Dances With Wolves (1990)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin
  • Director: Kevin Costner
  • Screenplay: Michael Blake (Novel by Michael Blake)
  • Length: 180 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13

As your film tastes mature and adjust as you grow older, some films that seemed like utter boars improve with that change. Dances With Wolves was a movie I never had much enjoyed but having watched it again almost ten years later, I have a new appreciate for aspects of this admittedly lengthy film.

Though I still disagree with the selection of this film as Best Picture, I can understand why they would want to honor it. It was the first western, a term used loosely to describe the pic, to emerge as a top contender at the Academy Awards in decades. The only other western to take the top prize was an Old West land grab picture called Cimarron, which took home the prize 60 years earlier.

Dances With Wolves tells the story of Civil War soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who nearly loses his leg to amputation-happy medics. In a bit of battlefield heroics intended to get himself killed, Dunbar rids a horse gallantly across a contested battlefield failing to get hit by a single bullet and emboldening his fellow troops.

For helping to win the battle, Dunbar is given the horse he rode out on and the choice of any post he wishes, as well as his commander’s doctor who manages to save his leg. Dunbar, wanting to escape the war requests a post in the wild west where he can quietly contemplate his life in a wilderness that he rightly fears will one day be destroyed.

Arriving at the deserted post, he works to clean up the place and befriends a starving coyote who might have otherwise attacked and eaten his horse while he slept. He also has numerous run-ins with the native population. Some are friendly, some are not. However when he finally manages to converse with the friendly ones, he discovers among them a non-native woman who he prevents from killing herself. Drawn to her, he begins a relationship that parallels his learning of the ways of the Indians.

The film is gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Dean Semler certainly proves his ability to capture the natural environment in bold strokes. Like a canvas on which an artist might paint such a vista, Semler gives the audience a credible picture of the long lost prairie. The film also feature authentic Native American costuming and helps the audience learn more about a dying culture.

Graham Greene provides the film’s only intriguing performance. As the tribe’s spiritual leader, Kicking Bird brings the Indians together and unites them in support of this brave man whom they decide to name Dances With Wolves. Greene blends skepticism, faith and humor into his character and lends believability to the role. Even McDonnell gives a capable performance, having to learn to speak Sioux. Her slow return to English speech, having spoken Sioux for so long is as credible as anything else in the film.

Where the film falls apart is the vanity of its director. Much like Mel Gibson, Costner believes that the character of Lt. Dunbar can be played by no one other than himself. Whereas Gibson has shown his capability as an actor in films other than Braveheart, Costner has never really done such. With Dances With Wolves, Costner further proves his inability to act and even further inability to provide voice over. While His physical performance in the film is passable, the irritatingly bland and monotonous journal narration brings new meaning to the word bad. Even Adam Sandler, an actor whom I cannot stand as a performer, could have provided better vocal work.

Much of the problems of the film revolve around Costner’s inability to act well and his lack of style as a director is off-set by the film’s noble approach to historical preservation. Presenting the long lost buffalo, Native American traditions and statements on the cruelty of men, especially Dunbar’s fellow soldiers, is what makes the film stand out. As the film progresses, we see that while there are those who respect and revere all aspects of nature, including animals, there are far more who show disrespect for it. Heavy handed is certainly a good description of how the film puts these ideas forward, but one still cannot help but be moved by the passion for this subject that seems evident in Michael Blake’s adaptation of his own novel.

Dances With Wolves is drawn out to nearly four hours in the edition I watched, which is significantly longer than the original three-hour presentation that picked up the Academy Award for Best Picture. Though its length is certainly a deterrent, it is thankfully split in half by an intermission. The film chooses a pro-nature path and sticks to it, giving the audience an honest idea of what life was like in the unsettled American west before land grabbing and abusive men began to pillage it.