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Dances with Wolves

Dances with Wolves, 1990

Union Army Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) makes a foolish, borderline suicidal run at the enemy in battle, earning him commendations and the chance to choose his posting. He decides to take sole charge of an abandoned fort on the western frontier. At first kept company only by his horse, Cisco, and an oddly friendly wolf he names Two Socks, Dunbar soon encounters a community of Lakota Indians. Starting from a place of mistrust, especially with a young man named Wind in His Hair (Rodney A Grant), Dunbar soon befriends members of the tribe including Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) and leader Ten Bears (Floy Red Crow Westerman). He also strikes up a tentative romance with a woman named Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was taken by the tribe when she was a child.

This is a sweeping film, drawing the story of the white encroachment on Indian lands around the experiences of its central character, a man who comes to respect both the land and the people who live in it.

Costner as a leading man is always an interesting thing for me. I'm often reminded of something my mom once said about a musician she'd watched interviewed: "Some people really just shouldn't talk." LOL. Anyway, that is to say that Costner strongly exudes good guy vibes, but that effect is diminished by some of his line readings, particularly in segments where he reads aloud from the journal that he's keeping about his experiences and impressions. At the same time, he's charismatic and understated enough that you can believe he would be trusted by the tribe.

The portrayal of the tribe is one that gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, multiple characters are actually fleshed out and given personalities and motivations. Though it is true, on the other hand, that most of them go through the same arc: not trusting Dunbar, then coming to like him. The film is certainly sympathetic to the plight of the Lakota---slowly being displaced by an unstoppable white western migration, their land and their food (buffalo) shifting dramatically. A sequence where Dunbar and the tribe go hunting for buffalo only to find hundreds of bloody, skinned animals who have been massacred for their hides is one of the most memorable parts of the film. In reality, both native and white people were responsible for the decimation of the buffalo, driven by the economic benefits of selling buffalo hides. But what comes across most strongly is the waste and cruelty--an omen of things to come for most living things (people and animals) in the west.

The theme that is most successful is the one of the impossibility of living between two cultures. Dunbar does not belong entirely with the Lakota, but at a certain point he no longer fits with white society either. While in some ways it's a bit convenient that a white woman appears as a love interest, Stands With a Fist is also someone who has been pulled between two cultures. We learn later that she was married to a Lakota man, but he has recently died. In a broader sense, the film's message could even be seen as a bleak commentary on the impossibility of two different cultures peacefully co-existing. For every Dunbar, willing to learn and share cultures, there's always a handful of men like the soldiers who later arrive at the fort.

Visually, the film looks really nice. It manages to capture both the beauty and the intimidation of an unsettled wild space.

I won't lie, though, I did feel the length of this one a bit. It's not a film where I can easily point to things I thought could have been left out. And I appreciate that the film takes time to establish the relationship between Dunbar and the tribe--it doesn't just take a quick shortcut of him doing one nice thing and them being like "Hey, everyone! This guy's cool!". It may be in part because I could feel that things would end sadly, and that made me antsy as I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Not sure I'd watch it again, but glad I checked it out.