Oscar Movie Month: "Dances With Wolves" Review


Oscar Movie Month: "Dances With Wolves" Review

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 181 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Directed by: Kevin Costner
Genre: Adventure/Drama/Western
Cast: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, and Graham Greene

Union Army officer Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) has made a few enemies in the Army of the Potomac and finds himself exiled to a remote duty station in the west during the civil war. There, he is confronted by the reality of America's Indian policy and comes to identify with a people whose future is being foreclosed on, courtesy of Dunbar's superiors. This gives him an unfortunate close-up look at what primitive war looks like when the stakes are the very survival of an entire people.

All three of the central roles of "Dances With Wolves" earned Oscar nominations for their work. Kevin Costner, who was always famous for mumbling his lines as if they were somehow embarrassing, found cinema gold with a character who genuinely has a lot to be embarrassed by, seeing as how it's his side that's gearing up for genocide. Graham Greene and Mary McDonnell both had their work cut out for them, given the essentially secondary role the script assigned to their parts, but work they did. It's worth noting that this film also had many of Native American actors in it who weren't nominated for anything in particular. Rodney Grant (Wind In His Hair) finally did receive something called the Bronze Wrangler from the Western Heritage Awards.

Kevin Costner directed this film, a statement that was not the shattering portent of doom before "Waterworld" was released that it is now. The direction of this film was tight and well-paced. Costner manages to pull decent performances out of his team and even manages the surprisingly difficult task of directing a few scenes in which his character has to lie still with his eyes closed. That is to say, for certain shots in this film, the director was physically unable to see what was going on. This turns out better than one would expect, as the cast is composed mostly of veteran actors who know which way to jump before they hear the crack of the director's riding crop. "Dances With Wolves" was cursed with a script that meanders aimlessly at times and sometimes doesn't seem to know where it's going. Costner and the film's cast deserve a great deal of credit for being able to create something so special with the material they were given.

Due to unfortunate demographic realities, the story of the beginning of the end of an independent Plains culture had to be told through white main characters. Look again at the top-billed actor in this film; for some reason it was felt to be impossible to tell the story of the Plains Indians from the perspective of an actual Indian. The same problem dogs other films, notably "Little Big Man," "Shogun," "The Last Samurai," and "Avatar," the last being technically about aliens, but with a plot so similar to "Dances With Wolves" that the credit sequence should have included a special thanks to Kevin Costner's legal staff for not suing.

Cinematography is difficult to botch in a western film, what with all of the open scenery and broad daylight to help out. "Dances With Wolves" posed unique challenges to the director of photography, however, in that a disproportionate number of scenes are required to have an eerie, almost mystical feel to them, and often this had to be accomplished through the lighting and soundtrack alone. It's possible that the pathos of Lt. Dunbar pulling on a tight boot over a terribly wounded foot was not intended in the script or in the performance, as much of the mood in that shot is delivered via the stark and unforgiving light and subtle, discordant notes of the score.

"Dances With Wolves" was able to mop the floor at the Oscars, ultimately taking home seven awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It certainly earned these nods, as the successful elements of the film have been borrowed many times since the movie's release in 1990. While it would have been nice to be able to tell what is essentially a story of the Northern Plains people from the perspective of those people, by centralizing a white character "Dances With Wolves" probably managed to connect with its predominately white audiences in a way that otherwise may not have been possible. This kind of connection is of central importance before any work of art will ever be able to make an impact on its recipients, and "Dances With Wolves" was crafted to-above all-make an impact on its audiences. In this regard, it has succeeded in a way that few films ever have before or since.

Rating: 4 out of 5