Dances with Wolves (1990)
Directed by Kevin Costner

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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After an act of suicidal bravery, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), a Union solider fighting in the American Civil War, is given the chance to choose his next post. He wants to see the frontier and so is assigned to a fort built somewhere in the Midwest. When Dunbar arrives there, he finds the place deserted, but soon learns that a band of Sioux are encamped nearby. Having made contact with these people, he quickly becomes infatuated with their way of life and begins to adopt their culture.

I will freely admit that I am not a great admirer of Kevin Costner's work, either as a director or as an actor, and I did not expect much from his Dances with Wolves. In spite of this, I found the film to be sufficiently well made and intriguing for it to retain my interest throughout much of its duration. Towards its conclusion, the movie does become far too heavy-handed, but this weakness is not so severe as to spoil the whole of the work.

The director's depiction of Dunbar's involvement with the band of Sioux is especially well handled. As the character is always self-reflective, his engagement with these people does not involve some false epiphany, as is commonly the case in movies in which a white man realizes the worth of other cultures. Nevertheless, Dunbar has not been made so aware of his own failings that he seems too much like a man from Costner's time to fit into the Nineteenth Century. Instead, he is shown to be, like many men of that time, fascinated by other cultures in a very romanticized and slightly condescending sort of way and desirous of seeing how other peoples live. The viewer is, thanks to such a presentation of the character, able to lose himself in that man's interactions with the Sioux.

Fortunately, these people are also nicely portrayed. Although their culture is somewhat idealized, it retains enough vibrancy for it to fascinate the viewer. Over the course of his narrative, Costner gradually reveals the prejudices, concerns, and occupations of the Sioux so that their way of life has a genuine and enthralling presence. He effectively brings out the excitement of a buffalo hunt, the joy of a celebratory dance, the thrilling fear of an attack by the Pawnee, and the simple pleasures of daily life.

Such virtues are consistently complemented by the work of most of the cast members. Costner's modern acting style is occasionally distracting, but the performer generally acquits himself well. He is, however, regularly outshone by several of the supporting actors. Mary McDonnell, who plays Stands With A Fist, a white woman who was adopted by the Sioux as a child, and Graham Greene, who plays Kicking Bird, a tribal holy man, are both absolutely captivating.

What is more, the movie is always well filmed. Not only does much of Dances with Wolves have a feel of gritty authenticity thanks to its visual qualities, but it is additionally punctuated by several moments of stunning beauty. At one time or another, the cinematographer, Dean Semler, is able to capture the loveliness of the vast open plains of the American Midwest, of horses moving along a hilltop at sunset, or of some other bewitching image besides these.

Regrettably, Dances with Wolves does have a number of flaws. Costner's depictions of the Pawnee as traitorous, bloodthirsty savages is oddly inappropriate. It is more like something from a Western made fifty years earlier. The score is sometimes overdone, and the protagonist's narration can be painfully awkward.

The film's worst shortcoming, however, is undoubtedly its ending. Costner has felt it necessary to insert the standard bit of drama required at that point in most conventional movies. To make things worse, his presentation of the white characters who appear in this section as brutal, ignorant, and bigoted ruffians is so overdone that it can be grating. Having largely avoided excessive and false contrasts of a pure, natural Native American culture with the corrupt, exploitative, and empty European culture of the whites, Costner finally makes just this sort of comparison. The ending of the film, consequently, is a little tiresome.

Dances with Wolves' faults are distracting, but there is so much in the movie to like that it is still enjoyable to watch.

Review by Keith Allen

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