A jaded Union soldier finds redemption amongst the Sioux.
Directed by Kevin Costner
Starring Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, and Mary McDonnell
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
I was reminded of Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles Vegas show, LOVE, during the first scenes of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. That show opens during WWII and the London Blitz, with four young boys representing the Beatles taking cover within crumbling buildings while exaggerated actors representing old forms of order, like the state and the church, scold and chase them. When those institutions brought their country here, to a point when generational cultural and artistic icons like the Beatles (and Ringo) might have been killed in their youth, what value do those institutions continue to have? When someone like the Union general can say something so cruel to Dunbar and think of it as a compliment, and still be elevated to the top of a vast and powerful organization, why would a person continue to submit to that organization’s will? Mind-boggling and absurd atrocities like the great conflicts of the 19th and 20th century surely made people like Dunbar look around and wonder how they could continue to live like they used to, before entire generations were wiped from the earth or ruined for the future. Dances With Wolves sets Dunbar up to be ripe for a new way of life, and one that he’s come by honestly.
The Civil War has made Dunbar no good for people, but maybe it’s just made him no good for white people. Frederick Jackson Turner famously wrote that the frontier was the great regenerator of America, where men could travel from the debauched interior and remake themselves into whatever they wanted to be. Turner certainly wasn’t thinking that white men would reject their heritage, as Dunbar does, and embrace the Sioux, but he was a romantic man of his times. This slow process still holds up thanks to Costner’s talent for physical comedy and in how it takes its time. Breaking through communication barriers with a new civilization and learning to trust one another is not something that can be conveyed in a montage. Costner gives the viewer his thought process and the Sioux’s, delineating all the ways it can go wrong but still manages to go well. He also makes himself into a figure of fun, a maneuver that balances the scales between who he represents and the Sioux themselves. This long section of the film is inherently watchable, culminating in the buffalo hunt that fully endears Dunbar to the tribe and the viewer to the film.
It’s around this point that things take a steady downward turn before creeping back up by the end. Mary McDonnell’s Stands With a Fist is best as a reluctant translator, doing her finest work when she’s struggling with the English words that she probably hasn’t said out loud in decades. McDonnell sells the difficulty in every syllable in an incredible piece of physical acting. Her character declines from there, alternating between a neurotic mess and a non-entity. Costner as romantic lead isn’t him at his best, so I’ll give him a good chunk of the blame, and I’ll give the rest to a script that forgets about Stands With a Fist to the point that when she and Dunbar are leaving at the end, no one thinks to say goodbye to her despite the fact that she’s been with them far longer than Dunbar.
I also don’t think anything with the Pawnee is important for the theme or plot of Dances With Wolves. They serve as a warlike contrast to the Sioux that only serves to make the film twenty minutes longer than it should be. Dunbar helping the Sioux fight them off is unnecessary, as he’s already in the tribe at this point. The specter of white men coming into the plains is all the threat that’s necessary for our protagonists, since the viewer already knows how this story is going to end. Whites are Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, a ticking menace that we know are eventually coming and a worthy antagonist. The only way the Pawnee are justified is if Dances With Wolves helped Wes Studi get cast Magua as in Last of the Mohicans.
Dances With Wolves picks back up with Dunbar’s brief capture at the hands of the Indian-fighting soldiers, bringing the film to a suitable conclusion and a bittersweet ending. These scenes most aggressively slot Dunbar as a white savior, in which he convinces the tribe to move from their winter camp, but after three hours, it’s a recommendation that the film has earned. I wouldn’t quite slap Dances With Wolves with the white savior/noble savage label anyways. He doesn’t master Sioux culture in an unbelievable way, and it’s easy to imagine Wind In His Hair’s (Rodney A. Grant) early argument to kill Dunbar winning out, placing the Sioux as given to indiscriminate violence but capable of being better, just like everyone. What those ugly tropes do is infantilize native groups while still managing to lionize white people, but here, there are misguided Indians just like there are misguided white people. It’s almost like every human is capable of grace and ugliness, often in the same instance.
Dances With Wolves has a lot of rough edges in need of smoothing, like most films over three hours long. The narration can certainly go with the Pawnee, and Stands With a Fist needs either a larger or a smaller role. It’s no Best Picture, but there is still so much to admire here. Graham Greene is exceptional as Kicking Bird, and I don’t remember loving Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) as much on earlier viewings. The former is such a recognizable character, while the latter is perfectly calibrated as a wizened leader who is long past the point of needing to raise his voice to be heard. I’m a fan of this film despite its issues, issues that are much less serious than I thought they would be. Goodfellas is an all-timer, but losing Best Picture to this isn’t such a hideous insult. B