Dances with Wolves (1990)

When it’s on: Monday, 1 January (1.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The received wisdom is that Goodfellas was the best film of 1990 but it lost out to Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s directorial debut that told an all-too worthy story about the Frontier and helped to conceive one of the most infamous snubs in the history of the Academy Awards, up there with the time How Green was my Valley triumphed over Citizen Kane.

In the history of Oscar controversies, this is up there with the most notorious. While I’m not about to argue the merits of the two films involved, what I will say is that I love Dances with Wolves. I loved it when I first caught it at the cinema (with a very bored girlfriend – she didn’t last), and I feel the same way now. The version I own is the extended cut on Blu-Ray, which doesn’t add a lot in terms of plot development but does flesh the characters out a little more and, best of all, gives me more time to spend with this fascinating and lovingly made picture.

One of the contemporary notes I would like to make is that when it was made, the Western was to all intents and purposes extinct. There was the usual scattering of B movies, but mainly the genre was used as comic reference (Back to the Future Part III) or to indulge the young stars of the day (Young Guns II). It was a gamble, not least because Costner was untried and had given little impression he was ready to step up to the chair, only taking the job when established directors turned down the assignment. Handed a $10 million budget by Orion, he crowd-sourced a further five million from foreign investors and paid for the three mill overspend out of his own pocket. The story, based on writer Michael Blake’s research into Native Americans, chimed with Hollywood sensibilities of the time, the revisionist attitude to Vietnam that had produced the likes of Platoon and now took in the pushing back of the American frontier, and the inglorious fate of the people who were indigenous to it. While Western movies had long since abandoned the treatment of Indians as mindless savages, telling stories as far back as Broken Arrow that showed them in a sympathetic light, Dances with Wolves offered more, entering the homes of Sioux tribes and exploring in some depth their culture and language. The effort was to depict Indians as decent, honourable, and without the technology of the expansionists every bit as sophisticated and in fact better at protecting their environment.

The story follows John Dunbar (Costner), a Lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Injured in battle and then performing an act of heroism in order to save his leg from being amputated, Dunbar is given his choice of postings and volunteers to join a frontier regiment. Turning up at the remote and abandoned Fort Sedgwick, he takes to the task of rebuilding it and holding on until the arrival of relief soldiers. Alone, he battles the solitude by exploring his new environment, keeping a diary of what he discovers. All the while the neighbouring Sioux tribe is watching him, attempting at one point to steal his horse in an effort to intimidate him, before eventually visiting him. An uneasy friendship starts. Dunbar finds himself respecting his neighbours, fascinated by them and their customs, making efforts to learn their language, and when he discovers the arrival of a buffalo herd he takes it as an opportunity to improve relations. The Sioux have problems of their own. As well as depending on the declining buffalo population for sustenance, they face attacks from the warlike Pawnee tribe, and are aware of the long-term threat of settlers moving west.

If Dances with Wolves has issues, then they begin with the stately pace at which all this takes place. Costner takes his good time in soaking up the natural wonders of the frontier (filmed largely on private ranches in South Dakota), while the critical development of his relations with the Sioux happen organically, over time and highlights all the barriers as well as the benefits to their friendship. This is either great or interminably slow, and while I’m happily of the former opinion I can understand that the film’s leisurely narrative has the potential to frustrate some viewers. Added to this is Costner’s performance. I have no problem with it and think he carries the film well enough, however in a story that aches for authenticity it’s possibly tough to watch this native Californian with his neat, modern West Coast dialect and wonder how he could be there at all. Dunbar’s mission as an open-minded adventurer who falls for the Sioux way of life also becomes difficult to take. Practically every white man apart from Dunbar is evil, morally corrupt against the implacable nobility of the Sioux, which is intended to generate an air of tragedy, the sure knowledge that ultimately the latter will vanish in their native form, but a bit more balance would surely have worked in its favour.

For all those elements, it’s still a film I really enjoy, and I’m happy enough to sit through more than three hours of it and even prepared to lump on the extra hour of director’s cut material. Whatever my issues with the ‘black and white’ treatment of its characters, I find the steady build-up of Dunbar’s understanding of the Sioux to be quite fascinating, intended to educate us at the same time as he learns things and doing it successfully. Graham Greene’s performance as the tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird, is superb, rounded as the character’s conservatism is balanced with his wish for friendship with Dunbar. As Stands with a Fist, a white woman adopted by the tribe and eventually Dunbar’s wife, Mary McDonnell produces some fine work, reluctant to endear herself to the Sioux’s ‘alien’ visitor and yet drawn to him. Rodney A. Grant plays Wind in his Hair, a young warrior who takes more time to get over his mistrustful instincts of Dunbar, and is also very good. The film has to convince us of the reality of these people, and does it very well thanks to casting Native American actors and breathing life into their customs and attitude. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, tribe elder Ten Bears (Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) shows Dunbar the helmet of a Spanish Conquistador, a symbol of the invaders who will eventually pass into history and leave them alone, but thinking this is going to happen again with the Americans is a fantasy, one of which Dunbar is only too aware.

Beyond the story, a sympathetic treatment of Native Americans that for its time was relatively fresh, the film’s technical elements are superb. I have been playing the John Barry score while writing these comments, and it feels like a perfect fit. The music offers all the epic sweep of the frontier, but with heavy melancholic notes, like it knows as well as the viewer that despite Dunbar’s romanticism and the tribe’s nobility none of it will endure. The pushing back of the frontier is inevitable, and an entire way of life will be lost. Barry won the Oscar for his score, as did Dean Semler, the cinematographer who had the job of bringing the virgin frontier to life. Quite simply it’s a gorgeous effort, all untamed landscapes and endless skies, in every frame the big country that the Midwest was for its explorers. Added to that are the logistics of putting more than 3,000 buffalo on the screen and getting them to ‘act’ the role of being a herd that’s pursued by the Sioux. In an era when digital effects were too new to recreate the animals with any semblance of reality, those really are thousands of animals being made to stampede, which they would do for miles and represented a danger to the actors working with them, and anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in their path. And yet the effect is worth it; the sight is something you don’t see in real life anymore and was recreated brilliantly for the film.

So, a movie that perhaps isn’t perfect. Its sympathies are clear, bordering on hand-wringing, and when Roger Ebert described it as a ‘sentimental fantasy’ you know exactly what he meant. Though a fictional character, it’s possible that someone like Dunbar really did exist, enchanted by the Indian tribe to the extent of integrating himself as one of them, but the stark reality is that western expansion just swallowed up everything and everyone in its path, which ensures the film carries an air of sadness. And yet it’s also a great adventure yarn, made with care and attention to detail, its attempts at accuracy so painstaking that the occasional fault can be overlooked within the overall effort. Dances with Wolves can also be credited with breathing life back into the Western genre. As mentioned elsewhere on these pages, Westerns were at their best when reflecting contemporary American sensibilities, using the setting to hold a mirror up the values, beliefs and concerns of the time. During the genre’s Golden Age of the 1950s, the movies were a perfect counterpoint to attitudes in the USA, and Dances with Wolves continues that grand tradition.

Dances with Wolves: ****