It’s somewhat ironic that Dances With Wolves endures to this day as the first film, at least in my eyes, that successfully brought the heart-wrenchingly sordid undoing of the last free Native Americans at the hands of Manifest Destiny (as enforced by the muskets of the marauding U.S. Army), as an obscene amount of the nearly four-hours-long time is spent with the camera indulgently fixated on Kevin Costner who, when bathed in the golden light of the prairie, whether it be in appropriated Sioux clothing or those tight cavalry trousers, never fails to reveal himself to be a white guy. I would normally be quick to mention that Costner’s involvement, as he not only starred in the picture but directed it as well, is not solely limited to looking pretty, soulful, or pretty soulful as the white guy who saves the day. But when you think about it, isn’t that exactly what Costner should be lauded for—not only onscreen but behind-the-scenes as well?
The Civil War is drawing to a close, and Costner’s John J. Dunbar, having successfully survived every bloody battle despite his best efforts to the contrary, wants to see the Western frontier before train tracks are laid over the bones of buffalo and Indians alike. He’s a Union soldier, a romantic, simple fellow who, when we first meet him, is trying to get killed. His suicide attempt—riding his horse towards the Confederate lines, seeking a bullet and a quick escape from the bloody absurdity of the war—is instead misconstrued as a heroic improvisation, and not only did Dunbar not gain an acquaintance with Death, he was promoted and granted any posting of his choice. He picks Fort Sedgewick—the Army fort farthest out West, all the way Out There. How Dunbar gets there (hitching a ride with a flatulent wagon driver delivering supplies) and his first impressions of the vast prairie (‘Where are all the buffalo?’) is documented with maddening imperturbability. The pace is glacially slow, and yet you are inexorably drawn in due to the likability of Costner, the stunning landscapes, and the promise of peril to come. There’s a scene where Dunbar gets spooked, along with the audience, by the wind rising in the prairie. Is it an Indian crouching in the tall grass, waiting to pounce and scalp? Or is it just the frontier taunting this man who thinks he has found his paradise? Dunbar doesn’t want to know. Off he bolts, whipping his horse away.
Dunbar’s not reassured once he arrives at his destination either. He finds a ramshackle handful of buildings, made even more pathetic by the total absence of humankind. His soldiers deserted, apparently after having underwent some disheartening experiences, Dunbar nevertheless decides to settle in. After all, why not? It’s everything he could possibly wish for—a solitary existence on the plains, his conscience made easy by the possibility of the Army finding him—after all, he knows the wagon trains are coming sooner or later. Might as well enjoy it while he can. Then, however, Dunbar befriends a tribe of Sioux. They find him something of a a curiosity because the first time Dumbar came upon their medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), checking out his horse, Dunbar was stark naked (having just bathed in the river) and yelling loudly in protest—not the usual behavior of U.S. soldiers. Dunbar, however, is eager to scribble in his diary a variation of the phrase: “Met my first Indian today. OMG! 2scary4me.” However he feels at home in the prairie, laying by his campfire under the stars with a big goofy smile on his face, he’s still a tourist, and his first encounter with the local population—certainly not to be trusted—is a jolt to the senses.
Eventually, after a lot of bad starts, the Sioux and Dunbar come to understand one another a little better. Their conversations are facilitated by Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was captured by the Sioux in her childhood and raised as one of them. Dunbar learns that the Sioux are waiting for the buffalo, and is only too happy when, awakened by the thunder of hooves in the night in one of Dances With Wolves’s most hauntingly realized scenes, to rush to his new friends and tell them the news. Despite his misgivings and sense of duty to the Army, as frequently expounded on in Costner’s narration, Dunbar realizes he’s going native. It doesn’t help that he’s falling in love with Stands With A First, nor that the Sioux has wholly embraced him as one of their own. But, there’s a new peril, far greater than the occasional Pawnee attacks, for Dunbar knows something that is nagging at his insides, and it is this: The White Man is coming. The days of the Sioux are counted.
Dances With Wolves is really a remarkable movie. The destruction of the Native Americans’ livelihoods, and the forced displacement of all those who weren’t killed when they resisted the encroachment of settlers and soldiers on their ancestral lands, is a dark, shameful mark in American history. One can certainly argue it was inevitable, and that’s what lends this movie a mournful, heartbreaking quality. It brings the story of the Sioux and and all Native Americans out of the dusty pages of history books and onto the big screen. Bravo, Kevin Costner. But at the same time, I feel strangely uneasy about expressing my love for the movie. I have to wonder whether the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, in showering Dances With Wolves with little golden statuettes, did so because they felt guilty, deep inside (and they loved the fact that Kevin Costner, a handsome Hollywoodian, was the one responsible for it). I have to wonder whether I think Dances With Wolves is a beautiful movie because I feel guilty, deep inside. I most probably do. I do know is that we all have a collective guilt inside of us, regarding the fate of the Native Americans in this country, that will never go away. We all want to see a movie where Native Americans, strong and fierce, hunt the buffalo, whooping and hollering, to admire and gaze at them, to cheer when they beat back the brutish, despicable U.S. soldiers. We want to soberly reflect as the film ends. We want to shake our heads and say, “Wow.” Dances With Wolves makes us all feel a little better inside. But is it for the good reasons?