By John H. Foote

25. DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)

By the late eighties Kevin Costner was a major movie star and reasonably well thought of as an actor. His performance in Silverado (1985) as the hotdogging gunslinger on the side of right was great fun and earned him attention from audiences, critics and directors. Delivering on his promise to write Costner a plum role after having to cut his scenes out of The Big Chill (1983) (he was the man who killed himself), director Lawrence Kasdan gave him a great gift. The work there prompted Brian De Palma to cast the actor, as Prohibition detective Elliott Ness in The Untouchables (1987), the G-Man who went after Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in this big, beautiful crime epic that thrilled audiences and delighted critics. Armed with two impressive studio hits, he could do some films for the sheer love of the story.

Bull Durham (1988) was first, an excellent love story but also possibly the finest film ever made about baseball and what it means to the men playing it. These are not major leaguers, not yet, but rather the men who ride busses from town to town in the minors, no one to carry their gear, no one following their careers, except the coaches and general managers of the majors, looking for that next talent. Costner was terrific as Crash Davis, a catcher who did a get a shot “in the show” years earlier and is now a minor league lifer, tasked with showing the ropes to a gifted young pitcher, Nick (Tim Robbins), and make him a better player. No easy task. He followed that film with another baseball picture, the beautiful fantasy Field of Dreams (1989) which was said to bring tears from the audiences’ toughest men in the final moments. Haunting and lovely, Field of Dreams received a nomination for the year’s Best Film, and he should have been nominated for Best Actor for Bull Durham, still regarded as one of his finest performances.

His best friend had lived with Costner while writing a book, Dances with Wolves, and the actor bought the screen rights with the intention of directing his first film. The author, Jim Blake, was hired to write the screenplay and Orion Pictures entrusted Costner with the film, allowing the actor to star in the film, produce and, most importantly, direct. Now consider: this was a western, a genre thought dead after the debacle that began the eighties, Heaven’s Gate (1980), and the long dry period for the genre through the eighties, only Silverado and Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) even slightly successful. Further it became apparent the Costner directed film would run in excess of three hours, and would be told nearly half, maybe more in subtitles, as the language of the Dakota natives being the chief spoken word. And we had a rookie director.

As production went on, smart ass critics called the film Kevin’s Gate, expecting a disaster, but when screenings for critics began happening in Hollywood, no one was laughing anymore. When released, not only was the film a blockbuster hit, it was very, very good, brilliant in fact, and Oscar talk began whispering through the business.

Like most great westerns the narrative is deceptive in its simplicity, there is always more going on than one suspects. The film requires careful watching, gestures need to be analyzed, facial expressions and hand gestures are important in watching, and the characters portraying the Natives are incredibly important to the eventual narrative. The first evening I saw the film, I was absolutely stunned by the beauty of the narrative, how Costner presented it, the performances, and the glorious cinematography. In fact, if I recall, I declared the film a masterpiece after seeing it, and I stand by that.

The story is set during the Civil War and Dunbar (Costner) is in danger of losing his leg to a bullet wound. In an act of courage he hopes will take his life, he ends up turning the tide of a battle, and the General orders his own surgeon to remove the ball in Dunbar’s leg and make sure he keeps the appendage. He is then granted any post in the army he wants and chooses the one farthest away, wanting to see “the prairie before it was gone.” Given the post, he heads to the flat American prairie where hundreds of miles away is his new home.

Once there he realizes the fort is in terrible condition and begins the work of making it inhabitable. He becomes more and more aware that he is being watched by a wolf, but more alarming a group of Native Americans who have come to check him out. Slowly, he befriends the group, inviting them down for fresh ground coffee, introducing them to sugar for the first time, earning their trust. They exchange gifts – for Dunbar a thick warm hide to use as a blanket, for them sugar of course. As they learn one another’s language he comes to realize they await a herd of buffalo to provide them with meat for the long harsh winter, and when a massive herd thunders across the open land near Dunbar he rides to them to tell them the news. Riding along for the hunt he is struck by their using the entire animal, not a thing is wasted, though they encounter hundreds of dead buffalo, killed for their precious tongues and left to rot. Though the Natives know this is the work of the white man, they say nothing to their new friend who is treated with celebrity and respect in the tribe, though he feels his friend, the Holy Man Kicking Bird (Graham Green), pushing for information on the white man and their coming. The closer they become the safer Dunbar feels in revealing the number of whites will be “more than the stars in the heavens”. Dunbar becomes one of the tribe, given his own dwelling, a beautiful teepee and he falls in love with one of the white women raised as one of the tribes own, speaks their language but teaches those who want to know his own. When another murderous tribe attempt to attack them, Dunbar arms them with rifles, and though they lose some of their own, they defeat the killers and Dunbar’s heroics are celebrated throughout the tribe. He marries Stands with a Fist (Mary McConnell), a white woman raised by the tribe after her parents were slaughtered, making him truly one of them.

Mary McDonnell and Kevin Costner.

Dunbar has found the truth about the Natives, that they are a simple, peaceful people, living off the land, taking nothing that does not belong to them, while the whites coming to their country take everything in sight. He discovers he prefers the Native way of life, perhaps because there is a purity to it he has never known, and he feels for the first time, accepted, and loved.

Returning to the fort one night he is horrified to see smoke emerging from his chimney and soldiers walking around the outside of the fort. Soldiers have arrived. Dunbar sees them but does not realize they have already seen him, and as they kill his wolf, he is captured and will be taken back to the military headquarters and hanged. Initially they think they have captured a Native, but quickly discover he is white and has changed, gone to the other side, “gone Injun” as they so poetically put it. His journal is found and passed around among the men, his entire history damning him in any court in the land. Knowing something is terribly wrong, Wind in His Hair goes looking for his friend with a group of warriors and they do indeed attack as the soldiers march on the trail home. The Natives slaughter the soldiers, all to get their friend Dunbar back, and get him back they do indeed. But Dunbar knows that the actions of the Natives will bring more soldiers, with murder on their mind to avenge the men killed. Dunbar, now Dances with Wolves, knows he and Stands with a Fist must leave the tribe in order for them to be safe, and thereby left alone. Sadly, Kicking Bird knows the same, and he is devastated to have to say goodbye to his friend, the only white man he has ever really known. They meet in the middle of the camp, bearing gifts for each other. They speak to one another with admiration and great respect, Kicking Bird saying to Dunbar, “We’ve come far, you and me” and Dunbar says, “I will not forget you” and we know that is true. The men have come to be the best of friends, family, and parting is gutting them both.

As they ride out of the camp, high above on a cliff roars Wind in His Hair, “Dances with Wolves, can you not see I am your friend? Can you not see I will always be your friend?” as Dunbar leaves with enormous regret. The Natives break camp, and the army arrives on their heels, but Dunbar is safe and away.

Critics had a great deal of good to say about Dances with Wolves, but the shock of the audience reaction was truly shocking. Very quickly the film became a box office smash, with lines forming around city blocks to get in to see the picture. A western had not attracted such widespread acceptance since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Hugely ambitious, Dances with Wolves is a magnificent story told simply by a director who knew exactly what he wanted to say with his film. There is a profound moment in the film where Dunbar finally knows who he is and what he is fighting for. He never knew as a soldier, and frankly did not care, he followed orders. But after a vicious battle with the tribe of killers, the Pawnee, he stands and knows for the first time in his life what he is fighting for and who John Dunbar is, or was, because at that moment he becomes Dances with Wolves and forever leaves Dunbar behind, without a single regret.

For a genre thought to be dead, Costner found a way to breathe fresh life into it, just as Clint Eastwood would do two years later with the darkly brilliant Unforgiven (1992). He finds more humanity within this tribe than he ever found in the white man’s world, and rather than question it, he embraces it. 

The performances in the film were superb, beginning with Costner as Dunbar, who before our eyes becomes a better man as a Native and evolves into Dances with Wolves. As he says, for the first time he knows who he is, and who he will be for the rest of his days is Dances with Wolves. Narrating the film as well as appearing on the screen, it is a powerful performance, one of the finest in the early career of the actor, who after a few flops through the nineties, evolved into a fine character actor. This is easily the crowning achievement of his career, yet oddly enough not his finest film, not that he directed, that distinction belonging to Open Range (2003).

Kevin Costner and Graham Green.

Graham Green was a Canadian born Native who had been acting all his life, mostly in CBC films and programs and films for the National Film Board of Canada. The moment he walked into the room and the casting agents saw his profile, he was cast as Kicking Bird, and gave a profoundly brilliant performance, filling the film with his gentle soul.

Mary McConnell was well known for her stage work, and eased into film, acting slowly, doing her best work here as Stands with a Fist. Though she fluently speaks their language, she also still remembers bits and pieces of English, struggling to help Dunbar understand Kicking Bird. Gradually the men find they can speak to one another, listening carefully, learning some of the other’s language. McConnell, very much in the middle, falling in love with Dunbar gives a fine performance.

Rodney Grant is ferocious as the frightening Wind in His Hair, one of the tribe’s wildest warriors and initially very worried about the connection built with Dunbar. But recognizing a decent man, believing Dunbar cares about the tribe, they become the best of friends. Grant inhabits the character in every way, arrogant, ferocious, a warrior, he is perfect.

The film was nominated for a whopping 12 Academy Awards including nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director (Costner), Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Green and McConnell), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing. Having already conquered the Golden Globes with wins for Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director it was no real surprise when the film waltzed to seven Academy Awards on Oscar night. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. What was surprising was that the film ran away with the Oscars when its chief competition was the critics’ darling, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) now a legendary mob film, the finest work of the master’s career. Costner said he felt a tad odd winning the Directors Guild America over Scorsese, who he said, “I believe Marty should win every time he is nominated.”

Dances with Wolves is a modern classic, a beautifully told, superbly shot and directed film which explores friendship and understanding, the way it should have happened. Sadly it did not, to the eternal shame of early Americans, but at least they understand their actions were repellant and where there was shame, there could have been hope. How do I know this? It is in every frame of this majestic western.

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