Dances With Wolves

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?