Friday, January 16, 2015

Dances With Wolves (Best Picture 1990)

Dances With Wolves is one of the films I like to watch when I take the time to watch it. I think I've seen it four or five times. I would watch it more, but it is so long that it takes a definite commitment to sit through. If you do make that commitment, though, you are rewarded with a unique and beautiful Western.

Kevin Costner stars in this film that he also produced and directed. It is obviously a labor of love for him. He plays Lieutenant John J. Dunbar of the US Army. When we first see him he is about to get his foot cut off during a Civil War battle in Tennessee. Instead of suffering that fate, he decides to commit suicide by riding towards the Southern encampment on the other end of the open field. However, none of the rebels were ready to shoot him, and they all miss. Intent on his suicide mission, he rides back to them. By this time, however, his northern comrades have decided to use his actions as a diversion, and they charge the rebels, routing them. When he recovers from his wounds, he asks for a transfer to the prairies, because he wants to see them "before they are gone."
He is sent to isolated Fort Sedgewick. He is the only man there, and is not sure why it was deserted. Native Americans of the Sioux tribe gradually start to make contact with him, and although he resists at first, he eventually decides to be up-front with them. He gradually becomes friends with Kicking Bird (a wonderful Graham Greene) and, more slowly, with Winds In His Hair (a terrific Rodney A. Grant). He also eventually meets Stands With Fist, a white woman who grew up with the Sioux after she escaped from a Pawnee massacre. Mary McDonnell is awesome as a woman who doesn't know where she belongs or what to cling to. She is outstanding.
The story becomes one of inter-dependence between the white cavalry man and the Sioux tribe. They could kill him and be rid of him, but they sense that he has a good heart, and means them no harm. They also hope to use him to communicate with the crowds of white people they are afraid are coming. For Dunbar, he seeks them out from sheer curiosity, then for companionship, and then because he likes them. They call him "Dances With Wolves" because he had befriended a lone wolf hanging around his isolated fort. Later when he meets up with the US Army again, he is arrested for treason for siding with "the savages" against society. By this point we see that it was an easy choice for him to make. Symbolically, the Army shoots his horse and the wolf, destroying all that Dunbar holds dear.

The story unfolds slowly, but the film is never dull. Costner as director enjoys gazing at the vastness, lingering on the golden prairies, the Sioux village, and the mountain ranges in wonderful panoramic shots that leave you, literally, breathless. The buffalo stampede at night is beautifully lighted and filmed, and the buffalo hunt that occurs a few days later is a marvel of cinematography. The attack of the Pawnee tribe is simultaneously well-choreographed, scary, and sad. The images of Pawnee warriors racing through the rain and water, then surrounded by darkness so that only their silhouettes are seen, is masterfully done.

The only mis-step in the film as far as I am concerned is the ending. We are led to believe that the US Army is on its way to attack the Sioux after Dunbar escapes. The film makes it seems that the Army is about to invade the village. Then Costner as the director throws us a switch, and we see that the Army is at the wrong camp. I didn't like this imitation "thriller" and would have preferred it to have been done differently. Speaking of the US Army, at the beginning and again at the end they seem to be 90% incompetent or evil. I think the story would have worked better if everyone Dunbar had met wasn't a stereotype.

This film really touched me when I saw it on its first-run. Remember, I was an American living in Japan at the time, a situation parallel to that of Lt. Dunbar. There were quite a few scenes that hit home for me, such as trying to communicate, misunderstanding the other person's intentions, etcetera. Seeing the film again many years later, I was reminded just how good a film this is about cross-cultural understanding.
Besides Best Picture, Dances With Wolves also won Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Music (John Barry). Costner was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune. Graham Greene was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. And Mary McDonnell was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost. 
Dances With Wolves is a film every student of US history should watch. It might be biased against the US Army, but there is no denying some of the horrors of that time. And as epic films go, this is a great one. This is a beautiful story, beautifully filmed.  

Dances With Wolves
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1990*
Produced by Jim Wilson & Kevin Costner
Directed  by Kevin Costner
Screenplay by Michael Blake
Based on his book

This trailer gives you a pretty good idea of the scope of this film

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Godfather Part III
Compared to these other four nominees, Dances With Wolves definitely deserved to win. Not to say that these other nominees are not good films, but Dances With Wolves is the only "epic" among them. The scale is just different. Awakenings is another intimate character study starring Robert DeNiro as a mental patient who takes an experimental drug and "awakens" to another personality. Very "Flowers For Algernon" like. Ghost is a fantastic comedy-thriller starring Whoopi Goldberg as a clairvoyant who can hear but not see Patrick Swayze's ghost. Goodfellas is another mobster film, this one featuring Joe Pesci as a crazed henchman. The Godfather Part III is the only film here I have never seen. The third part of The Godfather saga just doesn't interest me.

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