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  • Post last modified:June 11, 2022

Dances With Wolves: Finding Your Tribe


Kevin Costner. Photo: Orion

If Dances With Wolves had been released today, poisonous social media activism and cable news outlets would have made it part of the culture war, I’m sure. The right would have called it anti-American, labeled it ”woke” and pointed out how this film would never have been made 30 years ago. The left would have focused on how Lieutenant Dunbar is a ”white savior”, angrily asking Costner why he’s standing in the way of genuine stories about the Sioux, told from their perspective. The ”silent majority”? They would have ignored the chatter and just enjoyed a great movie.

Awarded a horse and a choice
In 1863, Union lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is seriously wounded, but after taking part in a suicidal attack on Confederate forces, his life is saved. He’s awarded a horse, Cisco, and gets to choose his posting. Since Dunbar wants to see the west before it’s gone, he chooses Fort Hays in Kansas. Its commander sends him off to Fort Sedgwick, a very remote posting in Colorado. When he arrives, he finds the fort deserted but begins a new life there. Preferring the solitude, he explores the area, takes care of the fort and writes down his experiences in a journal. Slowly, he also makes friends with a curious wolf whom he names Two Socks.

His first encounter with a Native is a bit of a shock, but Dunbar decides to make contact with the Sioux tribe and try to communicate with them. His first attempt is startling to the tribe, especially as he shows up with one of their own, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), who recently lost the love of her life…

Struggled to find financing
When he directed this film, Costner was already a movie star, but this achievement was a major artistic breakthrough. Michael Blake had first written the story as a screenplay, but Costner suggested he should turn it into a novel. That might increase Blake’s chances of the story being picked up, Costner reckoned. It didn’t really; the novel was rejected many times until someone finally published it in 1988. By then, Costner was successful enough to buy the film rights himself. The commercial failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980) still haunted the whole Western genre, so Costner and his co-producer Jim Wilson struggled to find financing. Fortunately, for all of us, they finally succeeded and Dances With Wolves rejuvenated the genre.

Much of the film’s message remains relevant and the depiction of the Sioux culture is detailed and respectful.

This is a handsome epic that has very few positive things to say about the Army and the white man’s impact on America; if the soldiers and officers aren’t mentally ill, they’re simple-minded, racist and cruel. Some of the film’s critics found it too black and white, also evident in the portrait of the Pawnee who seem to have few redeeming traits even though it was the Sioux who dominated the area in the mid-1800s. Still, much of the film’s message remains relevant and the depiction of the Sioux culture is detailed and respectful; flaws have been pointed out, but Costner has been recognized and honored by the Lakota Sioux Nation for his effort.

The story has earned comparisons with a Samuel Fuller film, Run of the Arrow (1957), but stands on its own, drawing us into Dunbar’s physical and spiritual journey as he leaves his old life behind and becomes a committed member of the tribe. His romance with Stands with a Fist, a white woman who was adopted by the tribe as a child, does its part, even if there surely were those in the audience who objected to its soft-focus look.

Dean Semler’s cinematography makes magnificent use of South Dakota and Wyoming locations through the seasons, and John Barry’s music score is one of his best, stirring and deeply emotional. 

Dances With Wolves 1990-U.S. 181 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Kevin Costner, Jim Wilson. Directed by Kevin Costner. Screenplay, Novel: Michael Blake. Cinematography: Dean Semler. Music: John Barry. Editing: Neil Travis. Cast: Kevin Costner (John Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands with a Fist/Christine Gunther) Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal… Wes Studi.

Trivia: Alternative version runs 237 min.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Film Editing, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Screenplay. 

Last word: “I was nervous enough being a director on it. And I remember the very first day, the very first shot I set up was even wrong. That’s the shot you’re supposed to get right, the first shot, because the whole crew’s watching you. Like, ‘Does he know what he’s doing?’ And I really debated whether I should say that, or just shoot it wrong, so I didn’t look bad.” (Costner, Yahoo!)

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