Editor’s Notes: This month marks the 25th Anniversary of Dances with Wolves.
Over the past 25 years, the reputation of Dances with Wolves has suffered quite a bit. It’s become known less as its own film as more as “The film that wrongfully beat Goodfellas for Best Picture”, like How Green Was My Valley has become known simply as “The film that beat Citizen Kane” instead of the great picture it really is. The truth is that Dances with Wolves made only one mistake: it was released the same year as Goodfellas. I went into great detail last month as to why Goodfellas is a great movie and now I make a similar plea for Dances with Wolves. There is no reason to hate one if you love the other, that kind of thinking is limiting and small minded.
First and foremost, I should note that I’ll be discussing the now standard 233 minute cut of the film, not the theatrical 181-minute version since a) the nearly 4-hour cut is now the only cut that is available and b) it’s even better than the theatrical cut.
The story is that of John Dunbar (Kevin Costner, who also made his directorial debut with the film), a Union lieutenant who, in an attempt to commit suicide after nearly losing his leg to the “Let’s amputate before there’s an infection” mentality of military surgery of the time and ends up rallying troops to a victory after a long standstill. He’s decorated and awarded his choice of any post he wishes, which is out on the frontier which he wants to see “before it’s gone”.
Upon arrival, he sees the post deserted but he decides to stay anyway. With provisions for an entire company to himself, he doesn’t need to be resupplied for some time, which is fortunate considering his travel companion Timmons (Robert Pastorelli) is killed by Native Americans on his way back to the larger post some 70-80 miles away. Over time, he befriends a wolf and begins a peaceful dialogue with a tribe of Lakota Sioux nearby. During the next few months, Dunbar is welcomed into the tribe by medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Green) and falls in love with Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was largely raised by the Sioux tribe (though not captured).
The simplicity of the plot, written by Michael Blake based on his own novel, is largely what propels the film. The pace is what makes it captivating. Costner realized that the story needed to play out over a long period of time and somehow managed to pace the film both leisurely and lightning fast at the same time. While he knows to take his time with many of the scenes, letting them play out without rushing, he also keeps the film moving through what would be lulls in other films. What results is mesmerizing and utterly captivating from beginning to end.
Costner is also acutely aware of how to frame each shot to its maximum potential, utilizing negative space when showing the wide, unspoiled landscape and cramming in people into a large but intimate tee-pee during celebrations and tribal meetings. He fills his frame with the beautiful expanse of what became South Dakota while also bringing us in close for intimate scenes. We feel Dunbar’s loneliness at the fort and his joy when he’s with the people and understand him fully when he says he never knew who John Dunbar really was because he was always Dances with Wolves and understood himself completely as that person.
Costner made a bold decision to launch his directorial career with such a grand epic. Many would have started off smaller to get the feel for directing before launching such an audacious endeavor, but Costner plunged in head first into a sweeping tale that could rightfully be called the American Lawrence of Arabia. His excellent choices as director outweigh his questionable decisions he made as an actor.
And that brings us to the only perceivable weakness in the film: Kevin Costner’s performance. His best choice was in how he narrated the story, from the journal that he was writing. It made the voice-over make sense and more than that, the way he reads it, like someone with very little formal education, over emphasizing the reading and missing grammar cues. Likely, Dunbar had maybe at most gotten to 6th or 7th grade, possibly further as he was a lieutenant in the army. The trouble comes when Costner has to try to pull off heavier scenes both with McDonnell and with some of the tribal elders. Costner just doesn’t have the ability to pull off the gravity needed for these scenes, which is unfortunate because they are so crucial to the story. Costner’s not a bad actor by any means, he just doesn’t have what it takes to be completely believable in a handful of important scenes. The saving grace is that everyone else does have the ability to pull off those scenes and they all carry him through, saving each and every one that would have dragged the picture down if it had been solely up to Costner. This is a minor quibble, and not one that undoes any of the might and majesty of the film, but it did need to be said.
Apart from the sweeping story, wonderful supporting performance, majestic cinematography by Dean Semler (who also shot The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), Dances with Wolves is a revolutionary western that not only depicts Native Americans with reverence and honor, it is the first film to feature genuine Native American language instead of broken English or gobbledygook that was persistent in westerns from the inception of the genre (even the silent had intertitles that had some nonsense like ‘Me no like’ as if they were Tarzan and not just people learning a different language). The care novelist/screenwriter Michael Blake took in presenting Native Americans in this way is stunning and Costner not backing down when trying to get funding for the film, insisting that the film be subtitled while they speak their native language instead of making everyone speak English right away. The time Dunbar takes to learn Sioux and that some of them in turn learn English to speak with him is part of the enthralling journey that is this film. This level of admiration for the Native Americans is unprecedented in film, and to this day has really not seen an equal with the exception of Terrance Malick’s The New World, which is not a western but still respects the Native Americans while telling the story of the beginning of their destruction after white settlers started to come to the new world. Dances with Wolves sets itself apart by not demonizing the Native Americans, but respecting them. If anything can be said about the attitude of the film, it could be said that it is anti-white or at least anti-American expansion. The depiction of the soldiers that come to occupy the fort after Dunbar abandons it may be cruel, but it’s not baseless.
Blake and Costner also don’t rush over any of the little character bits that most films of this magnitude would have. Over the course of the nearly four-hour film, we are as attached to Dunbar’s wolf friend, whom he names Two Socks, and his horse Cisco as we are to him and Kicking Bird and Stands with a Fist and Wind in His Hair. There are no neglected characters and even the animals have personalities and form bonds with the audience.
The fact that Dances with Wolves suffers the wrath of so many simply because of the choices of a majority of a minority (the voting members of the Academy) is ridiculous. What is equally ridiculous is immediately writing it off as ‘Oscar bait’ because it is outside of what Costner had been known for prior to it. Such a term is cynical and dismissive of sometimes great work just because it is something that has been known to attract Academy votes. No filmmaker or actor or writer ever makes a film because they think it will win them an award. They make the film because they like and believe in the story and believe it to be one worth telling and telling well. If that garners award support and those awards boost the awareness of the film and the story, so much the better as then it reaches a wider audience and the story can live on. Simply dismissing a film because it has the potential to win awards is the same as ignoring a genre because it’s been deemed not worthy of attention, like science fiction or fantasy or even westerns.
While Dances with Wolves isn’t on the level of some of the all-time greats like Citizen Kane or Casablanca or The Godfather, that doesn’t mean that it is a terrible picture. Quite the contrary, really. It is a great film, and deserves to be remembered not for what film it beat at the Oscars but for the film it is itself, and that film is an engaging, thoughtful, touching, captivating and enduring film that while it is not perfect, it’s closer than most films get and that is what the legacy and reputation of Dances with Wolves should be.