Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Dances With Wolves – One of the First Honest Portrayals of Native Americans in Film

Written by Michael Blake
Directed by Kevin Costner

The story of the Native Americans as written by the movie industry over the last hundred years or so was mostly one of savagery where they were portrayed as “the enemy”. In almost every film Native Americans were the bad guys, attacking settlers and outposts without provocation and performing heinous acts upon those whom they slaughtered.

Slowly that portrayal began to change over the last fifty years. One of the finest films to really embrace Native American culture and try to depict what their lives were like, not just their battles, is Dances With Wolves.

Kevin Costner directed and stars in the film based on a book by a friend, Michael Blake, who also wrote the screenplay. The original theatrical version was already long for many at three hours. On DVD, the Director’s Cut is just a few minutes shy of four hours. However, it is well worth it. Many of the scenes which were cut explain a lot that was missing from the original version, filling in gaps that had previously been ignored or given a gratuitous few lines of explanation.

Dances With Wolves begins with the Civil War, where Lieutenant Dunbar inadvertently becomes a hero for the North while on the battlefield in Tennessee. He attempts to commit suicide after the surgeon intends to take off his leg following an injury. One of the generals on the field recognizes that there is a great deal of potential in the man and intervenes on his behalf.

Following this, he is awarded his horse and given his choice of assignments. Dunbar chooses to go west to “see the frontier before it’s gone”. A series of mishaps leads to him being sent to the furthest outpost, Fort Sedgewick, yet no one knows he is there.

The secluded life he leads as the sole inhabitant of the world of the frontier leads him to embark on a mission to befriend the Natives near the outpost. The first few times both are hesitant and nervous. One of the holy men of the Lakota Sioux tribe, Kicking Bird comes to “talk” although there is a problem with language between the two men. Dunbar’s hilarious attempts at pantomime eventually lead to a commonality between them in that they both seek buffalo or tatonka.

When Dunbar meets Stands With Fist, a white woman who has been raised by the Sioux, his life changes. The Sioux are more open once he brings her to them after finding her wounded on the prairie. She also serves as an interpreter between the two cultures.

The evolution of John Dunbar is one of the most interesting points of the film. The solitude he experiences forces him to reach out to the only available people for companionship. This means he begins to adapt to and become a part of their culture. It’s something that points out the contrast of how many whites settled in the west, coming in with a sense of entitlement and not attempting any understanding. Dunbar tries at first to straddle the line between the two cultures in preparation for the relief he expects at the Fort. It’s a relief that comes all too late and with a poor attitude for the most part.

The acting is great. Costner and his producers went into a lot of trouble to have Native Americans portray authentic characters and it works quite well. Notable actors such as Graham Greene and Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman are joined by lesser-known actors to create the feel of a real Native village. I can’t exactly explain it, but there was a different feel to this than in other films where white actors were used. The village had a different feel to it, the Natives carry themselves differently and it shows. Their actions are different, more reserved and thoughtful without seeming like they are restrained.

It was also great to hear the native language. Although reading sub-titles may be annoying to some people, I found it refreshing to hear the native tongue, even when it was being butchered by Costner. It’s another plus for accuracy in the film in that the Natives speak their own language with each other and Dunbar flubs the language every now and then in his attempts to learn.

The cinematography is beautiful and stunning at times. It’s hard to believe in our age of subdivisions that beautiful natural expanses of land still exist. Some of the shots just took my breath away. Filmed across natural expanses of South Dakota and Wyoming, it made me long for visiting the undeveloped parts of the country and trying to get a feeling of what the first settlers viewed as they traveled across the land. The DVD is in terrific shape although it could possibly use a little more cleaning up for clarity in this day of digital DVD players and HDTV. I also wondered if the Director’s Cut had been enhanced a la George Lucas in a few spots, such as using CGI to make the Indian village look bigger and adding more horses and buffalo to scenes.

If there was one complaint I had it was the ending. The last half hour or so seems to turn into more of an action-adventure flick. I can’t believe even in that day and age there wouldn’t have been some record of Dunbar being dispatched to the post with the suicidal commander for orders. His story of being assigned there would have been plausible and six months without relief or supplies…

However, this ending allows for another myth perpetrated by Hollywood about the Native Americans to be dispelled. The people do not take killing lightly. When Smiles A Lot has to kill a man for the first time it affects him deeply. To him, killing is not a callous event Americans had been led to believe Natives perpetrated for so long.

We were a nation of “ignorant whites” it’s true. Hell-bent that our way was best and refusing to consider any other way of thinking. For over a hundred years, the Native Americans were the butt of one of the worst smear campaigns ever propagated. It’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that most white Americans have come to realize that the “wars” between the Natives and the white man were probably mostly our fault for going in with guns blazing, no talking, no questions, no attempts at understanding. The few people who did try to do this were often shunted aside and derided.

We’re fast headed in that direction once again, so apparently, we haven’t learned a thing.

Special Features:

• Commentary With Director of Photography Dean Semler and Editor Neil Travis
• Commentary with Kevin Costner and Producer Jim Wilson
• The Original Making of Dances with Wolves
• Original Music Video featuring music by John Barry

6 replies »

  1. Public awareness increased dramatically in 1970 with the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, resulting in a shift in Hollywood westerns and their treatment of Native Americans (e.g. Little Big Man that same year). So, while I greatly appreciated what Costner et al were trying to do with Dances, it didn’t strike me so much as a first when I saw it as another milestone along the way. Of course, we’re far from all the way there yet. Thanks for your thoughtful post!

  2. That film was a favorite of mine. The only thing that didn’t sit well with me was that Stands with Fist – Mary McDonnell’s teeth were unnaturally white and straight. They bothered me… But other than that I have to agree that the film was very sensitive to the history of the First Nations…

  3. It is one of my favourite historical movies in relation to the Wild West – Kevin Costner picked the right premise for the movie, seeing the Red Indians from the point of them being the original settlers of the land and how they live in balance with nature. The sights of endless prairie land are marvellous.