Costner's Kicking Western Stands the Test of Time
There was a time when the western was a big part of the movie scene, but then something happened and during the 70s and 80s the western went out of fashion and the western movie scene all but dried up. Since then there have been the occasional western but never in the same quantity when cowboys and Indians ruled the big screen and to be honest it's not a bad thing as it generally means that when a western comes along these days it's better than average and often something a bit special. Kevin Costner's 1990 western epic "Dances with Wolves" is one of these special movies and unsurprisingly won award after award with 7 Academy awards including the Best Director award which went to Kevin Costner for his directing debut. Whilst special "Dances with Wolves" is not perfect, with scenes which now feel a little corny, the coffee grinding scene being one in case, but that does not hide the fact that the storyline, the acting and pretty much every aspect "Dances with Wolves" is pretty damn special.
Having heroically caused a diversion so that a group of Union soldiers can overcome a group of entrenched rebels, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner - Field of Dreams) is given his choice of posts and so heads to the Frontier in the hope of seeing it before it disappears forever. Stationed at Fort Sedgewick Dunbar is the only man there and as a loyal soldier sets about repairing the ramshackle buildings and making short patrols. His only acquaintance is an inquisitive wolf which he names two socks but becomes aware that he is not alone when some Sioux children try to steal his horse. Despite initially fearing the Sioux he discovers over time that they are a loyal and friendly bunch who thanks to the patience of Kicking Bird (Graham Greene - The Green Mile) accept Dunbar as one of their own especially as he falls for his daughter Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell - Independence Day). But whilst Dunbar grows to realise that the Sioux are not evil, the rest of the garrison don't and when they show up it soon causes trouble especially when he is labelled as a traitor.
For a movie which is a glorious 181 minutes long "Dances with Wolves" surprisingly has a simple storyline, one which might be simple but also beautifully crafted. Basically it revolves around Lt. John Dunbar discovering that the Sioux Indians he thought were savages are in fact a civilized, friendly and loyal people who he grows to love. But at the same time he learns that the white man whilst not savage were ignorant and racist. That is the very simplistic look at "Dances with Wolves" but the way it is crafted is so much more as it naturally progresses as Dunbar learns about the Sioux whilst they learn about him and unsurprisingly like most westerns there is a romantic storyline thrown in as Dunbar falls for Stands with a Fist. One of the greatest things about the storyline is that whilst it goes through the expected stages as we meet Dunbar and watch as he is slowly accepted into the Sioux tribe it never rushes anything, Costner preferring to take his time to allow this storyline to develop at a natural and believable pace.
Being natural and believable also extends to the movie's styling and you could say that not only does "Dances with Wolves" try to set the record straight over how American Indians were treated but also how they were often portrayed in the western movie scene. First up we have the Sioux Indians who whilst fearful of the white man are in fact a very friendly and loyal bunch. Through the charade like scenes as they try to communicate there is this deeper understanding which forms not just between the characters but the viewer and what they are watching as you realise what we are witnessing, the real Sioux is not what you would normally see in a western. It also is more natural in the fact that rather than having the Sioux speak English they speak in their native tongue Lakota which we understand from the subtitles. Plus where as once there would be actors who were tanned up to play Indians there is none of that going on. All of which goes some way to make amends for what was too often the case of the western movie scene during the 50s.
Of course being a western it also has those stereotypical elements there are a small amount of gun fights, fist fights and also subtle comedy all which blend into "Dances with Wolves" as if they belong. But in many ways it's the almost non stereotypical action and comedy which ends up being so good. The various scenes surrounding Dunbar leading the Sioux after Buffalo are just spectacular be it the emotional discovery of several slaughtered Buffalo or the visually stunning and action packed Buffalo chase scene. And in the same way the action scene where the Pawnee attack the Sioux camp is just as visually stunning without resorting to cliche western elements.
And continuing on with the good you have to say the acting throughout is pretty first rate. Kevin Costner gives one of his best performances as Lt. John Dunbar and through his simple acting he draws us into Dunbar's life. That is what makes it good, there is no real show boating or attempts to steal scenes and it is a sympathetic performance from Costner who is central to almost every scene. Graham Greene is equally as good as Kicking Bird and it is his performance which delivers so many simple smile moments especially during the early stages as he and Dunbar try to communicate. But it is all the honesty of the character, when he has to speak to his adopted daughter about her period of mourning ending, it is the reluctant "I suppose it will be up to me" aspect which rings so true. And talking of his daughter Mary McDonnell is perfectly cast as Stands with a Fist giving her character a respectable amount of nervousness whilst also radiating beauty making it believable that Dunbar would become attracted to her. I have to say it again, but the actual casting and performances all feel authentic and it is the little things such as not having a young beauty playing the role of Stand with a Fist which adds to the believability.
Now all of which makes "Dances with Wolves" a very special movie and I remember when I watched it back in the 90s I couldn't spot a single fault with it. Unfortunately now there are elements which almost feel a little corny such as the coffee grinding scene where Costner is bouncing around like a buffoon as he grinds coffee for his new friends, it's meant to be a smile scene and in some ways it is but it also feels a little corny and almost out of place. And then there is what for me is a "True Grit" moment where during the opening sequence where Dunbar rides a horse in a suicide mission arms out stretched. It looks great and is actually quite symbolic but at the same time it also feels a bit too much, a bit out of keeping with the realism which flows through the rest of the movie. These are just a couple of minor quibbles which in reality don't spoil "Dances with Wolves" but show up now as feeling slightly wrong.
What this all boils down to is that "Dances with Wolves" was and still is a great modern western and one which deservedly one a whole array of awards. Yes watching it now there are elements which border on the corny but they are minor moments in what is a spectacular western. And it is spectacular not only because of the acting, direction plus the stunning John Barry score but because it has a greater level of authenticity to it than many a western.