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: ****

Field of Dreams (1989)

When it’s on: Sunday, 2 August (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

You’ll forgive me if this one is a little meandering (Reader’s voice ‘You don’t normally apologise for that‘), but I really love Field of Dreams and, as is often the case with favourite movies, some of the reasons are personal as well as because of the picture itself. For one thing, it’s a baseball film, linking the sport to wistful memories of more innocent and youthful times. I’m unsure how that works, not being American and frankly failing to see the appeal of what to me looks like glorified rounders, but then I don’t suppose the identity of the sport really matters. And when it comes to baseball, I call to mind Don DeLillo’s epic novel Underworld, with its nostalgia-fuelled opening chapter and the game’s purpose as a running theme. Here’s a quote from the book:

‘That’s the thing about baseball, Cotter. You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to the game and thirty years later this is what they talk about when the poor old mutt’s wasting away in the hospital.’

Very evocative, possibly true, and really I can picture this being the case with my ‘old man’ and me someday, not discussing some ancient baseball game but possibly the first Middlesbrough match we took in together (a 6-0 win over Leicester City, since you’re wondering, and no, it never got close to being as good again). For baseball read football, or indeed any sport of your preference, I guess. I even get the point about simpler times made by the film. In Field of Dreams, the baseball diamond built by Kevin Costner’s character ends up showcasing great players from the past, notably ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and the seven other White Sox members banned from the sport in light of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) reveals that not only was the ban an injustice (it was; the players were acquitted in court but the ban was upheld by the League’s commissioner) but the money and fame meant nothing. All he and his compatriots wanted was to play, to experience the food smells from the stands, the touch of the grass, the joie de vivre of just being out there. It’s an uncynical statement that’s supposed to evoke memories of a time in baseball before the money involved became too great, the sponsorship and TV rights dictating everything and thereby robbing us of the simple pleasure of enjoying the sport. It’s impossible not to see a similar sentiment among football fans, the era before the Premiership came into being and Britain’s national game fell into the pocket of Sky’s cash-rich owners. One of my best memories of that game against Leicester was that the home team discovered its scoring touch. Each goal provoked a mass celebration in the stands, notably the Holgate End at Ayresome Park, which was just a big terrace. The crowd would surge forward, a big wave of humanity crashing into each other, and it was exhilarating with a slight element of danger. That has gone, as has Ayresome. Middlesbrough’s current ground, the Riverside, is an all-seater stadium. You’re pretty much told when you’re allowed to stand up, piped in music punctuating every goal. Something’s been lost. The spontaneity, I think.

So perhaps something has gone from the game, and whilst it’s a more exciting sport to watch the connection we felt with the players from the past is not there much now. The film closes with cars snaking to the Kinsella farm, lured on by the promise of experiencing some magic from the past, which watching old baseball players will evoke. It’s a nice message, reminiscent of old Frank Capra pictures in many ways by using fantasy elements to conjure a sentimental resolution, and there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the things I really like about Field of Dreams is its blank refusal to explain why the events in it unfold. Whose is the voice? Who tells Ray (Costner) to build his baseball field? Why rope in long lost 1960s author, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), along with a Doctor from some Minnesota backwater, Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster)? The answers are elusive and up to the viewer’s interpretation, and I rather like that. We understand why Ray receives the message; he’s the sort of uncomplicated fellow who grew up in the sixties and is just about willing enough to go along with the crazy plan, despite the misgivings of his fellow corn farmers and with unresolved father issues to deal with, and the field will give him that opportunity eventually.

The cast in Field of Dreams is universally fantastic. Any fan of Star Wars is automatically a worshipper at the altar of Jones and this is almost certainly his career best performance, drawing out all the world weariness of his character’s retreat from the glory years, and then having this stripped away as he joins Ray’s quest to meet the field’s ‘demands’. Mann is presented as a complex man, but one who’s in touch with the potential of baseball as a unifying influence. Lancaster was talked into taking the part of Doc Graham (his last movie role) and plays it wonderfully. Aged 76 and cast beautifully as the Doctor at the end of his practising days, there’s a glint in his eye that hints at his mental acceptance of the fantastic story Ray’s telling him, which is consistent with the appearance of his younger self (Frank Whaley) as a callow rookie to play with the big boys and show the potential he never realised in actuality. Graham’s character is a great sop to those of us who’ve come close to achieving our dreams, but only close. The field can make them come true.

Amy Madigan floods her underused character with bags of fiery personality, and I also like Timothy Busfield as her brother, the closest Field of Dreams comes to in providing a villain as the voice of reason, warning constantly of the financial risks involved in tearing down valuable crops for a ‘useless’ baseball diamond. But the film lives or dies with Kevin Costner, at the time on his way to becoming a big star with Dances with Wolves a year away and the likes of No Way Out and The Untouchables showcasing his talent at playing clean shaven good guys. Costner was reluctant to accept the part of Ray as he’d recently made a baseball film, Bull Durham, but saw the potential of Field of Dreams to be ‘this generation’s It’s a Wonderful Life‘ and indeed brings an easy-going charm reminiscent of James Stewart to the part. In his mid-thirties, Costner was just right – old enough to know better, fanciful enough to pretty much go for it.

I realise I haven’t said a lot about the film and what happens in it. My feeling is that it’s better to approach it fresh, soaking up the story as weaved by director Phil Alden Robinson and going with the flow. Robinson saw Field of Dreams very much as a pet project, a labour of love, spending several years working on it before it came to life, and he ensures that its events move along at a fair lick so that you don’t have time to question the film’s logic as it jogs on to the next plot point. It doesn’t do to think about it too much, rather viewers are encouraged to just enjoy it, the sense of idealism and wonder that it carries. There aren’t many films made that contain the latter. We’re a jaded bunch and want our fantasy to come with hard-bitten truths. But sometimes, a movie comes along that’s just nice, wears its heart on its sleeve and asks us to take a journey. ‘Wonderful’ sums it up rather nicely, I think.

Field of Dreams: ****

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

When it’s on: Monday, 3 September (9.00 pm)
Channel: 5*
IMDb Link

Let’s get it out of the way then – that song, that bloody song. Readers of a younger persuasion may not recall the summer of 1991, when Bryan Adams squatted atop the hit parade for months with the insipid Everything I Do. I was at University at the time, which meant long breaks from June until September and an entire calendar season to wonder at how this bland splat of MOR was number one for so long. Who was still buying the thing?

It wasn’t even as though the film from which it spun, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was amazing, either on an artistic or technically blistering level. Essentially a vehicle for Kevin Costner, who for a delirious few years in the early 1990s was the heartthrob of choice, the latest Hood yarn was a piece straight from committee-driven Hollywood, a fairly naked attempt to churn out something as crowd pleasing and generic as possible. It’s not that it’s a bad film really, more it just kind of happens, one performance aside about as unadventurous as these things get in the effort to maximise all potential profits. The Prince of Thieves made lots of money. Everyone walked away happy, having taken from the poor. But in the canon of work about the good-hearted outlaw, it pales when set alongside Michael Curtiz’s 1938 effort The Adventures of Robin Hood. Robin and Marian carries off the character’s heart. I would argue that the HTV TV series from the eighties, Robin of Sherwood, contained all the charm and mysticism this film routinely avoids.

The story is strictly by the numbers. Costner is Robin, an English noble who goes from the Crusades back to Blighty, only to learn his father, Lord Locksley (Brian Blessed) has been murdered by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) and his lands and titles deferred to the authorities. Alongside his Moorish hetero life partner, Azeem (Morgan Freeman), Rob vows revenge and begins assembling a forest-based gang of outlaws from the disaffected to cleanse the land. And that’s about it. Costner makes for a decent, bland lead, and is surrounded by the usual English supporting cast, spending unfeasibly large amounts of time setting up their Sherwood hideout. Christian Slater turns up as Will Scarlett, undoing much of his previous good work in teen movies by channelling Will as an angry young American in eleventh century England. Marian is played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and she’s forgettable.

Weirdly for a Robin Hood film, the Americans use their own accents – hardly a crime, but still odd. Less forgiveable is the lack of any sense of scale of Britain’s size. Robin and Azeem step off the boat by, obviously, the White Cliffs, and in the next reel are approaching Hadrian’s Wall. The underlying sentiment seems to be to shoehorn in as many tourist landmarks as possible. It sucks.

The one bit of truly creative casting is in handing the Sheriff’s role to Rickman. Possibly best known Stateside at the time for his oily Gruber in Die Hard, Rickman plays the film’s baddie as a pantomime villain, hamming to within an inch of his life, all wild hair and flouncing around in too-big shirts. He’s great fun and he looks as though he’s having it also, though the question over whether he makes the show worthwhile is there and, otherwise, there’s a prevailing air of going through the motions.

The rest is stunt casting. Mike McShane, better known in Britain at the time for his frequent appearances on Whose Line Is It Anyway? shows up as a boisterous, life-loving Friar Tuck, and even Sean Connery gets in on the act, earning his usual small fortune to play King Richard at the very end and marry Robin to Marian. It’s a knowing wink of a scene, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with it you’re left asking if this is really the best they could come up with.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: **