Long, earnest, verging on the sugary - but a good film
The most commercially successful Western so far, made with a budget of $18 million (so expensive that it became known as ‘Kevin’s Gate’) but grossing over 400 million, this epic won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and was nominated for five more. Westerns don’t normally win Oscars. The first to win Best Picture was Cimarron in 1931. Unforgiven repeated the trick in 1992.
You can understand why it did so well. The Best Cinematography award for Dean Semler was more than justified. The film is visually stunning. Shot largely in South Dakota, it has a wonderful authentic look of the plains, and certain set pieces like the buffalo hunt or the shots of White Socks, the wolf, remain in the memory. There are Fordian touches or David Leanisms. It is a motion picture that deserves to be seen on the very big screen.
If there is a criticism of its visual appeal it might be that the look of it is almost too pretty and has a romantic sheen. But that applies to the whole movie really. The story and treatment are earnest, worthy, even noble. Costner’s dismay at seeing the trash heap, the dead deer in the river, and the friendship he cultivates with the wolf all establish the movie’s eco-credentials early on, and thenceforth the pro-Indian theme is very pronounced. All the whites (except Costner) are coarse or mad. All the Sioux are noble, handsome and dignified.
One of the best actors
Roger Ebert in his review wrote, “In a sense, "Dances With Wolves" is a sentimental fantasy, a "what if" movie that imagines a world in which whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture that lived more closely in harmony with the natural world than any other before or since. But our knowledge of how things turned out - of how the Indians were driven from their lands by genocide and theft - casts a sad shadow over everything.” That's right: the hero’s approach is more wishful thinking and late-20th Century projection onto the past than reality. An 1860s pro-Indian eco-warrior would have been a rara avis. For most white Americans, Indians were thieving savages fit only to be shot or at least confined to a reservation, and the land was there to be exploited for profit.
As for the acting, Mary McDonnell does an excellent job as the woman who had been captured by the Sioux as a young girl (Costner’s own daughter plays the child in flashback). She manages the Lakota-speaking adult trying to recapture her English very convincingly. Graham Greene - such a good actor - as Kicking Bird and Rodney A Grant as Wind in his Hair are the leading Sioux and both performances are high class. Wes Studi (always excellent) is there too.
Fine actors Grant and Greene
In the lesser white-man parts, Maury Chaykin is entertaining as a mad Union officer and Robert Pastorelli morbidly amusing as Dunbar's horrible traveling companion.
Viggo Mortensen, later of Appaloosa fame, was to have played Lt. Dunbar and was apparently billed to play the lead in a Simon Wincer-directed Dances with Wolves sequel, Holy Road, but that doesn’t appear to have happened. However, Costner does a good, solid job. It was only his second Western (after being the energetic kid in Silverado in 1985). This movie, the later Wyatt Earp, Open Range and Hatfields & McCoys all benefit from his earnest performances.
Sometimes verges on the sugary-sentimental
The music is appropriate, though once again sometimes a bit on the romantic side.
A couple of secrets to give away, culled from the IMDb trivia page: the buffalo charging at the youngster in the film was actually charging at a pile of its favorite food, Oreo cookies, and the raw buffalo ‘liver’ offered to Kevin to chew on is actually made of cranberry Jell-O. Thought you ought to know about some of the more important aspects of the film.
Costner has been winningly honest about his nervousness as a first-time director. Actually, though, it's his uncertainty in front of the camera that is more interesting, as he survives, copes, then gradually integrates in his new life. Such humor as there is comes from a classic trope: the tenderfoot out West. Turning the idea on its head, however, it is the white man blundering about in the Indian camp who is the greenhorn.
Dean Semler's photography reminds me of Roger Deakins's work in The Assassination...
It’s very long (three hours) but if you are willing to invest your time in it, it doesn’t drag. It’s also quite different: while we do have fairly predictable elements – the buffalo hunt, the romance with the Indian girl – as a Western it is very far from the classic pro-Indian movies of the past it might be compared with, such as Broken Arrow. One of the best features of the movie is that the Sioux are played by Native Americans and are allowed to speak their own tongue. Dances With Wolves is about as far from the old-style Ug, me big chief style of Western as it is possible to get. About time too.
Curiously, perhaps, for such an epic, sweeping, long film, it’s not spectacle but character development which the film really gives us. All credit to Mr. Costner. I will admit that I don’t always put this Western in the DVD player with a song in my heart but that goes for the rather earnest and overlong Wyatt Earp and Hatfields & McCoys too. Silverado and Open Range were a different story; they are fun. Dances With Wolves isn’t fun but when I do watch it again I always think it’s a damn good film.