The reason I always liked “Dances With Wolves” is that it is a Western that doesn’t really declare itself as one. When the movie was released in 1990, I was too young to appreciate the old Eastwood movies and had absolutely zero interest in the heroics of John Wayne; that was my dad’s generation, and, I guess, his dad’s. I came up in the blockbuster era of Lucas and Spielberg; I had to work to find films outside that realm, foreign films and Woody Allen movies, just to think more outside the box. By the early Nineties, there weren’t any decent modern Westerns – the genre was dead. Not even Eastwood was making them anymore.
When Kevin Costner came along with “Dances,” it was almost regarded as a joke. Westerns no longer sold tickets, and besides, “Kevin’s Gate” was rumored to be three hours long – with subtitles! Yet there was something about it that intrigued me, so one February night, as America went to war against Saddam Hussein in the opening salvos of Desert Storm, I went to see the movie in a cheap theater in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
I was sucked into the story and setting from the opening frames. Costner’s Western was not some phony-looking oater with plywood sets and a static, locked-down camera, but a Civil War drama unlike anything I’d ever seen. Not only were we catapulted into the midst of a battle, but the battle has drawn to a stalemate – the Union soldiers are injured, waiting for surgery, bored, demoralized. Even the officers are at a loss. What’s going on here? What kind of Western is this? (Hollywood, by the way, seems to define a “Western” as anything with horses.)
Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar, himself injured and facing the possibility of amputation, seizes a horse and charges the Rebel picket line. It’s a suicide run; Dunbar at one point lets go the reins and offers himself up as a free target. (Fortunately, the Rebs have awesomely poor aim.) This rallies the troops, and the Southerners are routed in a fight that suggests some of the exciting action still to come. “Dances With Wolves” is off and running.
Dunbar is transformed by his action from a suicidal “hero” to a man on a mission: to see the American frontier “before it’s gone.” He rides off into the wilderness to encounter a tribe of Lakota Sioux. The rest of the film concerns Dunbar’s gradual assimilation into this tribe, adopting a Sioux name (Dances With Wolves) and marrying a white woman whose Sioux husband was killed in combat. Dunbar comes to see the world through the eyes of the Sioux – their enemies, including the encroaching white Army – become his enemies, and the film ends with Dunbar and his wife, Stands With a Fist, riding back East to face charges of treason. It is a sad, ambiguous ending to a film filled with tremendous action and adventure.
Yes, I regard “Dances With Wolves” as an adventure movie, because Costner fills every frame with an exhilarating, sometimes terrifying, sense of exploration. His camera captures a side of the American West I’d never seen before, its epic grandeur, its beauty and terror, its severity and generosity. Whites and Indians are both reduced to specks on this golden, unfurling landscape. Yet he also goes to great lengths to explore the nature of the conflict between the two races, and uses Dunbar as a possible means of reconciliation and understanding. It is a mirage, of course, and something of a fantasy; Europeans mauled the Native Americans, stripped them their of their land and heritage, enslaved them, impregnated them, and wiped them out with diseases imported from across the Atlantic. Costner doesn’t ignore this fact – he portrays Whites as a savage, unforgiving enemy, “not worth speaking to” – but also gives us a story in which one such man, at least, finds common ground with these beautiful, honorable People.
Politics aside, the film plunges into Sioux life, and what an exhilarating experience it was, seeing it for the first time. We come to empathize with the Sioux and understand not only how they lived, but why. We see the Great Horse Culture of the Plains, the buffalo, the cyclical nature of nomadic life. Costner does a great job showing us, too, that Indians were not united – tribes banded together and fought against each other, a kind of genocidal behavior that Whites exploited. There is such a complexity to the story and to the civilizations on display that there is a different meaning to the movie each time you see it.
Critics have complained that Costner goes too easy on the Indians and portrays all Whites as cartoonish villains. I couldn’t disagree more. First of all, this movie argues against the long-standing cinematic portrayal of Indians as bloodthirsty savages, nothing more than cannon fodder for self-righteous white movie stars. (Y’know, the kind of Westerns I lost all interest in watching years before “Dances With Wolves” came out.) Second, there’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker turning a sympathetic eye to a culture that has not only been badly misrepresented over decades, but was systematically destroyed by the U.S. Government. That’s the fucking point. Dunbar goes to see the Indians before they were scraped from the surface of the planet by an army of insurgents. Yes, Dunbar is just as lilywhite as the rest of the Union soldiers, but this isn’t a case of a white man single-handedly saving “colored people” from destruction or ignorance. No, Dunbar fails to save anyone, including himself. The march of Manifest Destiny had begun, and “Dances With Wolves” ultimately reveals itself as a tragedy. Dunbar and his Sioux family – the only people he ever cared about – will be swept into the ash heap of history.
I can’t say enough about Costner’s direction of the film, and I’ll stop right here to say that he deserved his Best Director Oscar just as much as Martin Scorsese would have for “GoodFellas.” Costner took an enormous risk with “Dances With Wolves,” for reasons I outlined above, and came up with a great movie that transcends the boundaries of the mere Western. The movie is about trying to identify with another human being in spite of everything you’ve heard about him (or her), and realizing that everything you know might be wrong. He uses humor, tremendous action, a sweeping camera, and actual Indian actors (speaking Lakota Sioux!) to create a story that is straightforward but not simplistic. Yes, it is a fantasy, and no, life would not have been quite so idyllic for Dunbar in real life, but there’s enough gravity in Costner’s direction to suggest that, in a sense, it really was like this.
I walked out of the theater that February night reverberating like a guitar string. I wanted to learn how to ride, I wanted to see a wide-open vista, I wanted to go on a terrifying adventure that would challenge the way I looked at the world. You can’t ask for much more than that from any movie.
Costner would go on to a varied directing career, seeming to stop with 2003’s more traditional Western “Open Range,” which I will say was probably the best film of its year, as well. If he ever decides to tell another similar story, I will be more than happy to queue up for a ticket.