Dances with Wolves
(United States, 1990)
Dances with Wolves was the first three-hour movie I saw in a theater. I entered the multiplex somewhat reluctantly, uncertain whether I had the patience to sit through something that long. 180 minutes later, I was so full of enthusiasm that I resolved to return within a week to see the film again. This was before the intense Oscar buzz began, but I was convinced after seeing Dances with Wolves that I had just watched the movie that would eventually win the Best Picture Academy Award. (Scorsese's Goodfellas, although a better movie, was too gritty for the skittish Academy members.) It's curious that, for a movie that was so highly regarded at the time, Dances with Wolves has undergone a backlash over the years. I often hear the word "overrated" mentioned in conjunction with this film. The reason for this has never been clear to me, although it may have something to do with The Postman and Kevin Costner's reportedly gargantuan ego. Neither is relevant to Dances with Wolves. The movie is as masterful as it ever was, and is a powerful experience in both the three-hour theatrical version and the four-hour extended cut. There has never been a Western quite like it, either before or after. The experience is immersive, emotionally rewarding, and enlightening. Dances with Wolves does not preach, nor does it need to. When I wrote a column at the end of 1999 naming my choices for the 10 Best Films of the 1990s, Dances with Wolves was there. I also believe it belongs on this list.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Dances with Wolves opens with a brief Civil War prologue in which the protagonist, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), establishes himself as a hero by providing a diversion so that a group of Union soldiers can overcome an entrenched Rebel position. Dunbar's reason for his actions - he preferred losing his life to living without a leg (the doctors were planning an amputation) - are unimportant. All that matters are the results, and, because of his bravery, he is offered a station anywhere he wants. He chooses the frontier, so he can see it before it is gone. Soon, he has been dispatched to the small South Dakota post of Fort Sedgewick. But, when he arrives there in the company of the wagon-driver Timmons (Robert Pastorelli), he finds the place deserted. Nevertheless, he resolves to obey his orders, and, after dismissing Timmons, he sets about putting things to right and solving the mystery of where everyone went. For over a month, Dunbar is alone at Fort Sedgewick. His only companions are a friendly wolf that he names Two Socks and his faithful mount, Cisco. The story moves into high gear with the arrival of the Sioux, led by the thoughtful Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and the tempestuous Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant). At first, there is mutual distrust, but, as Dunbar and the Sioux interact and begin to communicate (each learning a few words of the other's language), they form a truce, then a bond. With every passing day, Dunbar finds himself more and more infatuated with the Sioux way of life. And his interaction with them becomes even easier when Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who has lived with the Sioux since childhood, is able to act as an interpreter. Eventually, Dunbar leaves Fort Sedgewick and moves into the Sioux camp. He falls in love with Stands with a Fist, becomes a respected member of the tribe with his own Sioux name ("Dances With Wolves"), and is able to forget the life he left behind - until the day when Fort Sedgewick is garrisoned and the soldiers find him: an out-of-uniform officer "gone Injun."
Dances with Wolves, which gave Kevin Costner the triple hat of performer, producer, and director, was one of the most ambitious and impressive debuts of any novice film maker in the past three decades. In the '90s, it is only one of two films lasting longer than three hours to have grossed more than $100 million domestically, showing that the public loved it as much as the critics. The movie has been called a "revisionist western" - a movie that reversed the traditional roles of Cowboys and Indians. In fact, it's nothing of the sort. Although Dances with Wolves makes a conscious attempt to set the historical record straight, the role reversal is not complete. This is not meant to minimize Costner's achievement in presenting an epic motion picture from the Native American perspective, but to note that Dances with Wolves did not subvert the entire genre; it just twisted a few of the conventions. The movie works on many levels. It's a rousing adventure, a touching romance, and a stirring drama. Even if Costner never makes another film, he can be proud of the singular achievement on his resume. For three hours, Dances with Wolves transports us to another world, and that's the mark of a great motion picture.
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