Studio executives had reason to be nervous about Dances with Wolves. For one thing, it is a western. And, aside from the adolescent Young Guns, there has not been a hit western in recent memory. In fact, Hollywood’s most notorious fiasco, Heaven’s Gate (1980), was a western. For another reason, Dances with Wolves is about Indians, and Hollywood’s conventional wisdom has it that Indians are a poor draw at the box office. Even more audacious, the movie is almost three hours long, and much of the dialogue is in the Sioux’s Lakota language, with English subtitles. Its director and star, Kevin Costner, insisted on making the final cut, although he had never directed before. There have been a few wisecracks in Hollywood about “Kevin’s Gate.” But Costner, who spent $2.9 million of his own money to complete the $21million movie, has acquitted himself admirably. Despite some flaws, Dances with Wolves is an epic of astonishing beauty with a rare purity of vision.
While violating almost every Hollywood taboo, Costner has restored some of its most cherished traditions. He has created an adventure with hot-blooded action, breathtaking
scenery and a noble theme—a spectacle with the sort of wide-screen grandeur that has become almost extinct. Dances with Wolves does for the skies and plains of South Dakota what Lawrence of Arabia did for the desert. And in the middle of an unblemished American wilderness, the director has cast himself as an untarnished American hero.
He plays a soldier named John Dunbar, an environmentally friendly frontiersman who befriends the Sioux and rejects the genocidal mission of his own people. Unlike Arabia’s Lawrence, however, Dunbar is curiously lacking in psychological torment. He is an uncomplicated hero, ingenuous at the risk of being boring. But his—and the movie’s—straightarrow altruism seems uncontrived. And although Dances with Wolves enshrines classic Hollywood clichés of white heroism and romance, it also portrays Indians with unprecedented respect and authenticity.
Among the cast are a few Canadian native actors, including Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal. In interviews with Maclean’s last week, they both had strong praise for the director. Said Greene, who has a prominent role as a traditional Sioux medicine man named Kicking Bird: “It was a real treat working with the man. He has a lot of integrity.” Cardinal, who plays Kicking Bird’s wife, Black Shawl,
called the movie “an immense breakthrough in Hollywood’s perception of native people.” Adapted by American writer Michael Blake from his own novel, Dances with Wolves is a tale of disarming simplicity. It begins with a scene from the Civil War. Dunbar, a Union cavalryman, has been so severely wounded that he wants to die. With great agony, he struggles back to the front lines and makes a suicidal ride in front of a phalanx of Confederate troops. Miraculously, he survives, and is promoted to the rank of lieutenant. “The strangeness of this life,” he concludes, “cannot be measured. In trying to kill myself, I was made a hero.” As a reward, Dunbar is allowed to choose his next posting. He decides on a farflung outpost called Fort Sedgewick. “I want to see the frontier before it’s gone,” he explains. But the fort is just a collection of deserted huts. Undaunted, Dunbar sets up a one-man headquarters and begins a waiting game—waiting for Indians, buffalo and the U.S. Army.
It is a solitary vigil. Slowly, he makes friends with a wolf that visits the edge of the fort. They develop a cautious trust that symbolizes the relationship he will forge with the Indians. After a chance meeting with Kicking Bird, who quickly flees on horseback, Dunbar writes in his journal, “Have made first contact with a wild Indian. The man I encountered was a magnificent-looking fellow.”
Behaving more like a boy-scout anthropologist than an army officer, Dunbar decides to seek out the Indians on their own turf. He finds a sympathetic ally in Kicking Bird, and gradually allays the tribe’s suspicions. He proves himself by alerting the Sioux to the presence of a buffalo herd—and participating in the hunt, a thrilling spectacle involving thousands of buffa-
lo. He also helps the Sioux fight the marauding Pawnee. But as Dunbar reinvents his identity, he realizes that the white man’s onslaught will eventually shatter his newfound utopia.
The narrative trails off in midstream, without a real ending, leaving the strange impression that, even after three hours, the movie could be longer. As it is, the attention to visual beauty leaves some of the characters thinly developed, notably Dunbar’s lover. Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell) is an orphaned white woman who was adopted by the Sioux. Struggling to remember her mother tongue, she also serves as Dunbar’s translator. Their white-on-white romance is unconvincing, their passion forced.
The native characters, meanwhile, are intensely charismatic. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about the movie is that it takes so long to get to know them—and by then it is over. By conventional standards, there is not enough story in Dances with Wolves to justify a three-hour epic. Yet the pace seems natural, conveying a sense of real time in a limitless landscape. In keeping with native philosophy, the land is the movie’s biggest star. There are long stretches with no dialogue, and when characters do talk, it takes time to connect. But that is what the movie is about—talking across a cultural divide.
The heavy use of Lakota dialogue is especially effective. Costner relied on local Siouxlanguage instructors during last summer’s four-month shoot in South Dakota. And before the cameras rolled, the cast spent about a month learning Lakota, a foreign tongue even to most of the Indian actors. “It puts you on a whole different plane,” said Greene. “To speak Lakota in the scenes was like being pure. It’s a language that’s in tune with the land.”
Costner, too, speaks Lakota in the movie. And Cardinal says that he stubbornly resisted the studio’s attempt to shoot the script in English. “He’s a really tough customer, that Costner,” she said. “He’s very honest, basically. The way he directed felt absolutely true to me.” The movie goes a long way towards dispelling stereotypes, she added. “People don’t know the beauty of the people I come from—there is incredible inner beauty.” Cardinal said that when she began working with Costner she was reminded of a prophecy by a native chief whose people were being displaced by the building of the railroad across the Canadian Prairies. Recalled Cardinal: “He said, ‘The white men are blinded and deafened by greed, but there will be a generation of their children who will be our friends.’ ”
Earlier films have depicted Indians as ignorant savages. Costner’s movie helps redress the balance. Without preaching, it portrays the army as barbaric, the natives as civilized. Its hero is a king of the wild frontier who abdicates. In the age of David Lynch and his Twin Peaks cynicism, such single-minded idealism begs disbelief. But in Costner’s case, it appears genuine. With Dances with Wolves, he has reduced Hollywood formula to an elegant equation of truth and beauty.
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