Dances With Wolves
Directed by Kevin Costner
Staring Kevin Costner
Reviewed by Jacqui Kavanagh
Set in the 1860s, Dances With Wolves offers a refreshing alternative to the usual Hollywood stereotyping of indigenous Americans and glossing over of the massacres upon which North American "civilisation" was based.
But Dances With Wolves is more than an insight into hidden history; it is a magnificent piece of cinema, combining stunning cinematography, epic scenery, moving characterisation, superb acting and gripping drama.
Kevin Costner plays Lieutenant John Dunbar, who requests a posting a the frontier, "while it's still there". In this, he reveals both a great love for the wilderness of the prairies and a loyalty to the ideals of settlement. The passage of the film follows the impossible contradiction between the two.
Totally isolated at his posting, he encounters the local Sioux. Gradually fear and hostility turn to trust, then friendship and finally a deep commitment between Dunbar and the Sioux. In his ultimate choice, Dunbar "follows the trail of the human being" and becomes Dances With Wolves.
The film depicts this process with humility and humour. Dunbar's first contact is Kicking Bird, the wise and compassionate holy man of the Sioux, played by Graham Greene. Both men's human vulnerability is beautifully portrayed when Dunbar, stark naked from bathing, confronts Kicking Bird, sprawling in the dust in his effort to escape.
Wind In His Hair, played by Rodney Grant, is a character of proud bravery and immense presence. The wisdom and tact of Chief Ten Bears are masterfully played by Floyd Red Crow Westerman.
It is an indictment of the Hollywood machine that the audience should be surprised to see indigenous Americans as real and individual characters with strengths, foibles and emotions rather than the usual cardboard cutouts.
The film confronts the dominant racist stereotypes which have for so long been used to justify the theft of the land and genocide of America's indigenous people. In his journal Dunbar writes, "I found these people to be nothing like the beggars and parasites I had heard about". Indeed, the gross barbarism of the white cavalry leaves little doubt about exactly who are the parasites.
The film is not completely accurate historically. In particular, it gives the impression that only men took part in Sioux councils, when in fact women had an equal part in decision making except for war councils. Nevertheless, the Sioux women portrayed are powerful characters.
Despite its three hours, every moment of the film is entertaining. You must see Dances With Wolves.