Dances with Wolves – Costner’s Masterpiece

We’re all just a kid from somewhere, if you really think about it. I myself happen to be a kid from an obscure and barren corner of southwestern Kansas. That part of the world, like the rest of the high plains, has no trees and is speckled with farms and feedlots. The soil is plentiful and there’s space enough that God himself doesn’t know what to do with it all.

Even though I no longer live there, and I haven’t for several years, that prairie dust runs in my veins. It’s as much a part of me as my own skin is. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about the history of not only southwestern Kansas, but of the entire frontier itself.

I grew up hearing tales of two periods in history: the Dust Bowl, and the so-called “Indian Wars.” For thousands of years, nomadic tribes of Native Americans subsisted off that land and the buffalo that stampeded across it. When the white man showed up in the 19th century, thousands of years’ worth of culture was erased and changed in just a few violent, senseless, and horrible decades. The taming of the American west has long held a romantic place in American history, but it came at the cost of beautiful cultures of Native Americans. Some love the idea of the American west so much that we even have a truly American genre of movies, television, and books: the western.

Westerns played a big role in the development of our media in this country. But, pretty much all westerns are stereotypes; the John Wayne-esque cowboy that exudes pure, unfettered machismo, who always slays the narrowly portrayed and dumb “Indians.” It’s a washed, rinsed, and sanitized version of the American west that fails to capture anything close to the essence of what the frontier was really about. I hate most westerns for this reason.

Then came along Dances with Wolves in 1990. The 63rd Best Picture winner challenged the typical idea of the western. Kevin Costner, who produced, directed, and starred in the picture, portrays the west accurately and fully, even if the concept never really happened. But, his biggest justice is that he forces us to love the Sioux and their tribe. This film is affront and an about face to everything that John Wayne represented and finally gave Native Americans the respect they deserve.

And I loved every minute of it. The film triggered in me some romantic feelings of my old home on the Kansas prairie. It filled me with a strange nostalgia. I could feel the dry prairie air on my face, hear the thunder of a far-off storm, and see the infinite blue sky above me.

Now, for the rest of the movie:

Plot

At 181 minutes, Dances with Wolves is just a touch longer than three hours. However, this was the first long movie I’ve watched in this blog in which I didn’t want it to end.

The story follows John Dunbar (Costner), a hero of the Civil War who chooses to the be stationed out west, before the frontier disappears. When he gets to deserted Fort Sedgwick, the furthest west outpost for the Army, he is utterly alone. His only companions are his horse, Cisco, and a wild wolf he calls Two Socks.

Dunbar slowly gets to know curious Sioux and becomes one of them, falling in love, and learning their language.

When it comes down to it, the plot for Dances with Wolves was fairly predictable. The romance seemed inevitable. However, eve a predictable story is an excellent one when told correctly and with care. This is a film that does exactly that. I laughed and cried; I was furious and joyous. It was predictable, sure, but it made me feel more than one thing, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

As with many great films, Dances with Wolves is based on a book of the same name. This time, it’s a 1988 novel by Michael Blake. This screenplay, which was also written by Blake, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Taking place in 1863, Dances with Wolves contains all of the idiosyncrasies that the dialogue of that time should have. This includes phrases like “the goings on here.”

That’s to be expected, though. What sets this film apart is the commitment to the Sioux language. It seems like more than half the film’s dialogue is in Sioux, or Lakota. This dedication to realism is unparalleled in western and it was also unusual for me, too. Last week, I commented on how much of The Godfather Part II was in Italian. While this took to paying attention on my part, this was not odd because I’ve heard Italian before. I’ve never heard Lakota before and this unusual experience made the film for me.

One quick note about Lakota: it’s a gendered language, meaning that there is a “male” and a “female” language. Ever member of the cast that didn’t know Lakota was taught, and therefore spoke, the female version. This made for some entertained native speakers who saw the film in theaters. 1.

Sound

Dances with Wolves is not only a western, but it’s also an epic. Thus, it deserves, and has, a score worth of that kind of designation. Composed by John Barry, the score won him an Oscar.

When I listened to the score, it felt as wide open as the prairie that Dunbar now lives in. The score is a major character in the story.  

This film also won the Oscar for Best Sound. The sound effects themselves are top-notch. There’s one point in the film in which a sleeping Dunbar is awoken by a herd of buffalo stampeding past. The thunder from the herd is terrifying and it’s made my heart race. 1.

Set Design

As with other movies I’ve reviewed, the setting is as much a character in this film. It’s more than that, though. The setting even played a part in the actual production of the film.

In breaking with Hollywood tradition, Dances with Wolves was shot mostly in order. This almost never happens in film. However, this movie takes place over summer, autumn and winter 1863, and in order to get the South Dakota scenery (where the majority of the film was shot) true to form, their shooting schedule reflected the season.

The location for the film was perfectly scouted and the scenery is utterly stunning. The stark grasslands against the bright blue sky made for a beautiful set.

Additionally, Dances with Wolves was nominated for Best Costume Design. The outfits for the Sioux were incredible and beautifully detailed. 1.

Cinematography

Dances with Wolves won a pair of Oscars in this category: Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Fifteen minutes into the movie, these two awards, particularly the former, are more than justified.

Most of the film takes place outside. Thus, the sun is prominent in this film. There are so many wonderful shots at the “golden hour” that soften the light on the scene. Along the way, Director of Photography Dean Semler captured all colors of the spectrum while getting some breathtaking shots.

I wouldn’t be giving this movie a proper review if I didn’t talk about the famous buffalo hunting scene. The scene, which took eight days to shoot, is the smartest and best-shot sequence I’ve seen in all the films I’ve reviewed. This set the standard (which hasn’t been matched) for chaotic action scenes.

In all, this film is just plain beautiful and there’s no shortage of amazingly artistic and beautiful shots. 1.

Acting

Kevin Costner is obviously the headliner in Dances with Wolves, but he wasn’t the only one with a great performance. Mary McDonnell and Graham Green were excellent as well. In fact, McDonnell and Greene were nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively. But, this is Costner’s show.

He plays John Dunbar, a man who was granted a second chance in life after he survives a suicide attempt during the war. He makes the most of it, even though he doesn’t exactly know who he is yet.

Dunbar is initially a prickly Army officer who is too serious about his life and his role in the frontier. He opens his heart to the Sioux and to the frontier and becomes one with the prairie.

He’s a very sympathetic hero who seems to struggle in finding his own way, and yet, he still presses on. Dunbar shows the same tenacity that you need to survive out in the wilderness. Dunbar is also the only soldier in the US Army who seems to have a sense of of morality.

Kevin Costner was the perfect actor for this role. He has all the makings for a macho hero: a beard, long blonde hair, and a muscular physique (which you see a lot of). Yet, Costner chooses a softer hero, and that help make this movie great. Costner received an Oscar nomination for this role, but it’s a shame he didn’t win. 1.

Directing

Costner did, however, grab the Best Director  Oscar for Dances with Wolves, a rare honor for a directorial debut.

It’s exceedingly difficult for me to put into words what this movie made me feel. Yeah, I know I already mentioned them, but it was more than that. Dances with Wolves stirred up something primal within me. Maybe it was a sense of adventure; maybe it was homesickness, or maybe it was nostalgia for a time long past. I’m not entirely sure.

But I can’t embellish this too much. Maybe I was just thrilled that I’ve finally seen a western that had complex characters and portrayed Native Americans in a sympathetic light. It’s still really the only western that does so.

Or, maybe I was enthralled with the beauty before me, both on the screen and the narrative.

Regardless of what it was, though, this film made me reflect deep within myself. Well, that’s what great films are supposed to. Kevin Costner put his heart and soul into this film and it made me love it too. I’m sad to see this film go from my future and into my past. But, I’ll always relish the experience. 1.

Bonus Points

I’m giving an extra point to the writing, cinematography and directing.

Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts

Dances with Wolves won the 63rd Academy Award for Best Picture on March 25, 1991 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Billy Crystal hosted the event. The picture beat out Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III, and Goodfellas. Barbra Streisand presented the award. Overall, Dances with Wolves received 12 nominations and won seven awards, the most of the night.

Jeremy Irons won Best Actor for Reversal of Fortune, Kathy Bates won Best Actress for Misery, Joe Pesci won Best Supporting Actor for Goodfellas and Whoopi Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress for Ghost.

Final Notes

This is the last post before the Academy Awards on Sunday, March 4! Finally, here’s Gary Oldman on playing Winston Churchill in the movie Darkest Hour and a conversation about Call Me By Your Name. Finally, with 13 nominations for this year’s Oscars, here’s a terrific breakdown of The Shape of Water by ScreenPrism. As always, there are some major spoilers here. 

Next week, I’ll take a look at the first film from the 1960s, My Fair Ladywhich is also the first musical I’ll review. After that, it’s Casablanca, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Silence of the Lambs, The Life of Emile Zola, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Gone with the Wind, and How Green Was My Valley.

9 Comments

  1. Great review Keltin, this is one of my all time favorite movies. I’m so glad you liked it as much as I did!!! I could watch this one over and over…

    Like

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