Length: 181 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Directed by: Kevin Costner
Genre: Adventure / Drama / Romance
Rating: 4 out of 5
Audiences sit for three hours with “Dances with the Wolves” and yet, the film is not a minute too long. Set during the Civil War on the yet-to-be-conquered Western frontier, the film is a fascinating story of an American soldier whose encounter with a Sioux tribe helps him discover the surprising reality behind the false myths of these great people. A movie that reinstated the Western genre in all its rights when nearly forgotten, it is also an almost lyrical depiction of a culture on the brink of dissolution.
John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is a First Lieutenant in the Union Army. While attempting suicide by running towards the Confederate lines, he inadvertently causes the enemy to retreat and is rewarded the privilege of transferring to a post of his own choosing. He decides to go to Fort Sedgwick on the Western frontier. Arriving at the fort, Dunbar finds it desolated, but chooses to remain. The wagon driver who accompanies him is killed by Pawnee Indians on his return, thus cutting all lines of communication with the rest of the Army behind the frontier line.
Dunbar soon discovers that the post neighbors a Sioux tribe. For a while, this seems to put his life in real danger. However, he succeeds in establishing a dialogue and, in the end, adopts the Sioux lifestyle. The process is slow and depicted with both humor and a type of intrinsic lyricism that makes the viewer meditate at what is universal in every human being. Dunbar ends up fighting on the side of the Sioux tribe against Pawnee intruders, receiving a new Sioux name (“Dances with Wolves”) and even marries a white girl raised by the Sioux. This seals his new identity. Viewers see an almost pastoral depiction of Dunbar’s newfound life , but soon find out that U.S. troops are set to arrive and the dissolution of the Sioux livelihood is imminent.
When the soldiers finally reach Fort Sedgwick, the harmony is destroyed and the destruction difficult to bear. They capture Dunbar, treat him as a deserter and attempt to take him back East as a prisoner. However, he is tracked and freed by the Sioux and returns to their camp. In the end, Dunbar decides to leave the tribe, fearing that he may endanger it. Viewers may find relief in the fact that U.S. troops fail to find the Sioux at the end of the movie, but the Sioux do not last more than 13 years when the frontier is conquered and their way of life becomes a thing of the past.
The action is punctuated by John Dunbar’s narration through entries in his journal. While Dunbar is a clean, simple and unaltered soul, his journal entries are somehow naively pompous, which introduces a fine tint of kind humor. The use of humor is greatly needed in a cinematic piece that takes upon itself such a great task, the meeting between two civilizations, and Kevin Costner uses it masterfully. While the movie has a somewhat dark feel (it is, after all, set during a war), Costner uses a kind of subtle humor to show John Dunbar as an unwilling but authentic hero. Far from being the undefeatable type, Dunbar is perfectly human. His heroism comes from his courage and moral rectitude despite his shortcomings.
Every good movie has a few memorable scenes, and “Dances with Wolves” is no exception. One of them comes early and sets the tone for understanding the material of which Dunbar is made. At the beginning of the movie, the young lieutenant rides towards the confederate lines and invites the bullets with his arms wide open and his chest ready for the final hit. The scene is telling for the way that the character is willing to not only meet his death, but receive life with open arms. There is definitely a feeling that this man is destined for great things, since death, against all odds, refuses to come.
Humor is also used in just the right doses when depicting the universality of human nature. The viewer learns that, no matter the language or culture, children laugh and play the same, teenagers are prone to the same mistakes, and, yes, wives still lovingly nag their husbands. The dialogue is in large part conducted in Lakota, which lends an authentic feel to the movie.
“Dances with Wolves” is a cinematic poem, an engrossing mixture of lyricism, humor and drama , in which a remarkable character must understand a culture before being able to discover his own identity. Touching and captivating, this directorial debut of Kevin Costner is a must-see.
Bring Home the Oscars! Enter Here to Win – Gravity / Dallas Buyers Club / 12 Years a Slave / Wolf of Wall Street / American Hustle / Her – All on Blu-Ray!!