Dances with Wolves was the movie event of 1990. I remember when it came out and it was the movie that everyone was talking about. Personally, I remember seeing it the year it came out and being underwhelmed. Perhaps it was because I had heard too much hype over it. Perhaps it was because I saw it at the drive in, and that’s rarely a recipe for a good theater-going experience, at least as far as actually seeing the movie goes. It also didn’t help that in the ensuing years Kevin Costner would star in and produce a series of films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld that demonstrated his lack of acting chops and poor taste in creating his own material. The near universal derision for those and other Costner projects only reinforced my belief that I did not need to go out of my way for a second viewing of Dances with Wolves, especially with its 3-hour running time.
Then I was forced to watch it this past weekend because it was next in line as a Best Picture winner, and I was not looking forward to it in the least. “Why, oh why couldn’t I be watching Goodfellas this weekend?” I lamented. Then I finally sat down and actually started watching Dances with Wolves. To say that it was better than I remembered would be an understatement. This is an outstanding and exceptional film that reminds me that there are still some stories that are best told through cinema, and that there was an art and a craft to cinematic storytelling prior to CG and digital effects. From its iconic buffalo hunt scene to its deep thematic positions on humanity and prejudice, this is a film that has a loud voice, and that voice needs to be heard today just as loudly as it did 25 years ago.
The film is about John Dunbar (Costner), a Lieutenant in the Union army during the Civil War. The film opens with him severely wounded, and the only thing that keeps the surgeon from amputating his foot is the lack of ether and time. In an attempt to kill himself, he mounts a horse and rides in front of the Confederate line daring them to shoot him. They all take shots, but none of them hit him. As a Confederate sharp-shooter lines up a shot, Dunbar’s men start shooting and take the Confederate position that had been stalemated for several days. A general overseeing the battle promises his personal surgeon to Dunbar in order to save his foot, and then offers Dunbar any assignment he would like. Wanting to see the Frontier “before it’s gone” he volunteers for a post out west.
Dunbar’s guide brings him to an abandoned fort. On the trek there, Dunbar asks him about Indians, and the guide responds that they’re nothing but beggars and thieves and he should do his best to avoid them. As Dunbar brings the fort back to a livable state he befriends a wolf with two white front paws that he affectionately names Two Socks. He then makes contact with a local Sioux tribe when Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) shows up at the fort and tries to steal his horse while Dunbar bathes in a nearby pond. Dunbar startles Kicking Bird by charging him, still naked, and Kicking Bird runs away on his own horse. Kicking Bird alerts his tribe to Dunbar’s presence and other members of the tribe start showing up at the fort to harass Dunbar and try to steal his horse. The final time this happens, Dunbar is confronted angrily by one of the Native Americans who shouts at Dunbar in his own language, “I am Wind In His Hair! And I do not fear you!” Wind In His Hair shouts this at Dunbar a couple of times before angrily riding away.
Narrating as though writing in his journal, Dunbar decides at this point that he must go and meet with the tribe, as he believes that he has become a target. He would like to negotiate some sort of peaceful settlement with them, and on his way he comes across a woman who appears to be injured. She passes out and he carries her on his horse to the tribal village where Wind In His Hair angrily pulls her off of the horse and tells him that he is not welcome. Then members of the tribe go out to see Dunbar, and he starts to communicate with them by pantomiming a buffalo. Kicking Bird figures out what he’s doing and a dialogue slowly starts to develop.
Over the course of the ensuing months, Dunbar slowly becomes acquainted with the tribe and with their traditions. He writes in his journal that the Indians are nothing like he was lead to believe. They are a warm, caring and good-humored people who live rich and deep lives and are connected in a deep way to the environment that surrounds them. He also finds out that the woman he saved is named Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), and she’s a white woman who has been living with the tribe since Kicking Bird saved her after her family was killed by marauding Pawnee when she was a little girl. She has been in mourning since the death of her husband who was good friends with Wind In His Hair, but she is attracted to Dunbar after initially being afraid that he would take her away, and he is attracted to her as well.
Dunbar begins to assimilate to the Sioux culture and accompanies them on a buffalo hunt. He eventually befriends Wind In His Hair and becomes a trusted member of the tribe. He learns their traditions and then he arms them with rifles from the camp to defend them from the Pawnee. Ultimately Kicking Bird tells Stands With A Fist that she no longer needs to mourn and that opens the door for her to marry Dunbar, who the tribe has now named Dances With Wolves due to his relationship with Two Socks.
Finally Dunbar has completely assimilated into the tribe and is going to move with them to their winter camp. Remembering that he left his journal at the camp and that the journal could serve as a road map to wherever the tribe goes, he convinces Stands With A Fist, Wind In His Hair and Kicking Bird that he’ll return to the fort, retrieve the journal and catch up with them. However, he arrives to the fort to discover that a regiment of Union soldiers has arrived. Mistaking him for an Indian, they attack him and take him into custody. When he refuses to tell them where the tribe is going and starts speaking in the Sioux language, they brand him a traitor and arrange for him to be shipped to headquarters. On the ride back, Wind In His Hair and others from the tribe attack and kill the soldiers, freeing Dunbar. Then, in what might be the ultimate MacGuffin, the journal floats down a river, dropped by one of the dead soldiers who had found it and had been tearing out the pages to use as toilet paper because he could not read.
Back at the winter camp, Dunbar tells the chief and Kicking Bird that the soldiers will be searching for him and he has to go away so that they won’t find the tribe as well. He and Stands With A Fist walk away from the tribe as Wind In His Hair Yells, “Dances With Wolves! I am Wind In His Hair! Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?” it is one of the most powerful and emotionally gripping endings to a film that I have ever seen.
The thing that struck me hard about this film is how strong it is thematically. Now, it is very on the nose, there’s no question about that. However this is such a compelling film because, like Platoon a few years earlier with the Vietnam War, Dances With Wolves forces us to take a hard look at a period of our history about which we should be less than proud. While it doesn’t sugar coat the Native American lifestyle, it does show them living a balanced existence with the environment and as a people who couldn’t have been more misunderstood by the Americans who ventured westward.
Director Kevin Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake managed to get the film to force us to take that look by crafting a story arc that started out as a fish-out-of-water story and transitioned to one of acceptance and bridge building. One man was able to overcome his prejudices and create an atmosphere where mutual understanding as well as learning could not only be possible, but could thrive. What Dunbar ends up finding out is that the Native Americans are human beings. Not only that, but they were consistently some of the finest human beings that he had ever had the pleasure to know. He tries to explain this to the other whites when he arrives at the fort, but he’s only met with ignorance and derision.
This is a transitional film. As such it has a duality of emotions that adds to its richness and depth. As we’re rooting for Dunbar to live a peaceful life with the Sioux we simultaneously know that any peaceful life with them will be impossible because we know that this entire way of life is only a few short years from being completely eliminated. There is a lot of cruel irony in this film, and that overarching theme is one of the examples of that. Another example is when they find out that the Pawnee are going to attack the village while the warriors are away. Dunbar races back to the fort and gets rifles to arm the Sioux so that they can defend themselves. Using modern weapons, the Sioux beat back the Pawnee and win a great victory. However, Costner and Blake did an outstanding job of presenting the feeling that the victory was a hollow one because by accepting modernity the tribe has lost something that, while intangible, was very valuable. That is outstanding storytelling, and any aspiring screenwriter could learn a lot from watching this film.
Not only is this film an example of excellent storytelling, but it is also an example of outstanding filmmaking technique. Similar to previous Best Picture Winners Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi and Out of Africa, this film was shot in a way to make people looks small in a vast landscape. I felt that Costner and Director of Photography Dean Semler did a great job of infusing those shots into the story in a similar way to Lawrence of Arabia. The landscape almost became a character rather than a backdrop.
Finally I have to mention something about the buffalo hunt scene. In a lot of ways, this scene reminded me of the chariot race in Ben Hur. I remember watching that for the first time, having seen clips of the chariot race before, but not having any real context for it. Then seeing it in the greater context of the entire film made it one of the most breathtaking and exciting scenes ever committed to film. I believe the same idea applies to the buffalo hunt scene in Dances With Wolves. It’s become somewhat iconic over the years and it’s the scene that people show when talking about his film. However when taken in the context of the entire film, this is an amazing scene. The way it plays out, the way it’s shot and the dramatic purpose it serves in the story really make it, in my opinion, one of the great scenes in the history of cinema.
We’ve learned in a previous scene that the tribe is concerned that they’ve not yet seen any buffalo and they’re worried about it. Then they come across some buffalo carcasses that have been skinned and left to rot by white hunters. Then they finally come across the herd and the hunt has to be seen in order to be fully appreciated. It is this scene where Dunbar really proves his worth to the tribe and where his assimilation begins. In the context of the Hero’s Journey, the buffalo hunt is the Ordeal, and sets the story in a different direction where Dunbar has now become a part of the tribe and now wants to protect it.
One other sad irony of seeing this film was that the day I was watching it, Michael Blake passed away, succumbing to a long illness. He wrote the novel and then adapted it into the screenplay that Costner would direct and produce. His screenplay would also win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it is a fine screenplay indeed. It has a clear Hero’s Journey and it is filled with subtext, thematic elements and emotion that make it a dramatic story that is a story very well-told.
Did the Academy get it right?
Believe it or not, this is actually a tough one for me because 1990 also saw the release of a little film called Goodfellas. In fact, 1990 had a very strong group of Best Picture nominees. Awakenings was a dramatic and emotional story starring Robin Williams as a doctor trying desperately to come up with a cure for a disease that was debilitating a character played by Robert De Niro. The Godfather Part III was also released that year, but did not remotely hold up to the quality of its predecessors in the series, and became the only film in the series not to win the Academy’s highest honor, and rightly so. One of the most popular films of the year was Ghost, and it was a fine film, to be sure. It also produced its own moments that would become iconic ones in the pantheon of American cinema, but Dances With Wolves and Goodfellas were two films that were on an entirely different level. Which one was better and more deserving of Best Picture? If you had asked me a couple of days ago, I would have said Goodfellas hands down. Then I saw Dances With Wolves, and I was certain that it was the best film of the year. However, having not seen Goodfellas for quite a while, I watched it the following night, and my honest answer now is that it’s a coin flip. Either one of these films could have won, and there would be no controversy. If forced to make a choice, I would actually give Dances With Wolves a slight edge due to the fact that I think it’s stronger thematically, elicits more of an emotional response and is crafted in a way that is pure cinema. Goodfellas is a well-crafted film, but it’s a signature Martin Scorsese film. It has many of the conventions and techniques that became almost as unique as his fingerprints when it comes to identifiable traits in making a film. With all that said, and while I don’t think it was a slam dunk, I do believe that the Academy got it right in 1990 with Dances With Wolves.