Film Review: Dances With Wolves
'Can you see that you will always be my friend', Winds in his Hair
'Nothing I have been told about these people is correct',
John Dunbar/Dances With Wolves
Lieutenant Dunbar, hunting buffalo with his new Lakota friends
Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner,1990
In 1990 when I saw Dances with Wolves I felt uplifted. For the first time the West was shown as it really was, the corny, unrealistic films which you could often see on television were shown up for what they were, good stories which used the west as a setting for the story to take place. Dances with Wolves was accurate where the old John Wayne films like Stagecoach and Fort Apache made the native Americans out to be mindless savages. They had always been happy to ride around a group of soldiers in large numbers, yelling and whooping against a backdrop of ever accelerating music; being skilfully shot from their ponies, rolling over in the dirt and lying stock still. Now their life was shown sympathetically and accurately. Even to the extent of the Lakota (Sioux) speaking their own language, subtitles giving us the translation below. When the Kevin Costner character, John Dunbar, encounters soldiers after living among the Indians, he finds them to be repulsive, clearly they are savages compared to his adopted friends. Looking back I realise that I accepted the film as accurate because it reflected the attitudes and values of its time as much as any other film. This was one reason why it was successful, because I, like the many others who flooded to see it, wanted to see the Native Americans portrayed as people. Although the film is seen through the eyes of John Dunbar, his preconceptions are often challenged and the Sioux or Lakota perspective is shown as very human, in many cases sensitive and generous. It is their humanity and culture which shine through. The script, direction, and acting achieve this excellently.
This was what we wanted in the nineties. We needed an antidote to the racism engendered by the years of Empire. Other cultures were seen as not different but inferior, their religion was incorrect, dangerous, to be feared. Dances with Wolves was as much a film of its time as any other film. Why should it be any different? It was an accurate piece of History in showing our values at the time, we, or at least some of us, wanted to recognise the value of other cultures, and accept the value of a multicultural world in which we found ourselves. It was also a questioning of the values of today's society, and a plea for the simple, natural life. As an accurate portrayal or history of what happened in the west it was no better or worse than any other film. It contained inaccurate details as well as biased perspectives. Although John Dunbar is sent onto the Great Plains to convalesce after being wounded in the American Civil War (1861-5) he takes part in a Buffalo Hunt with his Lakota friends. Together they witness the freshly skinned bodies of a large herd of buffaloes. In the context of the film the purpose is to show what barbarians the 'whites' are. John Dunbar sleeps away from the others that night as he is ashamed of what his fellow 'whites' have done. Historically, there is a problem with this. While the buffalo were hunted in fairly large numbers in the 1860s this was specifically for meat, and not for the skins. Indeed Buffalo Bill gained his nickname by being especially successful in doing precisely this in order to feed railroad workers. These workers were busy fulfilling the post Civil war commitment to unifying the country for the new Americans while splitting it into two for the native Americans and their staple diet, the buffalo. It was not until 1871 that buffalo were hunted for their skins, for it was the discovery of new tanning techniques which enabled the buffalo hides to be exploited commercially for the first time. It was this which would lead to the decimation of the southern buffalo herds in such a short space of time which resulted in the demise of the southern Plains native American peoples.
Such specific chronological misplacement as having buffalo being skinned in large numbers five years before it was possible, may be put down to poetic licence, and on the plus side Dances with Wolves is based on sound historical sources. The pictures of the artist George Catlin and the photographs of Edward Curtis have clearly inspired some of the specific depictions of the Lakota in the film itself and, in general the way their life is shown is helpful to historical imagination. Less forgivable historically is the way the Lakota not only occupy centre stage but become the good guys where they might have expected, in former films to have been the bad. In Dances with Wolves it is the Pawnee who are demonised and it falls to Wes Studi to reprise his role of Magua in The Last of the Mohicans as their heartless, savage leader. However savage the Pawnee may have been, it is ironic that they are seen as the aggressors against the Lakota since historically the opposite was the case. The Lakota had not dwelt upon the Plains until they moved in from the north east in the late eighteenth century. Indeed the very reason which takes them into the centre stage in Dances with Wolves: they were good at fighting, (so good they actually beat the new Americans on occasions, which is why we know about them) also made them successful at taking a large chunk of the plains away from those such as the Arikara and the Crow who had lived there previously. This was why the Arikara and Crow fought as scouts for the U.S. Army against the Lakota.
Of course, to work as a film of a story on a simple level, we must know which is the good and which is the evil. Also of concern, however, is the way Dunbar has to fall in love with a white woman. Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), is a character seemingly created so that the audience's expectations are met by a boy meets girl section of the plot which does not involve any mixing of the races. In defence of Dances with Wolves, at least the subject is validly based on the facts that Plains Indians peoples stole children to replenish their numbers and ensure their survival as a group, and that in such instances the children seem to have been fully assimilated on an equal footing. That Dunbar, himself, should manage this transition does require the suspension of disbelief, but then if the production eases us into it is that not theatre at its best? It is worth adding, as Philip French points out, that Dances With Wolves also offers an opportunity to see the effects of the cutting room on a film. Two scenes which have been reinserted into the Director's Cut, Dunbar's journey with Kicking Bird and the killing of the white hunters serve to reduce the film's tendency to be rather simplistic and sentimental.( Westerns, Philip French,pages 196-8).
Overall Dances with Wolves does stand the test of time, it is a romanticised and sentimental myth that is portrayed. 'How we want the West to have been'. The action scenes, especially the buffalo hunt do not readily transfer to the small screen. But the panoramic scene shots are immense, Australian cinematographer Dean Semler has us discover the wonderful scenery as if we are there. The story unfolds simply in stages, often told through Dunbar recording his experiences and feelings in his journal. We are privileged to accompany him in his journey of self discovery. The intensity of the drama is lightened by a gentle touch of humour which often indicates that family relationships and bodily functions are universal, no matter what class or culture one is from. The music is evocative, a well gauged backdrop which heightens the emotions. The film is optimistic in that even the initially hostile 'Wind in his Hair' comes to glow with fondness and respect for the Wasichu who is ultimately assimilated into the Lakota way of life. I can feel the goose pimples as I write this, thinking about his final words to Dances With Wolves from the top of the ridge. I can still remember the warm glow I felt as I left the cinema as Stands with a Fist and Dances with Wolves went off to make their home in the prairies. My imagination had been well and truly highjacked for a three hour stretch and my emotions had been stretched and tightened and stretched yet again. It was only a couple of days later I realised what they'd had me believe: that two white people from the time had been assimilated into native American life so well that they were to continue a life in the natural wilderness. It is powerful art that stretches credulity so close to breaking point.
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© Chris Smallbone October 2008