Dances with Wolves (1990)

Writes With a Keyboard

It’s more than apparent that Kevin Costner has such love and reverence for the Hollywood western, as he resurrects the genre one decade on from the infamous flop that was Heaven’s Gate and continuing the long tradition of epic Hollywood filmmaking in Dances With Wolves. I find it refreshing to see westerns which include the Indian point of view and the insight Dances With Wolves provides into the culture and lifestyle of the Sioux as well as hearing a language not often heard is fascinating. The Indians in Dances With Wolves are humanised with moments such as when John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) endures a relatable awkward moment as he sees Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) having sex in the tipi they are sharing, to moments in the film in which the Indian children of the tribe have the desire to be grown up and act older than they are. The Indians, however, are not sanctified either and the film avoids the noble savage stereotype; some members of the tribe are vicious killers and openly express their prejudice. The white man on the other hand is shown killing mass amounts of Buffalo only for their horns, throwing their trash on the ground and polluting the water. More significantly the film shows the Sioux’s rival tribe The Pawnee working in co-operation with the US military to take out the Sioux, presenting the conflict between settlers and natives as not a simple good/bad dichotomy – Dances With Wolves presents both villainy and nobility on both sides.

Although not many people share the fondness I have for Kevin Costner and dismissing him as a dull, monotone actor, I point to Dances With Wolves as a showcase that the man is a great screen presence as he carries a four-hour-long movie on his shoulders with no dialogue for long stretches of time while exuberating his commanding narration voice. The passage of time in which John Dunbar very slowly over the course of a four-hour runtime becomes assimilated into the Sioux culture, learns their language and becomes more emotive and open from his previously quiet, stoic self represents an astounding piece of storytelling. Unfortunately, certain individuals will look upon a movie like Dances With Wolves and decry it as offensive for its display of so-called “cultural appropriation” because apparently, the embracing of other cultures doesn’t represent unity between races but thievery of one culture’s ways by another. Dances With Wolves is a film that speaks to our humanity and shows how race can transcend culture. The scene in which Dunbar is being held by the US soldiers as they assault him, denying him to return to his newfound way of life as well as killing his wolf companion Two Socks and using his diary as toilet paper is beyond painful to watch. I’ve become so attached to the character at this point that I can’t bear to watch everything he has worked towards being destroyed.

I can’t say if Dances with Wolves is a movie intended to carry an environmental message but that is an impression I get from it from the film’s contrast between the resourceful Native Americans to the more polluting white men (Costner would go on to later produce and star in the eco-thriller Waterworld). John Dunbar’s desire to see the western frontier before it disappears is comparable to the last great frontiers today which are apparently at risk of eventually disappearing if modern climate change accounts are anything to go by. John Dunbar is a man who doesn’t want to take advantage of the land but to simply admire and bask in it – who needs CGI when there’s a world of scenic and natural beauty out there begging to be captured on film? Simply look at the film’s majestic landscapes of the badlands accompanied by John Barry’s score which evokes a real sense of wonder. “Why go out to a location when you can just create it on a computer. Isn’t that so much easier?” – sigh. Likewise, the famous buffalo hunt scene is the real deal. How do you recreate a buffalo hunt? Why get huge herds of buffalo of course. Like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, history is brought back to life with herds buffalo as far as the eye can see with stuntmen on horseback right in the middle of it all; pulling off something as huge as this and retaining continuity is astounding. Dances With Wolves doesn’t come off as cold, callous Oscar bait but sadly it is another movie in which its Best Picture win has hurt its reputation; “Dances With Wolves is just that movie which beat Goodfellas”.

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