A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 5
DANCES WITH WOLVES
15th Anniversary Retrospective
1990, PG-13, 181 mins.
Lt. Dunbar: Kevin Costner / Stands With A Fist:
Mary McDonnell / Kicking Bird:
Graham Greene / Wind In His Hair: Rodney A. Grant / Ten Bears: Floyd Red Crow Westerman
/ Black Shawl:
Tantoo Cardinal /
I have a very difficult time recounting a more indelible, confident, and rousing directorial rookie effort than Kevin Costner’s DANCES WITH WOLVES. There have been great films by novice filmmakers to be sure, but Costner’s 1990 epic of the last frontier of the old west remains one of the more memorable.
Of course, Costner has failed to further cement his status as one of the new guard of visionary Hollywood filmmakers (his post-Wolves work, such as the underrated, but flawed, THE POSTMAN did very little to work as a suitable follow-up venture). However, what he left with audiences in WOLVES is a classic revisionist western that spawned a mini-resurgence of the genre as a whole. It acted as a catalyst for other future westerns to see popular and critical recognition from the masses (Clint Eastwood’s brilliant UNFORGIVEN from 1992 won the Oscar for Best Picture largely on WOLVES’ coattails). If anything, WOLVES is unquestionably a seminal film of the 90’s. It certainly breathed new life into a then lethargic genre that many believed had long gone the way of the buffalo.
Costner’s last 15 years as a Hollywood player has been a mixed bag. He followed up WOLVES with solid acting efforts in the magnificent and intoxicating JFK by Oliver Stone as well as in Eastwood’s A PERFECT WORLD (one of the most criminally undervalued films of the 90’s). However, he subsequently starred in a series of instantly forgettable entertainments, like MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME, 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND, and – yes – the granddaddy of all bloated epics, 1995’s much-loathed WATERWORLD. He directed only two films since 1990, the before-mentioned THE POSTMAN, as well as the stirring and well-crafted OPEN RANGE (another confident western and one of my TEN BEST FILMS of 2003). The fact that the last film he directed was a western is readily consequential in my mind. It shows that - in that genre - Costner walks a very confident and assured walk. As a performer and director, he seems to feel acutely at home, so to speak, while on horseback and up against mass, frontier-scaled backdrops.
At a glance, DANCES WITH WOLVES seemed like the least likely film property for the then inexperienced Costner. He was, undoubtedly, coming off a serious hit streak during the latter part of the 1980’s. Solid film outings, like 1987’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, 1988’s BULL DURHAM (still one of the finest baseball films ever), and FIELD OF DREAMS (one of the pre-eminent films of the decade, period) solidified his reputation of being in the right films at the right time. It does not seem irrational, in a way, to see why Costner would not be a good fit for a sprawling and large scale Western. He is not a gifted actor with a lot of range, per se, but his charisma lies largely with his level of earthy humility and everyman-hero spunk and determination (comparisons to him and Gary Cooper by some are not too far off base). Clearly, a performer of such All-America vitality would be right at home in a lush and lavish tale of the American frontier. But as a director of such a film? In retrospect, Costner's lack of experience would have easily reaffirmed skeptics going in.
Yet, it was Costner (who, before 1990, had never directed a film before) that came along, disproved all of the cynics, and single-handedly rejuvenated a sagging genre while sort of reinventing it for contemporary audiences. In the span on two short years after 1990, two westerns alone won Best Picture and Costner himself could easily make the claim to bringing the genre out of cinematic hibernation. Just when the terms “Old West" were most likely shunned upon by the studio executives, it was now taken seriously in WOLVES’ wake as a serious opportunity for investment.
The western, amazingly, lost much of its appeal in the more cynical, nihilistic, and capitalistic decade that was the 1980’s. Why? Maybe because the cinema – at that time and before it – found itself more engaged in telling tales of raging anti-heroes and vigilantes than it did of the noble and simple virtues of the classic, western iconic hero. In an age where people grew more jaded about the current state of geo-political affairs in the world, the notion that a film with modest ideals and a sweeping and earthy magnificence with its characters and scenery would be appealing simply did not appeal. Why appreciate John Wayne when John Rambo would suffice?
Perhaps Costner realized these notions going in to WOLVES. No doubt, old school approaches to the genre would no longer hold as much credible weight for contemporary audiences. Obviously, re-telling nostalgic stories of chivalry and heroism in the Old West with the same stale, square jaw protagonists simply would not be given credence by an increasingly polarized film viewing public. Notwithstanding that, but the unfortunate and long-lasting stereotype of the good and honorable “cowboy” battling the fierce, thieving, and savage-like “Indian” also would not hold water anymore. Anyone that doubts that Native Americans were ruthlessly painted in a pervasively discriminatory manner only has to look at some of the Westerns that were made merely 40-50 years ago. Considering that this – in itself – is not really all that far in our past, it’s truly revealing as a telltale sign of how reprehensible the racism must have been 40-50 years before that.
DANCES WITH WOLVES is both a revisionist western in literally ways, but it also contains some of the conventional ingredients of many typical westerns. There is an undeniable vibe that Costner came along and swiped the traditional roles of the white man and Native around – to a degree. WOLVES, more than any other film that I recall seeing at the time, was one of the first to tip upside down the foundation that Natives were merciless savages without cultures. This is a film that does not beg for our sympathy, but more for our empathy for its Native characters. The film does not completely make the white man the malicious foil (Costner’s character is, by every inclination, a decent person), but it does try to show how some of white society was largely intolerant of Indian cultures as a whole. Yet, WOLVES is not the complete revisionist western in the sense that at least one tribe is generalized as a barbaric enemy, but in this instance both to the white man and native society. In this way, the some of the conventions are still held up in the film, but with little tweaks here and there.
Make no mistake about it, though; Costner’s film goes out of its way to be political correct at a time when that term was not shrugged off with as much disdainful incredulity as it is now. In no way do I wish to diminish the monumental achievement that this film was by discrediting it as an incomplete revisionism of the frontier. Costner’s film does one thing that most other films before it (and arguably since) have not done – and that is to tell a sensitive story from the Native and white perspective. Other lesser westerns plagued its viewers with decidedly black and white portrayals of its inherent cultures. Costner’s WOLVES, by comparisons, feels more adept with the shades of grey. The fact that the film works so well on not only this level, but as a large scale visual epic of majesty and verisimilitude that its incredible to think that this is the work of a virgin film maker. WOLVES breathes like a film of a director that has perfected his craft for years. Costner did not have nearly that much time.
The film opens with a powerful – and brief – Civil War prologue during which Lt. John Dunbar (Costner, never better than here) becomes an unlikely hero by diverting the Rebels long enough for the Union soldiers to come in and defeat them. Dunbar's decision to do this is a bit creepy – he preferred trying to commit suicide in the stunt than to lose his leg as a result of an amputation. Needless to say, because of his “bravery” in battle, Dunbar is granted the distinct option of a station anywhere he wants. Obviously, he chooses the frontier. Why? So he - as he poignantly phrases it - can see it before it disappears into history.
Dunbar soon gets dispatched to Fort Sedgwick in the South Dakota Territory. He finds this post to be a far less then well realized outpost. It is found largely to be deserted and it is in dilapidated shape. Being a man of a civil disposition, Dunbar soon decides to follow his new assignment through every detail and stays at the outpost to both clean it up and to find out where everyone went.
A month goes by for Dunbar and he is largely alone. He does have one unlikely companion in the form of Two Socks (a wolf) and Cisco (his horse). Though time Dunbar quietly grows fond of his new surroundings and of his solitude. Perhaps the subtle poetry of these moments in the film lie with notions that a man does not need any more meaningful companionship than the wide open prairie and the stunning vistas. Clearly, his outpost is surrounded by a land that has been untainted by the advancing Eastern influence. Truly, Dunbar did make it to the West before history was to make claim over it. Here lies the heart of the film’s themes – how the beauty, civility, and serenity of this ageless and beautiful environment would soon be encroached upon.
All of these gentle and calm moments at the fort are setup, of course, to make room for larger incidents. Soon, the story shifts gears with the arrival of the Sioux Indians, led by Kicking Bird (the wonderful Graham Greene), and his hot-headed companion Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant). As one could have foreseen there is instant distrust between Dunbar and the Sioux, but this initial period of suspicion gives way to simple communication between the two and further to a truce, of sorts.
They both communicate, here and there, as much as two cultures that don’t speak their respective differing languages can, but the interesting thing that happens is that they form a surprising bond. More and more both Dunbar and the Sioux form an unrelenting fascination with one another. With each day he wants to learn more, and his hunger for knowledge helps lead him on his way. Perhaps aiding him in his attraction to his new friends in the presence of Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell, still her best performance) a white women who has lived with the Sioux since early childhood. Conveniently for both parties, she is able to act as a mediator between the cultures and as an all-important interpreter. She also provides something else for Dunbar to become attracted to – in the long run.
In time, Dunbar is able to leave his fort and eventually moves into the Sioux camp. Stands With A Fist and Dunbar fall inevitably in love and he soon becomes a very respected member of the tribe and is even given his own Sioux name (“Dances with Wolves”). His life is soon given unexpected meaning with his new wife to be and his new friends, that is until Union soldiers garrison Fort Sedgwick and find out – to their enormous dismay – that Dunbar has gone Native.
DANCES WITH WOLVES works so well on so many intended levels. It’s such an all-encompassing vision. In simple ways, the film is many genres rolled into one. It’s a thrilling and inspiring action picture; it’s a absorbing historical account of a time long absorbed by history; it’s a emotional and wonderfully told romance; it’s a touching and revealing tale of friendship and overcoming differences; and it’s also a story that defies traditional stereotypes by investing in characters that would have been never given the time of day in lesser films. The drama plays off naturally from all of these elements, not to mention an uncanny and unmistakable aura of melancholy and ominous foreshadowing. The overall story of WOLVES is fictional, but its context and setting most definitely is not, as are its accounts of the vile and ostentatious policies of white culture that wants to explore the West, take anything they want without asking, and not have a care in the world for who they displace. At the core of the film’s sentimentality is an undercurrent of a future cultural genocide, for which white society will continue to expand into the limitless frontier, all while pushing off those that occupied it first without any sort of concessions. WOLVES, as a result, plays out much more ominously in hindsight.
The film also works on a level of absolute realism. In order to give the film credibility to the extreme, Costner brought in a language coach to actually teach the cast to speak Lakota. Going even farther was his insistence on not using a half-breed dog that had a kinder disposition for Two Sox. Instead, Costner used a real wolf. He also insisted on doing all of his own stunts, even in the incredible buffalo hunt sequence (more on that in minute) and, most crucially, he cast only Native Americans to play Natives. If this was not enough to persuade you of his resolve and tenacity as a filmmaker, consider the fact that Costner himself dug into his own pocket to finance the rest of the film’s $18 million dollar budget. The irony of his actions are deep now. The studio at the time (the now defunct Orion) did not wish to invest more in a genre that they felt was box office poison. When the film miraculously grossed over $100 million (the only other 3 hour-plus film to do that in the ‘90’s: TITANIC), Costner himself pocketed an estimated $40 million. The message: bold moves and decisions made during an intense struggle do pay off. The media, before its release, laughingly referred to WOLVES as “Kevin’s Gate” (referencing the now infamous cost overages on 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE). Costner, it seems, had the last laugh.
The film has numerous action sequences of pure adrenaline that are breathtaking in their own right, but the best executed has to be the buffalo hunt scene. During this moment – still one of cinema’s most daring and exciting – Sioux Warriors and Dunbar (with Costner doing all his own riding) race alongside thousands of buffalo to hunt them. The scene has a metaphorical tint to it (Dunbar, it could be said, relinquishes his old identity and truly becomes one with the Sioux here), but it is more remembered as a technical tour de force. The sequence alone – adhering for Costner’s predilection for absolute veracity to the film’s proceedings – was filmed on a 55,000 acre Triple U Ranch using what appears to be thousands of buffalo. The sequence is unequivocally mesmerizing, and indicative of Costner cementing his then-questionable reputation as a film tactician. In our current age of bloated and over used CG visual effects that preoccupy nearly every modern film, the buffalo hunt scene is refreshingly real in range and grandeur. It could be argued that DANCES WITH WOLVES was Hollywood’s last large scale, reality based historical epic. There’s no doubt in my mind that – if filmed today – those gigantic herds of buffalo would be realized synthetically with a computer.
DANCES WITH WOLVES went on to generate some serious critical acclaim, which lead it to be the darling of the Academy Awards of 1990. It went on to win seven Oscars, including rightful ones for Musical Score (John Barry's music here remains some of his finest), Cinematography, Editing, and Sound. Three of the actors themselves were nominated without wins, including Costner, McDowell, and Greene, all very much deserving of their inclusion. Perhaps the largest winner was Costner himself, who aside from being nominated for Best Actor, also took home two Oscars – one for Best Picture and the other for Best Director. Being the novice director that he was, it was an amazing feat that he defeated the likes of Martin Scorsese (GOODFELLAS – easily the best film of that year, and of the decade for that matter) and FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA (THE GODFATHER, PART III). Clearly, there was probably no other director more justified to win an Oscar than Scorsese in 1990, but history has shown that DANCES WITH WOLVES – being made by a rookie filmmaker – is an astonishing debut that deserves accolades on its own levels. With all of the tough competition that year, the film – and Costner – was vindicated. DANCES WITH WOLVES became the first Western to win for Best Picture since 1931, a highly distinctive accomplishment.
I have often taken great efforts in my reviews for the truly great films to aptly describe them as “out-of-body” experiences. To reiterate, what I mean in this capacity is the movie’s keen ability to successfully transport the conscious viewer away from their current reality in a darkened cineplex and into a world that is either foreign, historical, or otherworldly altogether. Some films, like Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, transports the viewer to the surreal and ethereal beauty of outer space. Other films, like George Lucas’ STAR WARS sextet, transports the viewer to a universe of the completely alien, distant, and unfamiliar. Even other modern works, like Ron Howard’s wonderfully uplifting CINDERELLA MAN from this year, thrust the viewer into Depression era America and do so with utter conviction. DANCES WITH WOLVES goes on a short list of my great “out-of-body” film going experiences. Even 15 years later – watching it for what seems like the 20th time - I am still amazed by how it allows me to be thoroughly absorbed, for three hours, in its world of the 19th Century frontier. Few films have that far-reaching vigor and resonating potency. Costner’s 1990 revisionist masterpiece sure does.