Starring, Directed, and Produced by Kevin Costner
October 19, 1990 (Uptown Theater) / November 9, 1990 (United States)
A union soldier is assigned a distant Western outpost and befriends and is accepted by a group of Lakota.
Dances with Wolves is an amazing dramatic work. Visually it is just outstanding. It looks so beautiful and the environment looks so authentic. There is attention to detail, and it looks as if every scene is was ripped from the past.
One of the more important things to note about this film is that while it is a very long film it does not feel like it. It never drags and is character focused. The action is minimal so your attention for the bulk of the story is held BY story and good characters and fine acting. There are few extended scenes of high action.
I do not think there is any other person besides Kevin Costner that could have starred in this film at the time. He can perfectly channel the weary soul that is seeking peace much as his First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar was. The character of Dunbar early in the film decides death is preferable to the amputation of his foot but survives and receives a citation for bravery along with medical care that allows him to keep his foot. Wishing to get far from war he gets transferred to Fort Hays.
Mary McDonnell plays Stands with a Fist and is the obvious love interest. As her family was slaughtered by Pawnee and she was found alone by Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) she is a person of two worlds. There are a few reported stories in real life of Native Americans either capturing or just taking in children and raising them as part of their own tribe. However it appears from what she says in the film she was not entirely excepted or embraced by the tribe-at least not right away.
Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin), the individual that Dunbar reports to at Fort Hays, is a little off and you see that from the get-go. As that short scene goes on you get a feeling for how messed up he really is with the cap off being his exclamation about his wet pants. I do not recall ever encountering a more bizarre character or disturbing scene in a Western. I have always been curious as to what lead him to that mental state. He started out normal if irritated with Dunbar but quickly descended into a few fries short of a Happy Meal.
We have a strong and talented native American cast. Wes Studi appears in the opening as a character credited as Toughest Pawnee and that alone is fantastic, but we also have it followed up with Graham Greene as Kicking Bird as well. And even the lesser-known individuals who appear in this film are all talented and are far too numerous to go through individually. This is an expansive cast that speaks their dialogue mostly in Lakota.
Some have criticized the language. Apparently the Lakota language is gender specific in a way similar to Spanish. Some have bitched about pronunciation because only one actor was a native speaker. Others have criticized this film as being about a white savior because Dunbar becomes the tribe’s protector. Most however tend to praise the film and its depiction of the Native Americans in the film.
I guess you can consider this a Revisionist Western though Revisionist Westerns tend to be replete with terrible people and the core cast of characters here are not terrible people. They are just individuals trying to live their life. They are trying to live lives and do the best they can.
There are themes of duty and loyalty and friendship and figuring who you are. At one point even Dunbar states he never really knew who John J. Dunbar was and he was finally figuring out who that man was. Dunbar finds himself out on the plains and finds who he truly is and finds a place where he actually belongs. He finds love and acceptance and a safe haven from the war which he wanted to leave far behind.
What is one of the more heartbreaking moments in the movie is when Dunbar finally tells Kicking Bird what Kicking Bird knew in his heart all along and that is white men are coming eventually and there is nothing that can be done to stop it. He knows exactly what it means for his friends and how frightening and heartbreaking it is for Kicking Bird in particular.
This was as far as I know Kevin Costner’s first outing as a director. It is a massive artistic achievement and one heckuva way to start a directing career. However Costner’s output has been not much. Seven years later was his next effort with The Postman and that was followed up by Open Range. I have seen The Postman but not Open Range but if it maintains the quality of the former two films, I am sure I will enjoy it which begs the question: why doesn’t he direct more?
Costner knows what he is doing behind the camera. Is it because he prefers to do Westerns of some type? The genre is not what it once was and opportunities to direct them are rare. I do not have the answers, but I think film suffers because Costner does not do more behind the camera.
Dances with Wolves while a Western does not contain any gunfights or outlaws. It is focused primarily on the Native Americans and in showing them as genuine people that are not too different from anyone you or I would know.
If you have ever seen the film Avatar, you can clearly see that the James Cameron movie is all but a rip off of this film. James Cameron just moved the story into outer space. Seriously. A foreigner on a journey finds what he truly needs in a strange land.
The film is based on a book which started out as a spec script by author Michael Blake. Costner got to know Blake on Blake’s only previous film Stacey’s Knights in 1983. Costner encouraged Blake to turn it into a novel to boost chances to get made into a movie. Costner bought the film rights eventually and the rest is history.
Dances with Wolves is an amazing classic work of the Western genre. It is a great well made story with engaging human characters. Watch it!