Weekend Film Recommendation: Dances with Wolves

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.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 23.56.29After 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.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 23.58.33In 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.

33 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Dances with Wolves”

  1. I think it’s a great film and don’t think it is nearly as flawed as you do. This, and Field of Dreams, are what people are going to remember Costner for.

    One thing I would say is this is a film that is really big, in every sense of the word (budget, star, ambition, musical score, cinematography, subject matter, scope of the plot, setting). I saw it on a huge screen with a 70 mm negative and 6-track sound when it came out, and it very much benefits from that, where you can see those huge western vistas and ensemble shots, and hear John Barry’s score. Watching it on a laptop screen might be enjoyable, but isn’t going to be the same experience as seeing it in a theater or a really good home theater setup, so I would really urge people to find a way to experience this film on a large screen with loud sound.

    1. This, and Field of Dreams, are what people are going to remember Costner for.

      Two words: Bull. Durham.

      1. Also Waterworld. It’s a terrible film, but it’s memorable, and occasionally unintentionally funny.

        Also, maybe not Field Of Dreams. You can tell from watching it that it was a pretty good short story, and should have been left that way.

        1. Umm…. Field of Dreams was based on a novel, Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. Kinsella wrote a lot of short stories, but this wasn’t one of them.

      2. I like Bull Durham, but comedies tend to have less staying power. I remember when the AFI ranked “Some Like It Hot” the best comedy of all time. When’s the last time anyone you know referenced any joke in “Some Like It Hot”? The Marx Brothers have held up fairly well, but look at something like the Thin Man series– hugely successful movies in their time, extremely funny, and nobody remembers them anymore.

        So no, I don’t think Bull Durham’s going to be in the nation’s collective memory.

        1. I agree with your general thrust, but I must take objection to this:

          When’s the last time anyone you know referenced any joke in “Some Like It Hot”

          Seems to me, I see references to the “nobody’s perfect” gag at least once a month (OK, at least a dozen times a year, spaced more irregularly).

          Doesn’t mean the movie is a classic with a timeless ability to amuse people of different generations; just that it’s got one good gag that’s often useful as a cultural referent. But I do hear it referenced!

        2. I’m not sure if you follow sports, because Bull Durham remains revered among fans. ESPN did a large retrospective for the 25 anniversary of its release earlier this year.

          1. Revered? I watch plenty of baseball, know a lot of people who do as well, and none of us ever bring up that movie.

            Airplane! is a revered comedy. Bull Durham is merely good.

        3. “the Thin Man series– hugely successful movies in their time, extremely funny, and nobody remembers them anymore.”

          They do if they do crossword puzzles. Also, I own the complete set on DVD.

          1. I love them. But they are a fetish. There was a time when Nick and Nora Charles were household names. Now, someone releases a film called “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” and most Americans don’t even get the reference.

  2. While “Last of the Mohicans” evidently shares some themes with, and tries to capitalize on
    the popularity of, Dances with Wolves, it would seem to be a pretty big stretch to classify
    it as a Western, when it’s set in the Northeast and in a much earlier period (1750s).

    1. Well one could call it an American frontier film, which puts it in pretty much the same boat as a western…

      1. I think what “Mohicans” shares with “Dances” is quite a lot – in particular,
        the main character being of European descent, but closely involved with
        Native American culture – but that those shared elements are not at all common
        in what we normally think of as “Western movies”. A classic Western is about
        cowboys, ranchers, outlaws, and lawmen, with “Indians” usually present only
        as a threat. “Mohicans” doesn’t fit that pattern – and doesn’t *look* like a
        Western either, since it’s set in the damp forests of the Northeast, rather than the
        arid grassland of the West.

        So I definitely buy the argument that the success of “Dances” influenced the
        production of “Mohicans”, I just think it’s a stretch to lump that in with a
        revival of the Western genre. “Unforgiven” on the other hand, is a great movie
        which is very explicitly positioned both as a Western and as a deconstruction and
        ironic commentary on the genre – showing the gunfights, but showing them as
        basically futile (because the cowboys have offered restitution) and squalid
        (shooting an unarmed man with his pants down point-blank). A much better, and
        deeper, and funnier, movie than “Mohicans” IMO, though as a fan of Irish music I loved the
        use of Clannad’s music in “Mohicans”.

    1. Supposedly the reaction to that review was so extreme, the New Yorker had to send people a letter of apology. Though I haven’t been able to find the actual text of that letter anywhere online. It seems to have disappeared into history or legend.

      1. I’ve seen references to the New Yorker apology letter, but I find the story far fetched, with regard to both New Yorker readers and New Yorker editors.

  3. Great movies of ’92:

    Dancing with the Enemy
    Sleeping with the Lambs
    Silence of the Wolves

    Or is that Sleeping with Wolves and
    Silence of the Enemy and
    Dancing With Lambs

  4. Let’s see…a movie with wolves, white folks, indigenous folks, wilderness, animals, range of human emotions, and oh, a plot to tie all together:

    Never Cry Wolf.

  5. Truly great film. I saw this at the movies and it was just amazing. The supporting cast was amazing too. If you have not seen this film, it is a definite must see. And as others have mentioned Field of Dreams is also essential and amazing for any baseball fan or any father and son.

  6. I know the movie was well received, but I saw it as a reiteration of the same old trope, that white men are better at everything, even at being non-white. Like Tom Cruise is a better samurai than the Japanese raised to it from childhood. Blonde Sheena is a better black woman than the African natives. Jake Sully is a better blue alien than the native blue aliens. Costner is a better Indian than the actual Indians. Any others you can think of?

    1. What you’re saying is, of course, true, but I prefer to see the glass as half-full.

      We’ve moved from a time when this sort of thing was part of the fabric of society and informed insane theories of society and diplomacy (“Civilization follows the sun”, the Imperial Cruise, Nazism) to it being present in the background but not fetishized (“Bridge over the River Kwai”, “Khartoum”, and similar movies of the 60s) to an acceptance in a public way that the Native Americans were screwed over (at least part of what is going on in “Dances with Wolves”) to the trope you mention of the white superman being the brunt of jokes (the “Dances with Smurfs” episode of “South Park” which was, as far as I know, the first public mention of the parallels between “Dances with Wolves” and “Avatar”).

      This is definitely progress.
      Movies are a conservative medium (as you’d expect from the budgets involved) but I imagine the greater innovation in TV will at some point result in counter versions of the trope, played not for laughs and to reaffirm the status quo (ie “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) but simply as an interesting part of the storyline. I could imagine, for example, a very interesting TV mini-series, something like Dances with Wolves, but perhaps set fifty years earlier and with the superman character being an escaped black slave…

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