By the early 1990s, audiences were tired of watching Westerns with the same, tired plotlines. With this week’s movie recommendation, Dances with Wolves (1990), Kevin Costner resuscitated the Western genre by injecting the basic ‘lone traveller’ trope with slick production values and a cultural sensitivity that was uncharacteristic for Hollywood at the time.
After inadvertently meritorious service during the American Civil War, Lt. John Dunbar (played by Costner) earns himself an assignment to a frontier outpost. His solitude is punctuated by visits from a wolf with which he strikes up a friendship, and from members of the nearby Lakota Sioux tribe. The second act of the film (there are five, to my count) deals with Dunbar’s efforts to ingratiate himself into the tribe and overcome language barriers and prejudices held by either side. The third act deals with the obligatory love interest, the fourth act focuses on the Sioux’s efforts to repel their enemies (both Native and non-Native), and the fifth act deals with the Sioux’s bleak future. If you think the final message of the film is overly simplistic, then we must have watched different films.
I’m a fan of Costner’s deadpan acting style. When set against the sweeping panoramas of the American West and the ambitious plot, his understated vocal delivery leavens the film’s other grandiose elements. Costner is accompanied with a great supporting cast, including Mary McDonnell as Dunbar’s paramour Stands With A Fist, and Rodney Grant as the impetuous soldier Wind In His Hair. The real standout performance, however, is by Graham Greene as Kicking Bird, the chief of the Sioux.
In contrariety to his restrained acting, Costner is justifiably thought of as one of the most excessive and self-indulgent directors in the business. At times in the film, you feel as though the soundtrack and camera-work are emphasising the majesty of the scenery in italics, bold, and underline – as if Costner was upset that you averted your eyes from the screen to re-adjust your seating position after three solid hours of viewing. But when Costner’s direction doesn’t resemble a petulant child telling you ‘this scene is important’, Dances holds your attention and engrosses you in a searching, contemplative storyline.
Perhaps as an apologia for Hollywood’s execrable treatment of Native American culture in times past, Dances was extremely well-received.* In addition to filling up real estate in Costner’s trophy cabinet with Academy Awards, studios soon started churning out high-budget and sumptuously-shot Westerns, including Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) as particularly notable examples.
Dances with Wolves is long, and it’ll eat up a solid chunk of your Sunday afternoon. It’s flawed as a film, but it’s very enjoyable. Watch it to see what kind of film beats Scorsese’s GoodFellas for the Best Picture Oscar.
* I’ve been told that John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) are both much more sensitive treatments of Native American culture than anything else Hollywood was producing at the time. However, I can’t pass comment on them, as I’ve seen neither.