Nation lost, family found

Reclaiming life among the Lakota

Published: Jun 21 2019, 01:01:am

Friday, November 24, 1990

DANCES WITH WOLVES. Witten by Michael Blake based on his 1988 novel. Music by John Barry. Co-produced and directed by Kevin Costner. Running time: 178 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: some violence, occasional nudity and suggestive scenes.

GENERAL TIDE (DONALD HOTTON) views the action from the crest of a hill overlooking St. David's Field, Tennessee. Below, his Union Army forces are separated from the Confederate troops by an open expanse.
    Suddenly, he sees a young officer galloping towards the rebel line.
    "What is it, sir?" says a startled member of the general's staff.
    "Looks like a suicide."
    Dances With Wolves, first-time director Kevin Costner's thoughtful, involving period adventure, opens with a snapshot of the War Between the States. His camera offers us an injured soldier's view of battlefield surgery.
    Costner's subjective camera puts the filmgoer on the open-air operating table, where he can overhear a pair of bone-weary medical officers deciding to amputate his foot.
    Then the camera shifts position, and we meet Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner), the man about to be dismembered. Before doing the deed, though, the overworked physicians break for coffee.
    Dunbar, in pain and despair, makes his own break. He returns to the line, quietly determined to die whole. Commandeering a horse, he begins his suicidal charge.
    Miraculously, he survives as the battle is joined and won. Dunbar's damn-fool heroism wins him proper medical treatment, a medal, and his choice of military assignments.
    Perhaps aware that he's living on borrowed time, he opts for a western posting, to see the frontier "before it's gone."
    Later, we see Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) viewing the action from the crest of a hill overlooking the Dakota plains. Below, a lone white soldier is involved in a friendly, almost playful encounter with a wolf.
    The soldier dismounts and fearlessly chases the wolf away. The wolf, equally fearless, returns with a doglike devotion. From a distance, they appear to be dancing.
    Eventually, Lt. Dunbar learns that his Lakota-Sioux "neighbours" have named him "Dances With Wolves." He finds that this pleases him and he confides to his journal that he's really never known who John Dunbar was.
    Individual and unexpected, Dances With Wolves is a welcome combination of historic exploration, cultural reconciliation and spiritual journey. With wonderful iconoclasm, Costner has nurtured Michael Blake's 1988 novel into the year's most satisfying directorial debut.
    A significant new talent in the Robert (Ordinary People; The Milagro Beanfield War) Redford mould, Costner shows that he is a formidable screen artist. His first feature has intensity, visual sweep, thematic depth and professional polish.
    An archetypal American tale, Dances With Wolves is the story of a man whose inner focus shifts from desiring to die whole to needing to live whole.
    A self-exile, he's been abandoned by his natural "family" (a white America torn apart by a fratricidal war; a U. S. Army gone mad with bloodlust, and loneliness). Indeed, Dunbar is unaware of his own emptiness until he experiences the richness of life among the Lakota.
    Among them, he feels community, finds true love and discovers his own identity.
    For older filmgoers, this is familiar, almost traditional territory. A generation ago, similar feelings were expressed in such features as A Man Called Horse and Soldier Blue (both 1970).
    In the former, Richard Harris played an English lord captured by Indians. A harrowing, violent drama, director Elliot Silverstein's feature took an anthropological interest in tribal ritual, presenting audiences with a film in which 80 per cent of the dialogue was spoken in the Sioux language
    In the latter, historic parallels were drawn with Vietnam war atrocities. Violent and politically committed, director Ralph Nelson's movie depicted the Cheyenne as victims of a savage American racism.
    Costner, with no obvious axes to grind, cultivates similar ground to better effect. His film offers the anthropology and the spoken Sioux (with English subtitles). It also contains the least-flattering portrait of the U. S. cavalry since  Soldier Blue.
    To his credit, though, these elements are contained in a humane, beautifully conceived and realized film. A vision more unifying than divisive, Costner's picture presents a calm consideration of truth as the only basis for either personal or social growth.
    A low-key epic, his film is just two minutes short of three hours. One practical test of its dramatic power is the fact that this stunning achievement of personal filmmaking feels neither long nor drawn out.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1990. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Though recognized by film scholars as the major defining genre of the American movie industry, the Western doesn’t get a lot of respect when the Hollywood elite gather for their annual Academy Awards ceremony. Between its founding in 1929 and 1990, only two westerns won a Best Picture Oscar: 1931’s Oklahoma land rush epic Cimarron, and Dances With Wolves. The seven other westerns to receive nominations were 1929’s Old Arizona, Stagecoach (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), How the West Was Won (1963), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
    As if to make up for lost time, the Academy heaped 12 nominations on first-time producer-director Kevin Costner’s surprise box-office blockbuster. It won seven, including the best picture, director (Kevin Costner) and music (John Barry) awards. Among the also-rans were Costner (for best actor), Graham Greene (supporting actor), and Mary McDonnell (supporting actress). Because a newspaper has only so much space, my published review emphasized context over storyline. As a result, there was hardly any detail about the title character’s interaction with his indigenous hosts.
    Nor did I point out the important role that Canadians played in the film’s success. The cast includes First Nations actors Graham Greene (as Sioux medicine man Kicking Bird), Tantoo Cardinal (as tribal matriarch Black Shawl) and Jimmy Herman (as Stone Calf), as well as the Canadian-based actors Maury Chaykin (as Major Fambrough) and Floyd ‘Red Crow” Westerman, (as Chief Ten Bears). In the Afterword to my review of 1995's animated Pocahontas,
I noted that First Nations (Canadian) performers outnumber Native American actors in the movies by more than two to one. That is a stunning disparity, given that the U.S. population is 10 times bigger than Canada's.

Native land: The four indigenous-themed features included in this Reeling Back package are director Philip Kaufman’s The White Dawn (1974), Kieth Merrill’s Windwalker (1981), Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), and Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994).
     Already included in the archive are: Alien Thunder (1974); The Inbreaker (1974); The Wolfpen Principle (1974); Black Robe (1991); Clearcut (1991); Thunderheart (1992);  Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story (1992); Shadow of the Wolf (1992); and Pocahontas: The Legend (1995).