Saturday, March 14, 2009

Film Review: 'Dances with Wolves' – 9.0/10

Film Review: Epic • Adventure • Historical (1990)
'Dances with Wolves'
His Indian name: Sticks Out like Sore Thumb
Written by Joé McKen on Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) discovers a new side to the Sioux in Costner's epic 1990 directorial debut, Dances with Wolves.

Dances with Wolves is the kind of epic, sweeping and far-reaching narrative that seems to be as extinct from the silver screen as is the wonderful Sioux people it portrays from the land it once owned for so many generations. It is the story about the old frontier between the Whites and the 'Savages' (though you don't hear them called that way in this film) as witnessed and experienced through the discouraged and disillusioned eyes of Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) of the American Army; he does not see the world as others do, with the old Black & White scenario of the Good Americans fighting the Savage Indians. He sees it all as it really is (or was): in varying shades of grey.

That is where Dances with Wolves truly displays its incredible storytelling power, the likes of which has not been matched as far as I can tell ever since its release way back in 1990. It does not propel the viewer through action and combat scenes with whizzing arrows and stampeding horses; it does not show one side as being unambiguously good and the other as being diametrically bad; it arguably shows the world as it truly, honestly was back then: two peoples pitted against each other in a desperate, unfair war for survival and conquest. Costner was even awarded the title of honorary member of the Sioux people for his role, and the film was selected as one of the few films to be preserved forever by the Library of Congress in 2007. Not just any movie could've pulled these feats off.

After learning that his injured leg would likely have to be amputated, Union officer Lt. Dunbar rides a horse straight through the crossfire between the Union and the Confederate Armies in the wild hopes of being killed, yet instead this insane act rallies the Union soldiers into winning the battle. Instead of being killed, Dunbar instead gets promoted, his leg is successfully saved and healed, and he gets to choose his next post, riding on his loyal horse Cisco that he was also awarded for his 'heroism'. He decides to head out to a distant military post, right at the frontier between the American Army and the ever-resilient Natives, and even though he finds it mysteriously deserted, he starts repairing the place in wait for the backup that will surely come any day now.

Eventually he starts to encounter some of the nearby Sioux Indian members, and after a few troublesome starts, he decides to introduce himself. Will he be welcome and accepted, or kicked out (which would be the very least of his concerns if the introduction goes wrong)? That remains for the viewer to discover. All I can say, is that it is likely as faithful to reality and what really would've happened as I can imagine.

The film is relatively old by now, yet some of the technical abilities and achievements are truly surprising and inspiring, such as a long and epic scene involving a stampeding herd of buffalo. The score, from John Barry, is deep and soulful, perfectly capturing the essence of the movie.

Much of the dialect in this film is in actual Sioux tongues, so you don't always understand exactly what they're talking about, but the film is clever in the way that it allows you to piece it together from the characters' intonations and mannerisms, along with the scenes preceding and following said dialogues. Personally, I was chagrined to find the lack of subtitles (then irritated when I read the film did have subtitles; where the Hell were mine?), but truth be told, the lack of them doesn't really affect one's understanding of scenes and dialogues all that much.

Dances with Wolves is a film that incorporates all the good of the frontier era, as well as all the bad. Altruism, love and light-heartedness routinely step aside for barbarism, desolation and at times sheer outrage at the actions of both the Indians and the American Army, and a few scenes in particular will be particularly painful to watch; one such scene, when a faithful companion is killed for no other reason than being present out of loyalty to a friend, literally had me clenching fists in anger as I wanted to jump in and crush some skulls in – and then I realized it was only a movie.

That, above, is the perfect example of why I love this movie so much. I usually avoid long-winded 'epic' movies like the plague, but films like this, that grip your heart and truly tug it in any way it desires thanks to its technical and artistic mastery, are of a truly rare caliber I so very rarely get to experience.

All in all, Dances with Wolves is a film you would be absolutely sorely remiss to neglect at least one viewing of; though quite long and at times sedate enough to put a horse to sleep, not once does it allow the viewer to disconnect from its power and momentum. It is a true life-story in every sense, and deserves to be in absolutely any movie-goer's collection.

For bringing us a wonderful, tragic and realist story about the Old West, and so much more, I award Dances with Wolves with 9.0 stampeding buffaloes out of 10.

Lt. John J Dunbar / Dances with Wolves: Kevin Costner • Stands with a Fist: Mary McDonnell • Kicking Bird: Graham Greene • Wind in his Hair: Rodney A. Grant
Crew & Credits
Director(s): Kevin Costner • Writer(s): Michael Blake • Original Score: John Barry
General Information
Distributed by: Orion Pictures • Released: November 09, 1990 • Running Time: 181 mins • Budget: US$19 million (estimated) • Rated: PG-13


  • Christopher

    It wasn't until years after I first saw Dances With Wolves that I heard it described as the first film to portray Native Americans as real people. I was genuinely surprised by that. I saw it in the theater and, young and naive as I was, I wasn't surprised at all by the portrayal. I thought, well, they were real people with flaws and good qualities and complicated lives. I knew Hollywood had a history of portraying Native Americans as cartoonish savages, but I was shocked to learn that it wasn't until this film in 1990 that they were treated as real people in a big studio film.

    The soundtrack also surprised me. This is going to sound stupid, but, even though the music fit the film so perfectly, I didn't believe it was written for the film. It was so pure and sincere and beautifully sweeping that I thought it must have been written in the 19th Century by someone seeing western North America for the first time.

  • Bumdark

    Indeed, the old B-Westerns, while amusing, certainly didn't lack in the 'Savage Indian' stereotypes. True, some Indians were more vicious and war-mongering than others (like the Pawnee featured in this film, the Iroquois, etc.) but others, like the Sioux, really just wanted the White folk to leave them along. What befell them is certainly a tragedy, but ... in a way, if they weren't conquered and assimilated, we wouldn't have America today, would we? In the end, it was a simple case of 'Survival of the Fittest'.

    I didn't get the impression the soundtrack was composed for anything else, though, as it did fit the movie very well. I'm not versed in musical history all that much, so perhaps I'm just limited in what I do and don't perceive. Ah well.

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