Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dances With Wolves

 Talk about out of sequence. I watched this several weeks ago on a Monday night, or more to the point early into the wee hours of Tuesday morning. It is was the director's cut and it is close on four hours long over two discs!! Now this one definitely played here in Napier. I can remember why I didn't see in it at the local theatre as I was in hospital being sliced and diced. So missed it this Kiwi did on the big screen, and you know has taken me twenty one years to finally see it!! After last weeks viewing I am a very, very disapponited person to have missed this on the big screen because this is an absolute big screen must to be seen in all its majestic glory.

Where oh where does one start to review a film like this?? I have heard all the raves and reviews but they could in no way prepare me for what my eyes and senses were subjected to. Some movies were just born to played on the big screen and this is one. All the way through I wished heartily I was in a theatre with a private showing. As great as it is one the small screen the big screen is its true domain, and if I could see just one truely classic film on the big screen then Dances With Wolves would be my number one choice. It is quite simply breathtaking.

 I  found this to be as close to flawless a film as it is possible to see. But in saying that there are two, and although minor, I will get out of the way first before extolling the many virtues of this, one of the truely great American films, ever. The film starts with Costner's character ( John J. Dunbar ), waking up in a hospital lucky to have avoided his wounded foot being amputated. He is an officer in the Northern army during the Civil War, and is dis-illusioned by it all. He attempts suicide by riding right in front of the Confederate lines, twice. Each run sees him unhit, and yet his actions provide the Northerners with heart , who charge the Confederates, and rout them out of their positions. An officer who saw Dunbar's actions considered it an incredibly brave action. He seees to it that Costner doesn't lose his foot to the saw bones and grants him an appointment of his choice.

 The problem for me with this scene is it is somewhat melo-dramatic and not really realistic. If a soldier wants to kill himself he has all he needs in his rifle of pistol. Either that or he would enlist in a forlorn hope or other suicidal type mission. To just ride out of his own positions is laughable because his own side would have shot him for attempting to desert. The scene should have seen Costner perform an heroic deed on the battle field, instead of the implausible suicide attempt. It is a small detail and one of only two small flaws within the whole film. The battle scenes were very good, and replicated the Civil War very well. The initial scene is only twenty minutes or so long, so its flaw is quickly forgotten as the film moves west and well away from the war. It is important though because it explains how, and why, Dunbar ends up alone at Fort Sedgwick. By choice.

 The second flaw is the acting of Mary McDonnell who plays a white woman ( Stands with a Fist ), who has grown up with the Sioux after being abducted as a child. She is used a a translator between Dunbar and the tribes medicine man, Kicking Bird. The premise of a white woman raised as a squaw isn't new or the problem here. Unfortunately McDonell just isn't convincing enough as an Indian raised person even though she was nominated for an Oscar. Look at Paul Newman in Hombre to get a comparison performance. Newman is incredibly convincing as a white man raised as an Indian. Of course Newman was one of the truely gifted actors and McDonell isn't in the same league. Right throughout the film she jarred me somwhat in being somewhat unconvincing. It is a challenging role to be sure, but her, and the premise of Costner riding in front of the Confederates in a suicide attempt are the only complaints I have in a other wise perfect film.

 Once the preamble of the first half hour or so is over the movie really gets to where it should be ( and where the viewer wants it to be ). Dunbar arrives at Fort Sedgwick to find it delapidated and abandoned. Costner as Dunbar is totally alone, and he starts narratting to the viewer his experiences. At first he is scared by the isolation and unknown of the prairie. His only companion is his horse, and then a wolf that starts to hang around but forever just out of touching distance ( He nick names it 'Two Socks' for its two white front feet ). Dunbar quickly comes to love his new life, and writes so in a journal he keeps. The isolation suits him and he feels no real need for human contact.

 He slowly repairs the fort and is mystified by the fact he hasn't seen any indians. This all changes one day when a few Indians try and steal his horse. Form here on in Dunbar slowly gains contact with the local Sioux and an uneasy bond starts to form. Many of the younger Indians don't trust him even though he finds an ill Stands With A Fist and brings her to the village. It is the tribes medicine man, who being somewhat older and moderate, who attempts contact and communication with Dunbar. He knows full well with one white man on the prairie then more will follow. He feels Dunbar is an honest man and if he can communicate with him then he can find out what is in store for his people.

He orders Stands With a Fist to translate for him and Dunbar. She is reluctant but does so. Dunbar and Kicking Bird quickly form a friendship based on mutual respect and understanding. Kicking Bird keeps attempting to pry from Dunbar information on when other white men will turn up and what will happen when they do. Dunbar is reluctant to divulge such information because he knows the attitudes of whites to the Indians. As he is accepted more and more into the tribe he writes in his journal , which is narrated to the viewer, 'everything we know about these people is wrong'.

He has a hiccup along the way after white hunters slaughter many buffalo leaving few for the Indians. The Indians retaliate and kill the white hunters. Dunbar is appallled and realises there is still great distance between him and the Sioux peolpe. Dunbar marries Stands With a Fist, and all but abandons the fort to live with the tribe. He learns their language and customs. He even arms some of the tribe when most of the braves are attacking another tribe and helps drive them off. And then, in possibly the best scene of the whole movie, he also paticipates in a buffalo hunt with his rifle. He saves a young Indians life and is basically admitted into the tribe as one of their own. He is given the name Dances with Wolves because several of the Indians had seen him frolicking with Two Socks months before.

 He and Kicking Bird make a pilgrimage to a holy site where Dunbar finally divulges his fears to Kicking bird over what will happen when the whites come. Kicking Bird says that is what he suspected. We then see Fort Sedwick populated by a group of soldiers. Dunbar tells the tribe they must move on and returns to the fort to get his journal. He is captured and treated as a traitor because he refuses to become a translator. He is beaten and tauted for 'becoming Indian'  He is arrested and hauled off back to civilisation for trial for abandoning his post. He is freed after the wagon is ambushed by the tribe. On the way he witnessed the shooting of Two Socks as it followed him in the wagon.

 Up to now the movie had been superb, but the last half hour really set it off as Dunbar's world collapses. All he has learnt to love is destroyed. The wolf is killed ( a very sad scene), and the soldiers bring with them all the brutality, ignorance, and destruction Dunbar knew they would. He sees before him the end of the Indian way of life, and the end of the frontier as an era. It is extremely poignant. For me the whole movie just lead up to this ending.

 What a truley masterful movie Dances With Wolves is. Once Dunbar reaches the fort the whole movie opens up into one incredible viewing experience. It is superbly narrated by Costner for much of it as he is totally alone. The cinematography is simply breathtaking, and great testament to the almost timelessness of the movie. Dances with Wolves just hasn't dated visually which brings home to the viewer its inherent quality. The colour of the praire, and of the Indians is beautifully realised. It is hard to believe that this was made twenty one years ago as it is still extremely fresh looking. I sat through its almost four hours in total awe, and with every scene just wished that I was in a theatre because this is a movie the small screen can do no justice to. I sincerely hope that one day I will get to experience this movie on the big screen because that is where its majesty can be fully appreciated.

 It is hard to believe now isn't it that the name Kevin Costner is now spoken with dismisal, and almost derision? In the 1990's he was a big name, and it is amazing how far he has fallen. Some say Waterworld was his undoing, and yet it wasn't a bad action/drama. It was a commercial flop but it was a big budget entertainer and a movie I genuinely liked. The money for such an expensive movie of course came from his success with Dances With Wolves. Even if Costner has fallen from favour he has left the cinematic world with this masterpiece, and to that I'm thankful.

 Has Costner ever been better in a film? I seriously doubt it. What I particularly like about him as an actor in this is that he is never egotistical or over bearing. I never felt a 'I'm Kevin Costner' vibe from him. If he'd started that then this film would have failed. It's great strength is Costner became the part, and left all the Hollywood nonsense at the door. He cannot be praised enough for his performance, and it is a reminder of the force he once was.

 All in all Dances With Wolves is unquestionably one of the greatest American films ever made. For me it brought home the Indians true plight more than any movie of its type before or since. It shows that they were not indiscriminate savages who killed for the hell of it. In most cases they were a quite gentle people with a deep set pride and dignity. It is no wonder Kicking Bird feared for the future of his people. He knew the white man were going to be like a plaque, and subsequent history has shown us they were.

 As a movie I have two minor quibbles which I have alluded to. McDonell had a very challenging role and done very well in it. I just felt unconvinced by her, and yet the whole movie is so strong that it doesn't effect it in anyway. You may disagree with me and that is ok, it is just something I took away from the movie and must comment on. I say to you get the director's cut and put aside four hours to watch this. Believe me you won't be disappointed as the four hours will not feel like four. The movie moves along very well without any slow spots or the need, let alone feeling, for the fast forward button.

 This is a truely magnificent movie, Brilliantly realised, filmed, acted, and produced , it thoroughly deserves to be recognised as one of the true greats of American cinema. If you haven't seen it then do your self the favour and do so. A truely magnificent, beautiful, thought provoking, emotional, sweeping epic, quite simply cinema at its best.

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 I don't pretend to be any sort of expert on the North American Indians or their plight. What I saw in Dances With Wolves has tied in with what I have read though. If you are interested in two reasonable books on the subject then I recommend both:

Crazy Horse and Custer, and Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose.

 Crazy Horse is yes, about 'that' Crazy Horse of Little Big Horn fame, but Ambrose also details very well the attitudes and mis-conceptions the whites had in regards to the Indians. Dunbar is shown in the movie to refer to this. Undaunted Courage is about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lewis kept a very detailed journal. In it he describes the various Indian tribes he encountered. His observations are very much mirrored in the movie. Both books are extremely readable as was Ambrose's style. His later books, such as Band of Brothers, were never of the quality of his earlier writings, and these two works are two of his best in my opinion.


  1. this one's a classic and the best thing Costner's ever done. Glad you got to see it and great write up!

  2. Thanks!! Struggled like you wouldn't believe to get it written up. Not that fussed on final result I must say. It is a fantastic movie, and agree that Costner hasn't done anything really worth while since. I think the director's cut is definitely the version to see. At four hours it is a very rewaring watch.