I don’t have a problem with a film being realistic, but I suppose I do, at least when it’s done as this film was. It presents a unique lifestyle that has almost completely disappeared and remains fascinating even when the pace may seem slow. Yet it goes beyond this to make you genuinely care for various things (John’s journal, his horse Cisco, his lupine pal Two Socks), only to jerk the rug out from under you, to desecrate these elements for the sake of proving how bad the white man was. I’m not going to argue with history; I am sympathetic to the fact that the Native Americans suffered much over the years, including the loss of their way of life, but this film seems so one-sided that it feels emotionally manipulative by the end.
On the other hand, I can pick up on a number of latent issues that the film doesn’t address directly. For instance, Dunbar technically did desert his post at the fort; however good his reasons were, he was a deserter, certainly at fault in that regard.
Though the film has more obvious intentions (Sioux good, Pawnee and white man bad except for John), the main message I choose to take from the film and its historical context is the importance of prudence and an open mind. One thing that bothers me is how the soldiers shot John at first sight, not even thinking to assess his intentions. They no doubt had only heard tales of the atrocities committed by hostile Indians, which, to be fair, are also presented in the film, though not by the Sioux. Likewise, the Sioux warrior Wind In His Hair’s first reaction to John’s presence is to kill him, but Kicking Bird was wise enough to attempt diplomacy, as John was too. Attacking and asking questions later (if at all) only produced pain and heartache, but both sides’ willingness to come to a mutual understanding sparked friendship and respect.
All this discussion could have been avoided if the filmmakers had left out about twenty minutes of the soldiers’ cruelty, as well as some crude and weird elements at the beginning. The middle of the film, in which John learns the ways of the Sioux, is a pleasure to watch, even with most of the dialogue in the Lakota language. I liked the scene in which Kicking Bird is surprised when he looks through John’s telescope, since it was recycled a year later in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Costner switching roles as the one looking shocked at this strange invention. The magnificent buffalo hunt (featuring a real buffalo herd) and the battle between the Sioux and Pawnee are wonders to behold and were both difficult and dangerous to film. Kevin Costner as Dunbar doesn’t have that much of a personality, but that’s all right since he acts as a decent everyman character through whom the audience is also exposed to the Sioux camp. Mary McDonnell is quite believable as Stands with a Fist, and Graham Greene is also excellent as the reasonable medicine man Kicking Bird.
I’ve visited Rapid City, South Dakota, where part of the film was shot, including the set for Fort Hays, and having actually seen the outdated buildings and the rolling, wide-open prairies helped me appreciate the film and its setting even more. It may frustrate me that the soldiers in the film defile what it urges viewers to cherish, but Dances with Wolves is still a film of great historical significance that ought to be seen. Its acting, score, and historical importance make it a classic of the western genre, focusing more on the Indians than on the cowboys.
Best line: (Wind In His Hair, as Dunbar acts like a buffalo to get his point across) “His mind is gone.”Artistry: 9 Characters/Actors: 9 Entertainment: 7 Visual Effects: 8 Originality: 8 Watchability: 5 Other (language and aforementioned issues): -6 TOTAL: 40 out of 60
Next: #214 – Memphis Belle
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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