We start out looking down our body at our boot encased feet. We are in an army medical tent, and two surgeons in bloodied white coveralls are looking at our leg. One pulls off our right boot and flings it into a pile of discarded footwear. He says your foot at least isn’t infected, the other tells him it still needs to be amputated. They decide to go for a coffee break first. You look at a tray of scary looking surgical instruments and make a decision. You manage to retrieve your boot and pull it on whilst clamping down on a piece of wood so they don’t hear you scream as you do it.
And so begins the epic tale of Lieutenant John Dunbar, who gets on his horse and rides the length of the front between the Union and the Confedarate stand off, hoping to get shot rather than lose his leg but instead inspiring the Union troops to a victory and becoming the hero of the day.
Kevin Costner made his directoral debut Dances With Wolves in 1990 and it can still stir the heart with it’s visual and emotional scale. Of course Phil has the 4hr long extended special edition and we watched it over 2 nights.
Does anyone, I wonder, not know the story of how Dunbar takes over an unmanned fort at the very edge of the American Frontier, befriends Two Socks, a wolf, and eventually, after initial hostility, becomes friends with the local tribe of Sioux. He falls in love with Stands with a Fist, a white woman who has lived with them since childhood, adopted by Kicking Bird the tribe’s medicine man, with whom he develops a deep rapport. If you do know the story you’ll remember how he participates in the hunt of migrating buffalo, and helps protect the village from a Pawnee attack. How he learns the Sioux Lacota language with the aid of Stands With A Fist, and becomes friends with a young boy, Smiles A Lot. SWAF’s first husband was killed prior to Dunbar showing up, and her husband’s best friend Wind In His Hair is hostile initially and wants nothing to do with Dunbar, but even he is won over by Dunbar as time goes on. The Sioux have watched him playing chase with Two Socks and given him the name Dances With Wolves, and so he becomes part of the tribe and is allowed to marry SWAF.
And you might remember the awfulness of what happens to Dunbar when he returns to his fort to retrieve his journal before moving on with his tribe to their winter grounds. How the Union soldiers who have turned up at the Fort kill his horse, bullet by bullet, how they tie him up and treat him cruelly, as a deserter, gone native, and take pot shots at Two Socks until he too is killed. You might weep a bit at those scenes. And then, how happy you are when the Sioux come to free him and the Union soldiers get their just desserts. You are on a roller coaster now though because Dunbar knows the Army will send more soldiers to find him, and want revenge on the Sioux for the killing of the men and he must leave with SWAF to go their own way, so as to protect the tribe. Oh and everyone in the tribe is so sad, exchanging presents with Dunbar they can hardly speak, but their eyes do and it is too hard not to feel their pain. And you might just feel more tears erupt as Wind In His Hair sits on his horse on the cliffs above the pass that Dunbar and his wife travel on their journey away, and keeps shouting for Dunbar to remember that he is his friend, will always be his friend.
An epilogue states that 13 years later, the last remnants of the free Sioux were subjugated to the American government, ending the conquest of the Western Frontier states and the livelihoods of the tribes on the plains.
Costner put his heart and soul into this movie which took him 10 years to get into production and won him 7 academy awards, the first Western film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931’s Cimmaron, and his movie registered for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. He was probably more proud to be made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation for the film’s popularity and lasting impact on the image of Native Americans. He garnered an excellent cast, Mary McDonnell luminous as Stands with A Fist, Graham Green a First Nations Canadian actor as Kicking Bird embuing his character with nobility and humanity. Rodney A Grant, a native American actor who grew up in the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska and whose grandparents raised him after his parents abandoned him at 6 months old. He played the aptly named character Wind In His Hair, as he had the most glorious head of long shiny black hair, and brought both ferocity and humility to his part. Floyd Red Crow Westerman a Dakota Sioux musician, actor and political activist brought gravitas to the part of Chief Ten Bears whilst Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse gave a sweet performance as Smiles A lot, a young lad on the cusp of becoming a man.
The cinematography by Dean Semlar, is breathtaking, South Dakota a land of endless plains and huge skies perfect for the story. Basil Poledouros was originally commissioned to write the soundtrack but left to do some other movie and John Barry was brought in to replace him. He delivers a sweeping, romantic score, sometimes uplifting, sometimes haunting, and everything between, echoing the wide spaces of the landscape, and the emotional clout of the story. In the process earned himself the 1991 Academy Award for best original score in a movie.
There are detractors, accusations of it being a ‘white saviour’ movie, criticisms of the lacota language used wrongly in places, or mispronunciations, the real history of the Forts, Sioux and Pawnee’s subverted for the movie, but you won’t find any moaning about it here. It’s a fictional movie and doesn’t pretend, or even need to pretend to be anything else. Costner shows us how things could have been, should have been, and that maybe integration would have been better than invasion and subjugation, but no-one ever learns that lesson, do they?
Fraggle Rating: Beyond Bloody Brilliant.