Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990) was something out of the ordinary upon its release. A mammoth epic with a $22 million budget and high production values, its detailed character studies and look at sparring cultures was ambitious for Hollywood.
It won seven Oscars – including Best Picture – and made $424.2 million worldwide. But, almost 30 years later, is it still dancing? Or is it lying prone in a corner mumbling drunkenly about former glories?
Dances With Wolves
Adapted from the eponymous 1988 novel by novelist Michael Blake (1945-2015), the film starts in 1863 where First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar is wounded in a battle during the American civil war.
Rather than lose his leg, he decides to commit suicide in dramatic fashion by distracting the Confederate army. This allows the Unions to attack and secure new ground.
Cited for bravery and provided with proper medical care to save his leg, Dunbar requests a move to a quiet post on the western frontier.
He travels to Fort Hays in Kansas (an actual post active between 1865 and 1889) where a Major agrees to send him to a remote outpost: Fort Sedgewick.
After he starts restoring the dilapidated location, he bumps into some local Sioux neighbours who regard him fearfully; they try to intimidate him by letting his horse loose.
But Dunbar makes a bold trek out to their camp to try and communicate. He bumps into Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell) on his way, who is mourning her husband by self-harming.
He rushes her to the Sioux camp and this kicks off a period of growing respect between them. Soon enough, he hits it off with Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant)
And those strong relationships really bring him into the Native American way of life.
As he continues to bond with the tribe, Dunbar embraces what he sees before him. He finds in the simplicity and minimalism a peaceful sense of community. Far from the mad savages many believed them to be.
And he brings with him additional skills, such as a gun. Which he uses during one of the film’s main set-pieces – a remarkable buffalo hunt scene.
Dunbar also hits it off with Stands With a Fist, whom he eventually shacks up with (wahey, get in there my son etc.).
Along the way he also helps his tribe face off against a more antagonistic set of local Sioux – the Pawnee (headed by Wes Studi – shortly after this film he found wider critical acclaim as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans).
But as history will attest, the Native Americans were increasingly marginalised and treated poorly. And the film gradually plays out on the Sioux being driven towards extinction.
Dances With Wolves is essentially a tale about hospitality and tolerance (also, dancing). It’s underlined with an introspective and introverted heft.
Costner’s Dunbar is fed up of modern life, war, chaos, and mayhem. He heads to a remote outpost and finds peace in solitude, before embracing a new way of life more in line with the natural world.
This concept – of an individual abandoning his/her culture to embrace a new one – quickly became a popular cinematic theme. The likes of The Last Samurai and Avatar would go on to champion it, although not to the personable extent Costner did.
And for the whole the film does a good job in telling an emotional, sprawling story. Characters are well developed and defined and it’s quite an affecting take on history.
The film is bloody long – 181 minutes. Yet we were genuinely quite surprised, despite some flaws, it stands the test of time.
Perhaps it’s our nostalgia goggles lending it a hand – as we remember watching it around the time – but its sweeping scope still restonates with us. And that’s helped along by how its message of tolerance and respect for other cultures is in severe need in our era.
Much media fuss was made at the time of the production values involved. Film crews are very clever and utilise many tactics to make a production look authentic.
But Costner’s film presented some major difficulties, not least accurately presenting a wild buffalo hunt. Practical effects were deployed – so the ones being killed are, of course, models – but a few buffalos were in use to add some realism.
What was the other main animal in Dances With Wolves? Well, the title of the film is kind of a hint, foolish person.
And Costner struggled to get them to behave properly.
Elsewhere, Costner’s moustache also deserves some praise, particularly for its stoic performance through the running time. At no point did we think it wasn’t real.
Unfortunately, the character shaves it off for the second half of the film. We’re sure it’s that drop in screen time that dented its opportunity for a Best Actor nod. For shame!
Finally, we draw attention again to Nicholas Hodge’s excellent YouTube channel. It’s a real treat for film and history buffs.
There’s the notable point the Native Americans really weren’t that environmentally friendly with the buffalo (depicted otherwise in the film), choosing to drive huge numbers of them off cliffs and leave the waste behind.
He also suggests the film has “white man syndrome”, where Costner arrives and saves the day for the helpless locals. We feel the film is a tad more reverential and complex than that, with Costner’s performance subtle and far from chest thumping ego time.
It also takes a look at the current state of affairs the Native Americans face, plus a call to arms for support at the end. If you wish to heed that attention, then do so.