Dances with Wolves (1990)
Release Date: November 21st, 1990 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Kevin Costner Actors: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Tantoo Cardinal, Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin
n 1863 Tennessee, in the midst of the Civil War, Union Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is badly wounded and in need of a quick amputation of his right foot. As the field doctors debate their lack of sleep and the likelihood of a successful operation, Dunbar painfully slides his shoe back on and returns to the battlefield. In a fateful suicide mission of his own design, Dunbar then charges enemy troops in the middle of a stalemate, which rallies his men into an unpredictable victory. He’s proclaimed a hero and given the post of his choosing (along with a trusty horse, Cisco). With all appendages still intact, he selects a frontier position, which places him at a desolate outpost in the middle of Indian Territory; his wish is to see the natural beauties of the countryside before they’re gone forever.
The officer in charge of Dunbar’s placement, and the soldier’s eventual travel companion, Timmons (Robert Pastorelli), care nothing for his motives or his decorations. His interests are mocked, but his persuasive gun cements his determination for setting up camp at the abandoned shack, Fort Sedgwick, where he will reside for many months, questioning when his relief will arrive and what has happened to the soldiers who should have been there. Dunbar writes in his journal, which also acts as narration for the viewer, as he wiles away his time observing a wolf, rationing food, keeping up the appearances of his dwelling, and pondering the possibility of Indian armies in the surroundings.
As it turns out, Chief Ten Bears (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) of the Sioux tribe is on the horizon; his young warriors are intent on killing the lone white man, but “Kicking Bird” (Graham Greene), an older, wiser Holy Man, insists on communicating – perhaps a truce can be made. “Stands with a Fist” (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was captured as a child, presents a connection: she speaks broken English and allows for simple correspondence between the hesitant neighbors. As the Sioux search for buffalo and prepare for attacks from the Pawnee enemy, and Dunbar grows fonder of his companions, he begins to worry when the white cavalry, intent on eradicating the Indians, will inevitably arrive.
Character development is at an all time high in “Dances with Wolves,” as audiences are given three hours to familiarize themselves with a single character; his emotions, decisions, thought process, and personality are scrutinized, fleshing out a complex, intelligent, engaging role for actor/director Kevin Costner, who has never been better. And it’s a surprisingly swift 180 minutes. Dunbar is a character that can entertain singlehandedly, though the chemistry between the leaders of clashing cultures provides additional, winning moments. The language barrier is hilarious, the slow learning of customs is engrossing, and the eventual romance is heartwarming. Costner also recognizes the need for excitement with his drama, orchestrating plenty of thrilling battle scenes and buffalo hunts. And fittingly epic music, just right for the occasion of a contemporary classic, accompanies the action. It’s a colossal journey of self-discovery, exploration, and education, rounded out with all of the elements of influential storytelling.
The fact that “Dances with Wolves” appears incredibly authentic – showcasing Native American traditions, costumes, sets, and locations – and serves as historical insight and commentary, is the least of its extensive appeal. It relies primarily on a moving story of humanity and compassion, supplemented by vivid adventure, believable characters, and one of the most spectacularly thrilling climaxes of any production. The concepts of adapting, surviving, making peace, and choosing sides are brilliantly portrayed, with poignant notes of right and wrong and good and evil, and the horrors and triumphs that accompany those qualities. It’s a well-balanced, highly entertaining spectacle, one of the most important projects of the ‘90s, the winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, and accredited with rejuvenating moviegoer interest in the Western genre.
– Mike Massie