Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review – Dances with Wolves: The Director’s Cut

January 25, 2009

Dances with Wolves: The Director’s Cut - U.S., 1990

How are we supposed to react to the death of Lt. Elgin? Although he is only in a few scenes, he appears to be a kind man with a strong sense of decency. Lt. Elgin is given the task of transporting John Dunbar, a man claiming to be an army lieutenant but wearing Native America garb, back to town to be court-martialed and if found guilty executed. It is not a responsibility that he relishes. Along the way, a soldier named Spivey begins verbally abusing Dunbar, trying to egg him on into a physical confrontation. Elgin is quick to come to Dunbar’s defense. “You bash that prisoner again,” Elgin tell Spivey, “ [and] I’ll put those shackles on you.” A moment later, Elgin is lying on the ground dead, the first victim in a Sioux attack to save John Dunbar. And yet we don’t dislike the man who shot the arrow that struck down Lt. Elgin, nor do we condemn the methods that he and his companions use to save Dunbar. In an odd paradox of emotions, we regret that it happened, but we also understand and accept that it had to happen.

Kevin Costner’s 1990 epic Dances with Wolves is the story of John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), a Civil War soldier who gives up on life after he is wounded in battle. While the film does not provide anecdotal evidence of this, I suspect that his decision is based on not only the prospects of going through life physically handicapped but also the years of bloodshed and carnage that he has seen first-hand in the first four years of the conflict. Seizing a horse, Dunbar gallops towards a line of Confederate soldiers, hoping that one shot from them will put him out of his misery. His first attempt is a failure, yet his efforts are rewarded by wild cheers, one side lauding him for his bravery, the other side hoping for a second opportunity at him. Dunbar decides to grant the latter side’s wish, but just as he is about to attain his morose aspiration, fate intercedes on his behalf. Seeing his side’s enemy distracted, a Union general leads a successful attack on the Confederate lines, all thanks to Dunbar. As he later explains, “In trying to produce my own death, I was elevated to the status of a living hero.”

Dunbar is promoted, awarded the horse that he rode that day, and given his choice of posts. He elects to get as far away as he can from the chaos of the East and is given a post at Fort Sedgewick, for he wants to see the frontier before it’s gone. His commanding officer assumes he must be an “Indian fighter,” an assumption that Dunbar makes little attempt to dispel. After a long trip, Dunbar arrives at the fort to find it abandoned and disheveled. Dunbar assigns himself the task of fixing the place up; he also goes on frequent reconnessaince missions, each time going a little farther out that he has gone previously. It is therefore only a matter of time before he comes in contact with the inhabitants of the frontier.

At its core, Dances with Wolves is about discovery. On the one hand, it is about the discovery of nature’s beauty and the sense that what is beautiful today may be gone tomorrow. It is also a film about the discovery of the self. Dunbar begins the film unsure of his purpose in life. He assumes that Native Americans mean him harm and seeks to protect himself. However, through his encounters with them, he discovers just who he is and what is important to him. Simultaneously, the film is about the discovery that there is no difference between Whites and Native Americans except for those differences that we create out of either ignorance, unfamiliarity, or greed.

As Dunbar becomes increasingly worried about his safety, he becomes convinced that he must take charge of his fate. Therefore, he decides to go to them instead of waiting for them to come to him. At the same time, the chief of the Sioux, Ten Bears, is holding a meeting. At the meeting, two divergent paths are presented. The tribe’s medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) proposes dialogue. The opposing view is presented by Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), who advocates shooting a few arrows into Dunbar, reasoning that if Dunbar is a god, he won’t be injured, and if he isn’t a god, well, what’s one less invader in their territory? As Ten Bears contemplates the ramifications of both actions, the two sides are brought together as a result of a grieving woman’s attempted suicide and Dunbar’s decision to take her to the Sioux for help. The woman, we learn later, is Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a Caucasian woman raised by Sioux Indians after the murder of her parents by Pawnee Indians.

As I watched Dances With Wolves again for the first time in over ten years, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the film has aged. Dunbar’s journey remains interesting and emotional, and his friendships with both Kicking Bird and Wind In His Hair have an authenticity to them that is sometimes lacking in buddy movies. I also remain immensely impressed by Graham Greene’s subtle but powerful performance as Kicking Bird. It remains one of my favorite performances of the past twenty years. In addition, I found myself deeply impressed by the strength and personality of the film’s female characters, especially that of Black Shawl (Tantoo Cardinal), Kicking Bird’s wife. She is headstrong, opinionated, and unafraid to show it. When told that Stands With A Fist is being stubborn, she wonders aloud why Stands With A Fist is the one crying, forcing her husband to rethink his heavy-handed approach with her. Black Shawl is also incredible observant, often seeing developments that her husband misses. One such development is the budding romance between Dunbar – now known as Dances With Wolves – and Stands With A Fist. I also enjoyed the way Ten Bear’s wife jokes with her husband during a meeting and how he doesn’t seem to mind the ribbing.

Dances With Wolves is sometimes criticized as presenting the Sioux as peaceful and the Pawnee as warlike. While I have never agreed with this sentiment, I doubt many who have it will still do so after viewing the director’s cut of the film. In that version of the film, the Sioux track down and kill the men responsible for the senseless slaughter of a herd of buffalo. Later, the Sioux celebrate their deed around a bonfire. This event shocks Dunbar, but perhaps what disturbs him even more is the fact that Kicking Bird, a man Dunbar thinks of as sensitive and wise, takes part in the revelry. And while it is true that the Pawnee, as well as the looming influx of White settlers and soldiers, are to a certain extent the villains of the film, Dunbar’s observation that they are fighting for food, for the means of surviving the winter, at least makes their fight understandable, even if the means by which they go about it remain deplorable.

Dances With Wolves has unfortunately become a film that it is sometimes considered popular to dismiss, as hundreds of film critics deplore the fact that it won the Oscar for Best Picture over Goodfellas, which they consider a far superior film. When I saw Goodfellas, I was surprised at how uninvolved I was in the story. Sure, it was interesting, but there was no one to root for, no character to get emotionally invested in. While some may say that this is not important in a film, I would argue that a film that does not emotionally involve its audience runs the risk of being more of a spectacle than an important experience. And Dances With Wolves is important, for in addition to being as impressive as it is, it marks a turning point in American consciousness. For possibly the first time, American audiences were comfortable seeing Native Americans stand victorious over American soldiers, even one as honorable as Lt. Elgin. (on DVD)

4 and a half stars

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