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Dances With Wolves

February 7, 2012

Dances With Wolves  quite often gets a bit of unnecessary flak, as it had won the Oscar for Best Picture over the  overwhelming favorite Martin Scorsese’s  Goodfellas.  Goodfellas  remains one of my favorite movies, but  if we overlook the Oscar angle on it’s own Dances With Wolves, remains one of the best movies ever.  A revisionist Western that takes a look at the relationship between the White Man and Native Indians, it is a movie as epic as it can be, and the Buffalo Hunt remains one of the best ever scenes. And to think this was Kevin Costner’s first movie as a director. Interestingly none of the studios backed the movie, saying the Western was a dead genre, Costner, put his faith in the movie, and the rest is history. It won the Best Picture, Best Director and was a massive hit.

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept only one; they promised to take our land, and they did- Red Cloud, Indian Chief

If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.- Chief Joseph

In  one  of  the  scenes  in  Dances  With  Wolves,  right  after   Field Lt.  John J.Dunbar( Kevin  Costner),  is  asked to  take  a  choice  for  posting,  he  chooses  the   “Frontier” or  the  Wild West,  much  to  the  chagrin    of  Major  Fambrough( Maury  Chaykin),   who  wonders  why  such a  gallant  and  decorated  officer  would  want to  serve there.  And  the  Dunbar  gives  the  reason.
“Yes   sir….  before  it is Gone”.

This  particular  moment,  though  it  comes  around  10-15  minutes  into  the  movie  is  the  critical  turning  point  that  drives  the  movie  forward.  The  opening   interlude  gives  us  an  insight  into  John Dunbar’s  character, a  reckless  Union soldier,  who  disregards  his  injured  leg,  and  then  makes  a suicidal   rush  into  the Confederate  lines,  during  one  of  the  Civil  War  battles.   Dances  with  Wolves  starts  off  in a rather  spectacular  fashion,  especially the moment, when  Dunbar   makes  his  suicidal run  into  the  enemy  camp,  one  of  the  best  battle  sequences  ever  filmed, right up  there  with  the  first  battle  in Braveheart,  and   Russel  Crowe’s   “At my signal, unleash Hell” moment  in  Gladiator,  though  the  sight  of   so many  Confederate  soldiers  firing away, and not one bullet  hitting Dunbar  does  look  a bit  too  unbelievable.   But  why  did  Dunbar  attempt  such   a  suicidal  charge,  which  ultimately  did  end  up  in a  victory  for  his  own  forces.

The strangeness of this life cannot be measured. In trying to produce my  own death, I was elevated to the status of a living hero.

Now  raised  to  the  status  of a  hero, albeit  a reluctant  one,  Dunbar  is  asked  to  take  up  his  position,  and  that  is  when  he  choose  the  “Frontier”. It  is a  decision  that  raises  eyebrows  among  Major  Fambrough  and others around.   The  fact  is  that  by  the  Civil  War  period,  the  Frontier,  had  become a  God  forsaken  place,  it   was  considered  a  punishment  posting.   Not  many were  interested  in  settling down  there.   While   nothing  is  really established  of   Dunbar’s  background,  from  what  he  see  of  him  early  in  the  movie,   he  appears  to  be  a reckless  adventurer  with  nothing  really  to  live  for.  That  explains   his  near  suicidal  charge,  and  that  could  be why  for  some  one  like  him,  the  Frontier   appears  to be  the  place,  where  he  could  satiate  his  adventurous  spirit.
Dances  With  Wolves is  what  you  call  in  cinematic  parlance,  “an  old  fashioned  epic  motion  picture”.   For  me  though  it  is  the  kind  of  movie,  for  which  i  go  to  a theater.   I  love  the  Indie  movies, i  love  the  low budget  personal  ones  that  touch  me  somewhere,  as  much  as  i  love  the  mind bender  non linear  stuff.  I  am not  very  genre  specific  when  it  comes  to  movies,  except  the  Rom Com,  and  Chick Lit kinda  stuff,  of  which i am  not  a big  fan.   But  for  me  the  biggest  pleasure  of  going  to  theaters,  was  watching  these  epic  kind  of  movies, with  their huge  wide screen  canvas,  rousing  Background  music,  the  larger  than life  characters.  And i  still  love those  movies  to  date,  even   though   i  see  many  dismissing  them  as  “slow  and  boring”. Slow   maybe, but  boring not  for me,  or  maybe  i am a  pretty  much  old  school  movie  goer,  who  loves to go  along with the  flow,  imbibing  the  characters,  the  plot  and  the drama.
Making  an  epic  drama  to me  is  always  a tricky  ask,  for  starters  the  epic  drama  genre  is  not  a critical  favorite,  couple of  slip ups  here  and there,  and  you  could  have  the  entire  junta  breathing right  down  your  neck.   And  then  there is  always  the  question  of  historical  accuracy,  details  and  controversy,  which do  seem to  accompany  every  movie  of  this  genre.   But  the  toughest  part  is  to  keep  the  audience  attention engaged  for  3  hours,  while  at  the  same  time   remaining true  to  the  spirit  and  tenor  of  the  story.  An  obsession  for  detail  and  accuracy  at  the  expense  of  the drama  quotient,  could  make it  look  like  a documentary.  Too much of  drama, at  the expense of  historical  accuracy  and detail,  could  end  up  making  it look  like  a  caricature.   The  best  movies in  this genre are  those  which  manage  to  strike  a perfect  balance  between  the  background  and  the drama  or  to  put it  “where the  costume  and  the  background  does  not  overwhelm the  characters”. Movies  like  Ben Hur,  Amadeus,  Lawrence of  Arabia,  Bridge  on the River  Kwai, Braveheart to  me  are  examples  of  such  movies.
Kevin  Costner  in  his  first  outing  as  a director,  wonderfully  establishes  the  sprawling  wilderness of  the   American Wild  West  frontier   especially  in  the  scenes  where  he  makes  the  journey  to  the  frontier  post  of  Sedgwick, wonderfully  captured  on camera  by  Dean  Semler,  with  the  haunting  background  score  by  John Barry.  As  Dunbar  makes  his  journey  into  the  wilderness  with  his  horse  Cisco,   and the  uncouth,   farting  Timmons,  he  begans  to  narrate  the  story.

We have been gone four days now and still we have seen no signs of life. Only earth and sky.

The  praire  lands  are  dry  and  desolate,  and  Ft. Sedgwick,  where    Dunbar will be  staying.  The  person  in charge  of  the  outpost,  Capt. Cargill,  is  glad  to be  leaving the  place.  Staying  alone in the wilderness  has broken their spirit, apparently  clear  in the  shot,  when  Cargill   addresses  his  men,   “Men” who  are sick, broken  in  spirit,  and the  “Fort” in  reality  is  just  a  broken  down building, with  nothing  else  around.   As  he  tells  them

I’ve looked for that wagon from   Fort Hays just as you have… day   after miserable day. All I can say     is that I’m proud of you. Get your     things men, we’re leaving this place.   The army… can go to hell.

Pretty  much  clear  that  the  Union  Army  has  not  really  given  this  post  any  care,  it  is just  another  place for  “errant”  officers to be  sent  away,  a punishment  posting.   In  fact  Timmons  feels  Dunbar  is  crazy  for  staying  at  this  half  abandoned  and broken down  “Fort”  that  has  nothing  really  going  for  it.  For  Dunbar  though  it  is  the place  where  he  gets  to  see  the “Buffalo”  and  the  “Indians”.   It is  quite  clear  that  Dunbar  the  outsider, has  a romantic  view  of  the  “Frontier”   as  an  adventurous  place,  unlike  Timmons,  who  sees  it  as hell.  Though  the  posting is  in a decrepit  condition,  Dunbar  loves  it,  as  he  says
The country is everything I dreamed it   would be. There can be no place like   this on earth.
This is  where  one  of  the  best  shot  scenes  comes  in  the  movie.  Dunbar  gathers  all  the  trash  and  junk,  and  lights  them,  which  sends  out  a  huge  column of  smoke.  Something  which  makes  him  nervous,  as  smoke  signals  could   easily  give  away  your  location  to  your  enemies.  And  which  does  happen,  as  a  group  of   Pawnee  tribes  sight  the  smoke.   As  the  camera  zooms  down  the  smoke,  it  turns out to be  that  of Timmons,  having  the supper.  In a rather  gruesome  scene,  Timmons is  ambushed  and  slaughtered  by  the  Pawnees,   and  a shot  of  his  shows  one of  the  men, called  The Toughest  taking  away  his  scalp.  While  Dances with  Wolves  is one of  the  rare  Westerns  where  the  Native  Indians  are   shown  in  a sympathetic  light,  Costner  at  the  same  time  does not  shy  away  from showing   their  more  nastier  side.
As  the  movie  rambles on  showing  Dunbar  setting  up  camp,  waiting  for  communication,  he  befriends  a lone wolf,  calling  it  “Two Socks”. With  Timmon’s   death,  Dunbar  is  totally  cut  off  from the  outside  world,  all  by himself.   He has become a  loner,  with  just  his  horse  and  the  wolf  for  company.  The  scenes  that  show  Dunbar’s  isolation,   effectively  convey  his  sense  of  loneliness.  But  while  Dunbar  is  all  alone,  he  is  content  with  himself.
It is the loneliest of times… but I cannot say that I am unhappy.
Dunbar  is  lonely, however  not  alone, as  he  is  being  observed  by  men  of  the  Sioux  tribe.   Another  great  scene, is when  he  makes  his  first  contact  with  one  of  the  men ,  Kicking Bird( Graham Greene).  Initially  Kicking  Bird  is   curious,  that  the hitherto  desolate,  decreipt  Fort,  now  looks  tidy,  neat  and  orderly.  But  it  is  Dunbar’s  appearance  that  actually is significant,  stripped  free  of  everything,  naked,  he  is  now  a  free  person,  unknown to him, it  is  at  this  point, that he  has  cut  off  from  the  world  he  came from.    Dunbar  does  not  hate  Indians,  but  it  is  clear  from his  VO,  that he still sees  them  as  the  enemy.

Do not know    how many more are in the vicinity   but I am taking steps for another      visitation. Am burying excess  ordnance, lest it fall into enemy    hands.

In fact  for  more  than  15  minutes  in the  middle,  Dunbar  is  the only  character  in the  entire  frame.  He  is  a loner,  framed  against  the  imposing  backdrop  of  the  nature,  doing  all  by  himself,  talking  to  himself.   It is  then  that  the  other  Indian characters  come  into  the frame,   notably the  old veteran  Ten Bears.    Costner  gives some wonderful  insights  into  the  Indian  characters,  their  way  of  life,  especially  the  conversation  between   Kicking  Bird,  who  is  their  medicine man,    and Ten Bears, about the  need  to  hunt  buffalo,  and  Kicking Bird  suggesting  the  dance.   But  most  important   it  gives  the  significance  of  the  signs  to  the  native  Indian tribes.  For  people  who  depended  on hunting  and  farming  for  a living,  the  external  signs  were  important,  they  were  the  indicators  of  what  was to  follow.
There’s a funny thing about signs. They are always flying in our faces.    We know when they are bad or good but sometimes they are strange and    there is no way to understand them.
Kicking  Bird  tells  Ten Bears,  of  his  encounter  with  a lone  naked White man,  at  the  outpost, to which Ten Bears  summons  a council  meeting,  which  is  where  we  get  to meet  the  other  Indians  in the  tribe.   The  dialog,  the  conversation  here  is  critical,  as  it  gives  insight  into  the  characters  and  their  motivations.   The  “naked white man” means  many  things  to  many people.
Kicking  Bird  feels  he  is  some one  special  and  we  could  talk  to  him, it  is  clear  that  he  is a  person  who  has  a long term  view,  as  when  he  tells  one  of  the  council  members  “We must  also  have meat  in the  next  10 years”. Wind in the  Hair, another  of  the  tribe  members, could  not  care  less,  he  is  more  interested  in finding  the  meat  for  the  tribes  people,  showing  the  importance  of  hunting.  It  is  also  clear that  Wind in the  Hair,  has  nothing  but  contempt  for  the  White  men.

They don’t ride well, they don’t  shoot well, they’re dirty. They have  no women, no children. They could  not even make it through one winter n our country. And these people are  said to flourish? I think they will all be dead in ten years.

Sadly  many  native  Indians  thought  the  same  way  as  Wind in the  Hair  did,  they  took  the  White people for  granted,   they  never  imagined  that   one  day  they  would  be  forced  to  live  in  “Reservations” on  their  own  land,  and  live  like  second  class  citizens.  Kicking Bird however  feels  that  if  the  “White  man”  can  stay  alone, then there  must  be  some  others  like  him,  and  he  looks  for  a treaty.  Ten Bears  is however  wary  of  Wind in the Hairs militant  approach,  fearing that  if  the  “White Man”  is  killed,  others  would  come.  This  to me is  one of  the  most  important  scenes  in  the  movie,   giving  us  an  insight  into  what  the  Indians  felt of the  White  people.   Sadly  however  neither  the  militant  approach  nor  the conciliatory  approach  saved  the   native  Indians.  Militarily  they were  decimated  by  the  superior  firepower  of  the  settlers  and   most  of  the  treaties   were  nothing  more  than sham  agreements  that  the settlers  used  to their  advantage  to grab the  lands.
The  other  important  characters   in  the  Indian  camp  are Smiles  a Lot,  Otter   are  the  more hot blooded  teens, who  decide  to  capture Dunbar’s  horse,  as  an  attempt  to show  off  their  bravery.    Another  great  scene  follows  later, when   Wind in the  Hair,  attempts  to  capture  Dunbar,  the  tension  beautifully set  up,  Wind in the Hair, first  apprehensive,  tentative  and  then  charging  at  Dunbar,  but  backing  off  at  the  last  moment.    A  rather  poignant moment  comes  later  on,  when  one of  the  tribes  men, comes  with  the bad  news  that   the  Sioux  tribes  have lost badly  in  a battle  with  the  Pawnees,  “There are many  hearts  on  the ground”, and  the  mourning  that  follows  is  rather  heart  rending,  which  is  where  when  we  see  the  heroine,  Stands  with  a Fist( Mary McDonnell), grieving  over  the  death  of  her   husband.    As i  stated  before, while  Costner   wonderfully gives  us  an insight  into  the  lives of  the  Native  Americans,   he  does  not  shy  away  from  showing  their  rather  darker  side,  the  bitter  inter  tribal  conflicts  among themselves,  that  often  resulted  in  suffering.
Dunbar  now  attempts  to  reach  out  to  the  Sioux,  with  rather  unflattering  results.  In  another  great  scene,  we have  Dunbar  slowly  making it to the camp, along with  the  injured   Stands With a  Fist,   and  when he  reaches  the Indian village,  at  first  sight,  most  of  the  women  and  children  run  away  scared  and screaming.  Dunbar is  the  outsider  to  the  village,  the  stranger. He  is  confronted  by  an  angry  Wind in the Hair, who  makes it clear he is not welcome.  The  contrast  between  Wind  in  the  Hair  and  Kicking  Bird,  could  not  be  starker, one  a blustering hot head,  who  clearly has contempt  for  the “White  Man”  and  another  a  wise, person  who  sees  the  value  of  making peace.   The  initial  interactions  between  John  Dunbar  and  the  Indian men,  is  well shot,  hesitant,  tentative, using sign  language,  what  we have here are two   races, trying  to  reach  out  to  reach  other.    Dunbar  sees  that  the  Indians  are not  what  they  have  been  made  out  to be.

Nothing I have been told about these  people is correct. They are not  beggars and thieves. They are not  the bogeymen they have been made out  to be.

The  fact  is  both  sides  are  guilty  of  mistrust  and  suspicion,  if  the  Whites  see  the  Indian  race  as  thieves, the  Indians  see  the  White  Men  as  fit  for  nothing  dirty  men.  It  takes  men  like  Dunbar  and  Kicking Bird, to break down the  huge  wall  of  ice  between them,  to  understand  each  other.   Stands  With a Fist  is  the  person  who stands  somewhere between,  born White,  but  raised  by the  Indians,  she  is  neither here nor there.  She  has  fully adopted  the  Indian  way  of  life,  and  does  not want to go back  to  the White  people,  but  for  Kicking  Bird,  she is  the  only  way  he  can  communicate  to  Dunbar,  in  effect  the  bridge  that  could  enable  them to cross over.
Dances with  Wolves  to  me is  one  of  the  finest  motion  pictures  made,  and  i  believe it  needs to be appreciated  more.   While  there  is  resentment  among  movie  fans,  that  it  pipped  out  Scorsese’s   Goodfellas,  for  the  Best  Picture  Award,  by  itself   it  remains a  great  movie.   It  has  some  stunning  outdoor  shots,  brilliantly  executed  action  sequences,   and  of  course  the   “Buffalo  Hunt” sequence   remains  one  of  the  best  scenes  ever in  movie  history.     But  more  than  the  outstanding  camera  work,  and  the  technical  values,  it  is  the  way  it  looks  at  the  Native  Americans,  that  makes  it  one  of  the    most  significant  movies  ever.    Traditionally, native  Indians only had  the walk  on  parts  or  the “Nasty  Savage”  parts  in  Hollywood  productions.    Dances  with Wolves,  was  the first  of  the  revisionist  Westerns   that    looks  at  the  Native  Indians  in  a humane  light.  Also  unlike  what  some critics  felt,   John  Dunbar  was  not   a  White  Savior,  he  was  more  of  a person  trying  to  understand  their  way  of  life,  some  one  sympathetic  to  their  cause,   matter  of  fact  it  is  the  Sioux  tribe  that  ultimately proves  to be  his  savior  later  on.    Dances  with  Wolves  is  that  epic  motion  picture  that  skilfully combines  the  elements  of  drama, grandeur,  characterization  along  with a strong  social context,  with  the  right  amount of  detailing,  to  make it a  classic.
Dances With  Wolves  is  also  significant,  in  that  it  resurrected  the  Western, a  genre,  that  was  deemed  finished  in the 80’s ,  barring  an  occasional  Silverado  or  Pale  Rider.  In  fact  it  was  Silverado, in  which  Costner  starred  that  fuelled  his  interest  in  the  Western genre.  While  Dances  With  Wolves  does  not  make an explicit  political  statement  about  the  Native  Indians,  it  nevertheless  showcases  their  way  of  life,  their  belief  system, their  ideology, without  making  a caricature  out  of  them.  The  Indian characters  here  flesh  and  blood  human beings, people  like  any  one  else, with their  own  value  system,  and  that  is  the  reason, when  the  final  message  comes on the  screen, about  the  Sioux  tribe  being  wiped  out, it  becomes  that  much  more  tragic.    Kevin  Costner to me  has  been a bit  of an enigma,  while  he  started  off  well  with   some  real  good  movies  like  The Untouchables,  No Way Out, Bull  Durham,  and  this  one,  later  on  his  career  went into  a  free  fall,  with  a  series of  movies,  each  worse than  the  other.  However  his  other  directorial  venture,  after  the  disastrous  Postman,  Open  Range  has proved  to be an equally  good  one, showing  that  very few  movie  makers understand  this genre   as  well  as he does.   And to end  with  another  quote
Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.
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