Let us count the ways Dances With Wolves was beloved by audiences. On the zeitgeist level, its compassionate anthropological detail soothed our national guilt over the treatment of Native Americans. Narratively, it went over as solid entertainment. And personally, it was seen as director-producer-star Kevin Costner’s very own field of dreams. No one in Hollywood had believed him when he said, If I film this, they will come. But after grossing $182 million and winning seven Oscars, ”Kevin’s Gate” had become the underdog epic that could, and Costner had solidified his image as a plainspoken embodiment of American values — a new Gary Cooper. People loved being part of that come-from-behind win as much as they liked the movie itself.
To criticize his achievement, then, is to risk being damned as a snide Kevin basher, a churl. But all of Dances With Wolves’ good intentions — many of which are realized — can’t hide the fact that the movie sells out history for the romantic simplicity of a Boy’s Own Adventure. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re up-front about it, but Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake are after bigger game: They want Dances to be the Corrective to All Previous Movies About Native Americans. All they’ve done, though, is switch the labels around on the same old Hollywood goods.
Worse, even those who enjoyed the movie in the theater may find it a lesser experience on home video. Every epic film loses out in the transition to TV, but Dances With Wolves is especially hamstrung because it depends so heavily on the visual beauty of its locations. The neophyte director has framed his shots artfully for the big screen, but on TV those same shots seem crowded or truncated (and there’s at least one case, during the Pawnee attack on the Sioux village, in which the visual information that identifies the person who saves Lieut. John Dunbar’s life is reframed right out of sight). You always sense that you’re not getting the whole picture, and since the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Western plains is meant to reflect the spiritual purity of the Sioux nation, that thematic aspect gets compromised as well. Unfortunately, unless the much-discussed director’s cut ever finds its way to tape in a letterboxed format, this is the version we’re stuck with.
Some of Costner’s ambitious vision still comes through, though. In this age of seizure-inducing MTV edits, it’s a pleasure to find a movie that’s willing to sprawl a little, to take its time and explore narrative byways. The director gives his actors plenty of slack as well, and is rewarded not only with Graham Greene’s and Mary McDonnell’s wonderfully precise Oscar-nominated turns but also with pungent smaller performances from Tantoo Cardinal, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, and Robert Pastorelli. Even more impressive is Dances With Wolves’ re-creation of the Sioux village, a lovingly researched, vividly realized canvas of an extinct way of life. By giving Native Americans in general and the Sioux in particular the dignity of the details — not least of which is letting them speak their own language — Dances truly plows new ground.
But visual details can’t compensate for moral simplemindedness, and Costner can’t resist the temptation to boil down the Native Americans-versus-whites confrontation to white hats versus black hats. As we follow Dunbar on his 1863 journey into Sioux country, we see through his eyes as he comes to realize that ”nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not beggars and thieves; they are not the bogeymen they are made out to be.”
Any student of American history will tell you that they weren’t the placid prairie nobles portrayed here, either. ”War is the breath of their nostrils,” wrote the equally admiring historian Francis Parkman, who lived with the Oglala Sioux for several weeks in 1846. ”Against most of the neighboring tribes they cherish a rancorous hatred, transmitted from father to son, and inflamed by constant aggression and retaliation.” Dances With Wolves is so intent on painting the Sioux as victims that it denies them the less pretty characteristics that would make them truly three-dimensional.
There are plenty of ”bogeymen” in Dances With Wolves, though, namely the Pawnee (who were neither more nor less warlike than the Sioux) and, to a much greater extent, the whites. When Dunbar returns to his post from a paradisiacal native holiday, he finds a U.S. Army platoon awaiting him, manned by drooling, cackling wretches who would give the Deliverance villains pause. How degenerate are these guys? Well, first they shoot Dunbar’s faithful horse. Then they kill his pet wolf. Then, in case you’ve missed the point, they use his sensitive notebook jottings for toilet paper. By the time the Sioux ambush them, you’re meant to be screaming for blood, and in Dances’ theatrical run, audiences across the country heartily obliged.
Perhaps this is a silly question, but exactly how is this an improvement over screaming for the Indians to die in old cowboy movies?
Ironically, Kevin Costner didn’t need to stoop to rabble-rousing to prove that the U.S. Army practiced genocide on the Sioux and other nations. The historical facts are complex, sure, but they’re also just as dramatic and arguably more tragic (pick up a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee if you don’t believe it). Perhaps because it’s his first time behind the camera, Costner doesn’t trust his audience enough to forgo manipulative tricks like cute-animal reaction shots and John Barry’s corny score. That makes Dances With Wolves fine for people who like to be told how to react every step of the way. Even they may be underwhelmed by this film on home video, however. As for audiences that don’t enjoy being hit over the head, we’re still waiting for the great Native American movie to be made. B-