By John H. Foote
Dances with Wolves (1990)
The American western had been all but dead when the superb mini-series Lonesome Dove was broadcast on network television in 1988. Based on Larry McMurtry’s sprawling cattle drive novel, the film was made with major actors such as Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, each in a role they recall with great fondness.
“The British, they can have their Hamlet or their Macbeth”, Duvall told me on several occasions, “I played Augustus McCrae, and I am ok with that. The western is ours, it is entirely American, and I hope they always make them.”
Buoyed by the success of that mini-series, Orion Pictures decided to trust Kevin Costner with twenty million dollars to make his dream project, Dances with Wolves, based on the book by his friend Michael Blake. A movie star for a short time, bursting onto the forefront as the hellion gunman in Silverado (1985) one of the few westerns made after the staggering box office disaster of Heaven’s Gate (1980). The actor had enjoyed great success in the years to follow in The Untouchables (1987), No Way Out (1987), Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1990). He would not only star in Dances with Wolves, but he would also direct and produce the film, a staggering amount of pressure for a first time director.
Costner raised eyebrows casting Native American actors, some professionals, some not and announced much of the film would use subtitles as the Lakota language would be used. The panic of the studio did not begin then, but it made the studio aware to keep an eye on things.
The film was shot in Wyoming, the Dakotas, using the vast plains and badlands to explore just how massive, unending the land truly was. Cinematographer Dean Semler used the land as a canvas, creating beauty, showing what it was in 1863, pristine, untouched.
To save money, Costner wisely cast unknown actors, filling the roles of the Native Americans with Canadian actors Graham Green and Tatoo Cardinal, and American Rodney Grant. Canadian Actor Maury Chaykin landed the plum, however, the small role of the Colonel driven mad by the isolation of the prairie, taking his own, life after announcing, “I’ve just pissed my pants…”.
Production took four months, and the budget crept up to twenty-two million causing the trades to focus their attention on the film, poisonously labeling the film Kevin’s Gate in a vicious attack referencing Heaven’s Gate (1980). Yet the studio trusted Costner and allowed him to make the film he wanted to make, an enormous show of faith in the first time filmmaker. When the film was finished, it ran three hours, and one third was subtitled, as the characters, including Costner, spoke Lakota.
So now the studio, behind the scenes, started to panic. They had a film of their hands from a star directing for the first time, but he was still a rather new star. He had made a film that was three hours long, one-third of it subtitled as the actors spoke a Native American language. And…it was a western. Would audiences come? The panic lasted as post-production went forward on the film, but suddenly, stopped, instantly. Costner, sensing the fear in the studio executives showed them a near finished cut of the film and they were delighted, rightly thinking they had lightning in a bottle.
When the opened, film critics across North America raved, hailing the picture as one of the great westerns ever made, and possibly the very best of the year. Following Blakes’ book very closely, no surprise as the author wrote the script, the film opens in 1863 during the Civil War. Dunbar (Costner) has been shot in the leg and is in enormous, near blinding pain. He has been to the medical tent, where a pair of amputated feet and legs force him to pull his boot back on and launch a suicide attack against the enemy. Incredibly he lives as his soldiers conquer the enemy that day. Seen by the Generals’ own surgeon, his leg is saved and he is granted any post he wishes, permitted to keep the horse he rode and quietly is celebrated as a hero.
Wanting to see the country before it is gone, knowing the whites are coming by the hundreds of thousands, he chooses a remote post where he will likely be alone on the ocean of prairie. Once there he realizes the ramshackle fort has been abandoned, likely because of Indian attacks, though he finds no bodies. His only companions are his trusty steed, Cisco, and a curious, wild wolf he dubs Two Socks, so Named for the white fur on his legs and paws.
But of course he is not entirely alone, he is being watched. A tribe of Sioux are close by and after trying to frighten and steal his horse, it becomes clear to the tribe he could be of use to them in revealing how many whites are coming. Back and forth they visit, Dunbar befriending Kicking Bird (Graham Green) and the fierce Wind in His Hair (Rodney Grant). When he alerts them to a herd of buffalo, precious meat for the coming winter, and helps in the hunt, he is taken into the tribe as one of their own, given his own teepee and named, Dances with Wolves, which the tribe creates after seeing him playing with the wolf. He falls in love with a young woman, white, but with the tribe since a child. Stands With a Fist (Mary McConnell) helps him learn their language and initially acts as a translator for him and Kicking Bird. They marry, and he seems content to live out his life as one of them. Returning to the fort to bring with him his journal, he realizes soldiers are there, and they see him, attack him, kill his horse and take him as a prisoner. Realizing he is white, they attempt to interrogate him, but he refuses to answer in English, speaking the name the tribe has given him, and the language they taught him.
Knowing they must move the camp before winter, Wind in His Hair grows concerned seeing the soldiers at the camp and is granted permission to rescue Dunbar. They attack, slaughter the whites and return him to his wife and tribe.
But Dunbar is not a fool. He knows the army will hunt him till the ends of the earth, believing him a traitor. He thinks his journal is in their hands, but before he leaves, he realizes a gentle young Native found it and returns it to him.
Yet he and his wife must leave as they bring danger to the people being among them.
What impressed critics when seeing the film was the manner in which Costner had made a deeply intimate film, a film about friendship against all odds, and yet had also made an extraordinary epic about the taming of the land in early America. The gentle friendship between Dunbar and Kicking Bird evolves beautifully, patiently until the two men are best friends with an unspoken love, and great admiration, for one another. They taught each other so much about each other and were never adverse to learning. The look of Graham’s face before leaving his teepee to say goodbye to his friend is heartbreaking, he has never known this type of goodbye.
Costner gave a solid performance as Dunbar, heroic, stoic, it was a fine piece of acting for the artist, the best of his career to that point. But the film’s best performance was Green as the wise, decent Kicking Bird. Knowing what the arrival of Dunbar means to his people, he gets to know him cautiously, finding that he likes him very much, though his arrival will mean the whites are coming. It is a brilliant performance.
Rodney Grant and Mary McConnell are both very strong, doing fine work, but the gifted Green steals the film from its star Costner.
The film was a huge hit with audiences, eventually grossing in excess of four hundred million dollars, silencing the wags who had predicted Kevin’s Gate. The best was yet to come. Though Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece burned through the major critics’ awards, winning Best Film and Director from the LA. NY, and National Society Critics groups, Dances with Wolves flexed its muscles come Oscar time, racking up an impressive twelve nominations. The film was up for Best Picture, Best Actor and Director (Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Green), Best Supporting Actress (McConnell), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Score, and Best Film Editing among them. By Oscar night, Costner had won the Directors Guild Of America Award for Best Director, as well as Golden Globes for Best Film and Best Director. Forever the outsider, the great Scorsese watched as a Dances with Wolves won seven Academy Awards, besting his critically lauded Goodfellas (1990), a film for the ages.
Hollywood embraced Dances with Wolves for many reasons, but I think most of all, the film explored, honestly, the history of Native Americans and whites. It marked the first time a western had been told from the Native side, granted through a white man’s eyes, and it was the first western since 1931 to win Best Picture. Think about that. Red River (1948), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) all snubbed or losers to another film. Costner had made a beautiful film, an American film which did not shy from some hard historical truths and told a fine story.
He stood on the stage holding his Oscar for Best Director likely thinking this was the first of many visits to the Academy Awards. He has never been nominated again, this was it. He went on to be a star, Falling from grace in the mid-nineties, only to re-emerge as a solid character actor in 2010 and after.
In 2003 he made a brilliant western, arguably greater than Dances with Wolves (1990), Open Range (2003) in which he again directs himself as a deadly gunfighter opposite Robert Duvall.
Finally, that burning question was Dances with Wolves a superior film to Goodfellas (1990) the movie it bested for Best Picture. No. Not at all. Goodfellas (1990) is a stunner, a film for the ages, while Dances with Wolves (1990) is a beautiful, great film. But here we are twenty-eight years later, and Goodfellas is still in the mix of conversation about great films, while the Costner film, though widely admired, is not.
That said, it is a magnificent, powerful work, unforgettable.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.