Dances with Wolves: Kevin Costner directs and stars in this grand, gorgeous & ‘going native’ Western epic

Dances with Wolves (1990) is a sweeping Western epic directed by, and starring Kevin Costner. This was Costner’s directorial debut and this Oscar winning film was adapted from a novel by Michael Blake.

Kevin Costner, by his own admission, does not make cutting-edge movies. His films are all ‘right down the middle.’ His ambition as both actor and director has always been to make good commercial films, sincerely and with conviction. The word ‘commercial’ is very important to understand the kind of films Costner makes. He makes movies that fall into the tradition of the classical Hollywood mainstream\studio filmmaking. In other words, he does not make “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” or “Pulp Fiction.” His films are very much in the vein of what John Ford, William Wyler and Frank Capra makes; and the heroes he plays are very traditional, squeaky clean & heroic, ‘Gary Cooper\James Stewart’ types. And it’s these ‘commercial’ sensibilities and his ‘traditional hero’ screen persona that made him a huge international movie superstar who had a dream run at the box office from late ’80s to the mid ’90s; starting with “The Untouchables” in 1987 to “The Bodyguard” in 1992, he had a string of hit films that received both critical and audience acclaim. “Dances with Wolves,” which he made in 1990 is the crown-jewel in his career; he made his directorial debut with this film, and he had the guts to invest his own money & act in a 3 hr. plus Western at a time when Western genre was considered dead. That was not all, he was going to flip the usual Cowboys Vs Indians narrative of the traditional Western, and portray the Native Americans in a positive light.

The film was based on a novel written by Michael Blake, with whom Costner had worked at the start of his career. Blake had originally written it as a screenplay, but when Blake couldn’t find buyers for the script he turned it into a novel. Costner, who had read the original screenplay and liked it, bought the screen rights to the novel. The novel told the story of Civil war soldier, John J. Dunbar who gets a posting on the Western frontier, and develops a close bond with the Plains Indian tribe of Sioux. Costner decided to produce & direct the film adaptation himself after he realized that no other producer or director had the passion for the subject that he had for it. Eschewing the traditional practice of ‘White’ actors playing natives, he cast actors who were from natives tribes to play the Native characters in the film; for greater authenticity, he used the Lakota Sioux dialect, which meant that subtitles had to be used for a majority of the film- a practice considered hurtful for ta film’s commercial possibilities. These things did not deter Costner, who started making the film on a modest $15 million budget. But, as a director, Costner proved to be a painstaking perfectionist, who took the time and effort to get every detail of the film right; this meant that the budget started ballooning, and it had reached a healthy $22 million by the time the movie wrapped. The film was dubbed “Kevin’s Gate” by film industry pundits in reference to Michael Cimino’s over budget Western epic, Heaven’s Gate (1980) that flopped so badly that it killed the Western genre and bankrupted its studio, United Artists; “Dances with Wolves” was also expected to meet the same fate. But to everyone’s surprise the film turned out to be a critical and commercial smash upon release, grossing more that $400 million worldwide and garnering 7 Oscars, including Best Picture & Best Director for Costner; it also ended up revitalizing the ‘Western’ genre, and a lot of Westerns were made post the success of this film.

“Dances with Wolves” opens in the middle of the American civil war . The year is 1863, and Union soldier, 1st Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Costner) is severely wounded in the battle at St. David’s Field in Tennessee. Realizing that the army surgeon is going to amputate his foot, and choosing to die in the battlefield rather than live out his life as a cripple, Dunbar mounts his horse, “Cisco”, and rides out into the battle field. He makes a suicidal dash through the middle of the field, which distracts the attention of the Confederate soldiers towards him. As every member of the Confederate army concentrates on shooting him down, the Union army uses the opportunity to mount a surprise attack and defeat the Confederates. For his uncommon Valor, Dunbar receives both a citation for bravery and medical care that allows him to keep his foot. He is subsequently awarded Cisco, the horse that carried him during his suicide attempt, and his choice of posting. Dunbar requests a transfer to the western frontier, so he can ‘see it before it disappears’. Dunbar’s new commander, Major Fambrough, an eccentric & unhinged officer, posts Dunbar to Fort Sedgewick, the farthest outpost in his command. Soon after giving Dunbar his orders, Fambrough commits suicide by shooting himself. Dunbar arrives at Fort Sedgewick with Timmons, a mule-wagon provisioner; they find the fort deserted, with absolutely no soldiers or supplies present. Despite being alone, Dunbar insists on staying, and forces Timmons to unload the supplies from the wagon.

Dunbar’s first days at the fort are spend in rebuilding and restocking it; he welcomes the solitude that the place provides him, and starts recording many of his observations in his diary. He also makes friends with a wolf who lives in the premises of the fort; he names it ‘Two socks’ for its ‘milky white paws.’ Days go by and no reinforcements arrive. Unknown to Dunbar, Timmons was killed by Pawnees on his journey back, and with Fambrough also dead, the army does not know that Dunbar is at this fort. Soon, Dunbar has his first encounter with a native American, a Sioux medicine man named Kicking Bird (Graham Greene)- who tries to steal Cisco, but is scared away by Dunbar. After that other Sioux warriors like ‘Wind in his hair’ and young kids like ‘Smiles a Lot’ also arrive to steal Cisco and intimidate Dunbar. But each time they’re unsuccessful, as Cisco proves to be a resourceful and loyal animal, who manages to evade his captors and return to Dunbar. Tired of being preyed upon, Dunbar rides out to the Sioux village to confront the warriors, but on his way he meets a badly wounded white woman adopted into the Sioux tribe, named Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell). He carries the woman into the village, but he has to turn back after the Sioux treat him with hostility. Kicking Bird, who’s quite a thoughtful moderate among the tribesmen, argues for establishing good relations with Dunbar, and though the fiery ‘Wind in his Hair’ is against it, Kicking Bird gets permission from the elder, ‘Ten Bears,’ to meet Dunbar with a Sioux contingent.

The first meeting between Dunbar and the Sioux establishes a good foundation for warm relations between them, and they start visiting each others’ camps regularly. ‘Stands with a Fist’, who knows both English and Sioux, acts as an interpreter between them. Little by little, Dunbar starts integrating himself into the Sioux lifestyle. He joins the Sioux warriors in a Buffalo hunt, and becomes a hero in the eyes of the tribesmen when he saves Smile a lot’s life from a rampaging Buffalo. He also joins them in defending their homes against an attack from the Pawnees. And after Dunbar courts and marries Stands with a Fist, who’s Kicking Bird’s adopted daughter, he’s fully adopted into the Sioux family; he gives up his soldier’s clothes and dons Sioux attire. Since the tribe is threatened by both Pawnees and US army, Chief Ten Bears decides to move the tribe to its winter camp. Dunbar decides to accompany them, but must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgewick, as he realizes that it would provide the army with the means to find the tribe. When he arrives, he finds the fort reoccupied by the U.S. Army. Because of his Sioux clothing, the soldiers open fire, killing Cisco and capturing Dunbar, arresting him as a traitor. But when Dunbar is transported back east by a convoy, the Sioux attack; they kill all the soldiers in the convoy and release Dunbar. Dunbar accompanies the Sioux party to their winter camp, but realizing that his continued presence in the camp will endanger the tribe, Dunbar leaves with Stand with a Fist. The film ends with a scrawl, telling us that thirteen years after the events of the film, the Sioux, having lost their homes and buffalo, surrendered to White authority; and with that the American Frontier passed into history.

If John Ford and Frank Capra jointly directed a film, then that would be “Dances with Wolves.” The film could be broadly termed as “Fort Apache” & “She wore a Yellow Ribbon” meets “The Lost Horizon” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Like those first two Ford Cavalry Westerns, in which John Wayne played Union soldiers who empathizes and maintains good relations with the Native tribes, so does Costner’s Dunbar. And as in Capra’s highly optimistic metaphysical fantasies, where cynical & suicidal heroes find either a ‘Shangri-La’ or a guardian angel; which give them hope and new meanings to their life, here Costner’s Dunbar too finds an idyllic paradise populated by uplifting human beings who are in total harmony with nature, and who have dedicated their lives to home and hearth. The ‘wolf’ in the film reminded me of John Wayne’s dog in “Hondo“; both of them represent the ‘spirit animals’ of the respective protagonists who have peacefully co-inhabited with the Native tribes. The wolf’s relationship with Dunbar resembles Dunbar’s relationship with the Sioux; both the Wolf and Dunbar have prominent ‘White’ features, but they are not dangerous; they do not come to harm, and are more inquisitive and curious; they slowly develop a relationship and, finally, they establishes a strong bond with – what’s perceived to be – their enemies. And like the best of John Ford Westerns, this is a gorgeous film, full off picture-postcard images of nature in its diverse hues. Dean Semler’s Oscar winning photography drenches the film with big blue skies, colorful sunrises and sunsets, and breathtaking shots of green, yellow and orange landscapes. Add to that the great John Barry’s (Oscar winning) lush, orchestral score that, as the film progresses, acquires strong spiritual overtones, and the film becomes an audio-visual feast.

And like a Ford Western, this is a very gentle film; very refined and classy, without much bloodshed or graphic scenes of violence. The most bloodiest scenes – of a wounded Dunbar – are taken care of in the opening\Credits portions itself. Again, like a Ford film, it has humor, romance, a feisty heroine, lots of horses and great set pieces; the Buffalo hunt sequence is one of the greatest action sequences ever (the sequence was directed by Costner’s friend Kevin Reynolds who made Robin Hood and Waterworld). But the film is not very economic or precise like Ford Westerns (they are never more than 2 hrs.); it exists on an exaggerated romantic plane, and is modelled more after the grand epics of David Lean; even though the plot of this film is pretty thin and not as eventful as a “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Doctor Zhivago.” The film just concentrates on a simple, straightforward narrative of ‘the trail of a human being.’ There are hardly two\three battle\fight scenes in this 3hr movie. Costner spends most of the running time in setting the mood and immersing the audience in the natural grandeur in which Dunbar evolves as a human being; he also builds the relationship between Dunbar and the Sioux very slowly and realistically. The have tough cultural barriers and linguistic barriers to cross before the get acquainted with each other

Now many Costner films\characters have a lot of Frank Capra in them: his heroes are really good guys who rises\tries to rise above the corrupt\limiting society they inhabit and searches for\finds\create a utopia; that’s what Elliot Ness, Ray Kinsella, Jim Garrison, Robin Hood, Mariner and even the Postman attempted to do in their own ways. John J. Dunbar is no different; he’s a broken man who’s tired of the civilized society and the violence that it creates. His spirit is reinvigorated after he comes in contact with an alien race in an alien land. He cuts through cultural differences & prejudices, and manages to make a connection with a race of people that are vilified as thieves and robbers by his own race. He realizes that they are much superior to him (or his race) and what he had been told about them till now were all lies. He ingratiates himself into their culture to such an extend that he actually starts facing the same prejudices and problems that they suffer from his own race; he becomes an outcast; and is distrusted, attacked, imprisoned and tortured by his army.

That’s why i don’t really buy the ‘White savior’ accusation that’s thrown at this film. Sure, he helps the Sioux in the Buffalo attack and in the battle with the Pawnees; but he never becomes their leader, nor does he escape the tragic consequences of his adopted race- like say the hero of the blatantly ‘White Savior’ movie like James Cameron’s “Avatar” (dubbed ‘Dances with Aliens’ for its plot that’s very similar to this film) does. Also, Dunbar comes across as a superior warrior because of the modern weapons he carry , and he supplies them to the Sioux before their battle with the Pawnees; that’s how they are able to easily defeat them. This is a sly commentary on how the White men were able to conquer the American continent (or any race of indigenous people); it’s not because they were better man, or even better warriors, it’s because they had the better weapons to kill. Also, we see that the Native tribes are all divided,; the American army were helped by Pawnees in tracking and hunting down the Sioux. We see the Sioux and Pawnee fighting with each other; a mirror image of the civil war shown at the beginning where we saw white men fighting white men. But in the end, White America stands united after the war, but the Natives are still hopelessly divided. So the disunity among the ingenious people were also a reason for their conquest. Ultimately, despite its very uplifting, feel-good nature, the film is a tragedy; a pall of melancholy hangs over the film as its tell the tragic story of a modern agricultural/industrial society triumphing (and even exterminating) a (very idealized) primitive hunting/gathering society.

One of the main drawbacks of the film is that its too simplistic, naïve and idealistic- a lot like Dunbar in the film. On paper, it’s a revisionist Western, because it flips the traditional narrative regarding Natives, but the film is still working from a Black & White palette regarding the characterizations. The Sioux are presented as too gentle, pristine and faultless, while the Whites (except Dunbar) are presented as Crude, violent, boorish and treacherous. The Pawnee are presented as bloodthirsty savages; exactly the same way the Indians were portrayed in the traditional Westerns of ’40s and ’50s. This makes “Dances with Wolves” the most traditional revisionist Western ever made. Now, I realize that some Native tribes were more violent and aggressive than the others. I also understand that the White soldiers depicted in this film are battle-hardened civil war vets, who has done some terrible things during the war; but still, I think Costner could have done better with the characterizations. The film is also unabashedly sentimental; it drains every emotion out of the audience; i don’t have a problem with that, but i do object to some intentional manipulating that Costner does to make his simplistic narrative work. The scene where Dunbar is captured and interrogated by the army when he returns to retrieve his diary is the most problematic. Of course his intentions are clear & noble: Dunbar has ‘gone so native’ that he is treated like an ‘injun’ by the white authority; but the manner in which he executes it is very unconvincing. The whole section felt very untruthful to me. Costner’s voice-over narration is also very problematic; it’s so bland and emotionless; it’s like somebody reading a newspaper. It may have been intended to stand in for Dunbar’s diary entries, but come on…, compare it with Martin Sheen’s narration in “Apocalypse Now” or Ray Liotta’s narration in the same year’s “Goodfellas.”; I wish Costner had junked the narration the way Ridley Scott has junked Harrison Ford’s narration in “Blade Runner.”; it adds nothing to the film. Arthur Penn’s superb “Little Big Man (1970),” starring Dustin Hoffman, is still the superior and more truthful film when it comes to ‘White man going Native’ Westerns, and representing the Native culture on the screen.

Despite these flaws, the film remains a great achievement. Costner displays a remarkable clarity of vision for a first time director. He knows exactly what kind of film he’s making and follows through it with total conviction. He manages to avoid a lot of clichés and pitfalls associated with the genre, and this kind of epic-style filmmaking. His direction of his co-actors are also great. The performances of the actors, especially the native actors feels very believable. While Graham Greene has the more sizeable role, it’s really Rodney A. Grant as ‘Wind in his Hair,’ who not only steals the show, but also proves the chief driving force in the film’s plot development or plot transformation. His attitude to Costner at the beginning of the film, and then how it changes in the second half, to the final moment when he declares his eternal friendship for him – in pretty much the same words he declared his hostility for him in the beginning- provides the film’s real emotional thrust, and emphasizes the spiritual transformation of Dunbar. Ultimately, “Dances with Wolves” is one of the greatest Westerns ever made, that conveys the essence of a ‘Western’ in all its glory, and on such a large scale. Since the advent of ‘Revisionist’ Westerns, the ‘Western’ had become smaller and smaller. With this film, Costner not only reinvigorated the Western genre, but also brought back a grand tradition of ‘Western’ storytelling, where stories were painted on huge canvasses; that’s what the best of Western directors like Ford, Hathaway, Mann or Delmer Daves did: they used the majestic landscape of the American West as a rich background for telling their stories about the old-west- like “The Searchers,” “How the West was Won” or “True Grit.” It’s a pity that Costner did not direct more . I think he was badly burned by the critical and commercial failure of “The Postman,” which took the ‘Capra’ esque earnestness & idealism of this film to its extreme. But he made a great comeback with “Open Range,” which I believe is the last of the truly great traditional Westerns.


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