Title: Dances with Wolves
Release Date: 19 October, 1990
Oscar Ceremony: 25 March, 1991
Director: Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Nominees: Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III, Goodfellas
“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.” – John Dunbar
I have to say, I’m always a bit skeptical of directors who insist on making themselves the star of their own movie (I’m looking at you Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier!) Even if the finished product often works, I can’t help but judge them as egocentric and that kinda ruins it a bit. It almost feels like I’m watching a one-man show. I’m also skeptical of movies that last more than 135 minutes; unless the time is distributed very wisely and there’s a good reason for making it so long, it usually just doesn’t work.
Dances With Wolves is directed and produced by its star, Kevin Costner, and happens to be three hours long. In fact, the library only had the extended version, so I had to sit through FOUR hours. Yeah. You can imagine the mental effort I had to conjure up in order to watch this. The other thing is, I was always confused by the title. Does “dances” refer to a conjugated verb or a plural noun? Who’s dancing? How many wolves are there? Are they good or bad? Why is there wolf-dancing in the first place? So many frustrating ambiguities.
Well, I’m here to tell you two things. First of all, there is no dancing, and there’s only one wolf; the film title is actually Kevin Costner’s designated Sioux name. Second of all, this turned out to be a fantastic movie and even if it had been six hours, I probably wouldn’t have minded one bit.
The movie is set in 1863 America during the Civil War. Kevin Costner plays Lieutenant John J. Dunbar who deeply wants to see the frontier before it’s gone. He manages to get assigned to the “furthermost outpost of the realm”: Fort Sedgewick. He sets way towards his new post with a simple-minded travel companion, but when they finally arrive, they find the fort deserted. Dunbar decides to settle there despite the poor conditions and possible Indian tribe threat. However, the general who sent him there commits suicide shortly after Dunbar’s leave, and his travel companion gets killed by Pawnee Indians. Consequently, there is no record of Dunbar’s location and assignment, so there won’t be any new soldiers arriving to reinforce the post anytime soon. The inevitable happens, and Dunbar comes into contact with Sioux Indians, who initially taunt him and attempt to steal his horse. Their relationship is fairly antagonistic until Dunbar decides to take matters into his own hands and approach them civilly. As you may have guessed, they develop a strong relationship and Dunbar eventually makes his way into their tribe.
The narrative that Dances With Wolves brings to the table inspires us all to be a bit more open-minded. It’s like a sophisticated epic production of Pocahontas for grown-ups, except mostly told from the white man’s point of view. Modern day critics might say that the “white saviour” trope is problematic, but I really didn’t see it that way. Yes, Dunbar was the one to tried to initiate peaceful contact, but it became clear that he also had a lot to learn from the Sioux tribe. Moreover, the Sioux really do not need Dunbar’s help in any way; it’s the other way around. Their values and general way of life is portrayed as far superior than white American culture, and you can really feel it through Dunbar’s narration. He consistently notes that he admires their civilization, and that being in their company is what allowed him to understand who he truly was.
Dances With Wolves makes an effort at promoting a greater understanding and appreciation of Native American culture. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that manages to provide comedic relief without mocking mainstream “Indian” stereotypes. There are so many little moments in the film that will make you smile and laugh, and they always come from a place of love and innocence. Watching the interactions between Dunbar and the Sioux is such a powerful experience, one that makes us wish that our race had taken the time to be a bit more empathetic towards the people who first occupied our land. Unfortunately, there aren’t many successful accounts of white people living in harmony and equality with the natives from back then. In that sense, this is more of a “what if” tale. What if white people weren’t the power-hungry, ignorant and completely self-centered race that they were? Imagine what we could have achieved.
Another thing I really liked about this movie is how it managed to include a love story without it taking away from the film’s main focus. Dunbar falls in love with “Stands With A Fist,” a white woman adopted by the tribe following the murder of her family when she was a little girl. She’s a fantastic, age-appropriate character that adds a lot to the story, and there is a perfect balance between her relationship with Dunbar and the other elements that the film sets out to convey. It doesn’t come off as a sappy romance like in some other films (*coughcough* Out of Africa *coughcough*). Dunbar’s relationship with different people, places and animals all hold an equally valuable place in the plot.
Speaking of which, in addition to promoting diplomacy and acceptance, Dances with Wolves also shows us just how amazing animals can be. We see this through Dunbar’s horse and other animals here and there, but mainly through the famous wolf that inspired the title. He makes several appearances throughout the movie that seem fairly minor, but there’s just something that pulls at your heartstrings every time. Have you ever looked into a dog’s eyes and felt like it just understood you? Without giving too much away, everything about his role in the movie is carefully crafted and the audience grows to develop a bond with him, similarly to Dunbar.
I didn’t spend too much time trying to analyze this movie. All I know is that it sustained my interest from start to finish and left a strong impact. Based on that, I can safely say that I underestimated Kevin Costner and his ability as an actor/director. I truly believe that Dances with Wolves deserved to win, and I’m happy I finally watched it.