DANCES WITH WOLVES (DIR: KEVIN COSTNER) (SCR: MICHAEL BLAKE, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME, ALSO BY BLAKE)
In 1991, the Academy started the new decade by awarding DANCES WITH WOLVES the best picture of 1990; it was the first western to win since CIMARRON way back in 1931. More importantly, its victory was a major vindication for the film's director and star, Kevin Costner, who turned a difficult dream project into an enormous success. And while it's not my personal favorite film of that year, it is good looking and entertaining, plus it manages to hearken back stylistically to the classic Westerns by directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, while also looking forward to a far more progressive view of Native American culture than those old films ever portrayed.
It began in the early 1980's, when screen writer Michael Blake first wrote the film as a screenplay. Kevin Costner read the script and liked it, but urged Blake to first publish the story as a novel, which he felt would make it an easier sell to Hollywood as an adaptation. The book was eventually published in 1988, and Costner immediately bought the rights, hoping to make it his directoral debut. Vigo Mortensen was considered for the lead role, but eventually Costner realized that his own star power (he was then riding high after hits like FIELD OF DREAMS and BULL DURHAM) would aid the film's box office potential, and so he decided to play the title role. For the sake of authenticity, the rest of the cast were mostly unknown Native American actors. Shooting took place mostly in South Dakota, and when the film ran over budget as the cast and crew contended with buffalo herds and drought, there were many in Hollywood who considered the film a potential disaster, with some calling it "Kevin's Gate", (a reference to Micheal Cimino's 1980 dud, HEAVEN'S GATE). Eventually, Costner put up his own money to help fund the film and soldiered on, even as some laughed at reports that much of the dialogue was spoken in the Native American language of Lakota, which would make it a hard sell to American audiences who tend not to like subtitles. But Costner had the last laugh, as the film eventually returned over one hundred and eighty million dollars at the box office on a budget of around twenty. He would also win an Oscar for best director.
It's story is about Lt. John Dunbar(Costner), a Union Civil War Hero who is sent to a position on the Western frontier. At first, he thinks it's deserted, but he eventually befriends an Indian tribe living nearby, and as he grows to respect them, he soon throws off his "civilized" ways and lives with them. Eventually, he is forced to choose between his military past and his newfound culture.
Right away, one can sense in every frame that this was a film that Costner felt passionate about making in his desire to portray Native Americans in a much more honest and respectful way than they had been in most Westerns. That's why his decision to have the Sioux speak their own language with subtitles is so right; for years Native Americans onscreen have been shown speaking a ridiculous form of pigeon English (full of "Ug"s and "How"s), so by having them speak eloquently in their own language,
(and by making Costner's character learn their language) that laughable stereotype is put to rest. While it does seem awfully convenient that the Sioux have a caucasian woman (Mary McDonnell) living with them who can serve as interpreter (and eventual love interest) for Costner, it doesn't really damage the film.
This is also a terrific looking film: Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler (who won an Oscar for his work) shoot the gorgeous scenery of South Dakota is a sweeping manner, often portraying how small a man alone can look when he's surrounded by nature. The film's action scenes are also great looking and exciting, especially the buffalo hunt, (which was shot with nine cameras), which features a stampede of hundreds of buffalo that move like a flood through the plains.
Directing himself, Costner seemed fully aware of what had made him a star: his good looks combined with his soft spoken likability and innate sense of decency (not unlike Gary Cooper's persona) so he plays up to those in his performance. He never over emotes, allowing the action, the story and the visuals to do all the heavy dramatic lifting. Along with being thoughtful, kind, and brave, his John Dunbar has an intimate connection with animals (he bonds with a wolf) and is perfectly willing to throw out his prejudices about Native Americans when he finds them to be untrue. At times his character comes across as a little too good to be true, (especially when he compares himself to Jesus in the first scene!) and, as is often the case with stars who direct themselves, a little too perfect looking, but at least he allows his character to sometimes look foolish or fall on his face, so Costner's ego was at least in check somewhat. (Seven years later Costner directed himself again in the sci fi film THE POSTMAN, a notorious flop in which his bloated sense of self importance about his on screen character was widely mocked by critics). He also got good performances from his mostly non professional Native American cast, especially from Graham Greene as Kicking Bird, who radiates with intelligence and plays off Costner nicely onscreen.
|Graham Greene & Kevin Costner|
Considering how much this film had personal meaning for Costner, it's understandable just how much he hated to see it end, unfortunately that means that at over three hours, there are more than a few slow spots: it takes almost an hour for our hero to have any contact with the Sioux, and there are some scenes that just don't seem necessary (like an early encounter Costner has with suicidal Union Major Fambrough, [Maury Chaykin]a truly odd scene that I just don't get). Still, the film's length also allows for some scenes of the Sioux tribe just being themselves, and engaging in what was normal behavior for them, which deepens all of the characters and adds to the film's realism, so the long running time is sometimes a good thing.
While some historians complained about inaccuracies in the film, especially in the treatment of the Sioux tribe, who may not have been as peace loving as they are shown here, I don't find that a serious flaw, especially when one considers the ridiculous portrayals (often by white actors in red paint!) that Native Americans have been subjected to over the years. Another criticism aimed at the film is that it just exploits white guilt about the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers over the years, and that the white soldiers are all sadistic brutes and the Native Americans are all noble savages. Now, while I do wish that Costner didn't lay it on so thick with the white soldiers, who are all repulsive and sadistic (his is the only truly likable white man in the film), it should be pointed out that not all of the Native Americans are shown as perfect, as they do wage war with other tribes, and they can be sadistic in battle. Furthermore, I don't think that showing Native Americans being mistreated and killed by white soldiers and settlers is wrong because it happens to be based on historical truth; from the spread of Small pox to broken treaties, American history is littered with stories of Native Americans being abused by whites, and to deny that is to deny history. You can call that guilty white liberal bias if you want, but as Stephen Colbert often says, "Reality has a well known liberal bias."
One final point about this film: while Costner made no bones about being influenced by classic Western directors (this is most overtly seen in the flashback to the kidnapping of the McDonnell character when she was a little girl, which clearly harkens back to a similar scene from John Ford's 1956 film THE SEARCHERS), there is another film that predates this one and has a few similarities, Arthur Penn's excellent 1970 film, LITTLE BIG MAN. Both films have a hero that narrates the film and spends years living with Native Americans, bonding especially with a wise older tribe member, and witnessing firsthand the horrible treatment of the tribes at the hands of white soldiers. (Even the titles of both films come from the Native American name given the main character). Now, there are also many differences between the two films, with Penn's hero leaving behind the tribe to have other old west adventures, and the tone of the films couldn't be more different, with Costner's deadpan seriousness contrasting with Penn's often comedic tone, not to mention Penn's use of history to make digs at modern issues of that day like free love and the Viet Nam war, so the two films are quite different. Still, I think LITTLE BIG MAN is worth mentioning because DANCES WITH WOLVES is often pronounced as the first sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood history, when, in fact, Penn's film with many of the same themes predated it by twenty years, and is, overall, a better film in my opinion. Also, I should mention in all fairness to old Hollywood, Delmer Daves's 1950 film BROKEN ARROW made a definite attempt to show more fairness towards Native Americans, the first of the old Westerns to really do so. But even in that film the Native Americans were portrayed by white actors, so it would take decades before Hollywood really got it right.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
While I think it is understandable that the Academy would want to award Costner's risk taking in making DANCES WITH WOLVES, I don't think it was the year's best film; I prefer Martin Scorsase's hyper violent gangster comedy GOODFELLAS, which featured great performances and Scorsase's terrific, kinetic directoral style. The awards for both best picture and best director to Costner that year probably stung Scorsase, especially because this would mark the second time that he was defeated for the director award by a first time director! (The other time was when Robert Redford triumphed over him in 1980 for ORDINARY PEOPLE, defeating his work on RAGING BULL). Thankfully, Scorsase's day would eventually come, although it would take another decade for him to get there.