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.