No one likes the White Savior.
Especially when it’s Kevin Costner.
“Say, I thought you only “revisited” movies that have been forgotten or are undervalued”, you might be saying . “Dances With Wolves won 7 Oscars for fuck’s sake!”
But the film’s reputation has diminished over the last 20 years. It’s laughable now to think that Kevin Costner beat out Martin Scorsese for Best Director. Most film buffs would agree that Goodfellas should have received the accolades that DWW received in the early 90s. The numerous self-indulgent projects that Costner involved himself in later in the decade didn’t help.
In short, Dances With Wolves is somewhat of a punchline in Hollywood lore; a product of feel-good sentimentality that would infect the industry for the rest of the decade. Even for a western, it feels dated…it’s politics a symbol of white, neoliberal myth: A soldier coming to aid the Sioux in the fight against white settlers. It’s a story that would be used again, notably in James Cameron’s Avatar. The concept is laughable, especially in our cynical times.
So yes, Dances With Wolves CLEARLY has its problems.
But I hold a soft spot for it. It was the first movie I bought when I was 12 years old. I saved up enough money to buy a DVD player (they were expensive then). It blew me away. I didn’t want the movie to end.
I couldn’t help but tear up when watching Wind in His Hair yell from the top of the mountain that Dances With Wolves will always be his friend. Just typing that made me tear up.
When re-visiting the film yesterday, I didn’t know how it would affect me. As a cynical adult, I knew the film’s current reputation. But I was pleasantly surprised:
Kevin Costner DESERVED his Oscar.
What I noticed this time were the characters on the periphery. No actor goes wasted. From the opening credits, Costner allows some piss-ant Union soldier to steal the scene. That character meant nothing. He was just there to explain the scene, but turned in the performance of a lifetime. Then we’re introduced to a psychotic Major. And then to Timmons, a disgusting character that guides Costner to Fort Sedgewick. A lesser director, or even another GREAT director, would have turned these guys into unmemorable plot points…designed to get Costner to point A to point B. But Costner knew better. When some of these characters died, it was felt. Timmons death was especially impactful. Stone Calf was probably the LEAST developed character of the Sioux, but even he’s missed after being axed down by Wes Studi. Same thing with Charles Rocket despite being a “bad guy”. Only the sensibilities of Kevin Costner could have guided a mostly unknown ensemble into creating some of the most fleshed-out characters committed to film.
Mary McDonnell, of course, was great. But Stands With A Fist’s backstory was a weak point. I didn’t like that she was white. I understand that that was necessary to explain how she knew English. But still, it seemed weak. Couldn’t she have been a Sioux that spent time with white people? It seems like that would have been a better backstory.
Additionally, Costner’s performance as John Dunbar is lacking. His motivations are also strange. He wanted to commit suicide because he lost a foot? He went to back to Fort Sedgewick to get his journal because he was afraid that the Army would use it to find him and the community? People deserted that fort all the time, as stated in the journal! I doubt the Army would have given a shit because they were missing ONE lieutenant…they probably would have assumed the natives, Sioux or otherwise, killed him! So I don’t know, all of that seemed strange. But Costner’s laissez-faire performance WORKS in it NOT WORKING: because there’s nothing particularly memorable about it, it allows the other characters to shine. But there is something iconic about John Dunbar: because Costner isn’t trying too hard, we catch a glimpse of the REAL Kevin Costner in all of its child-like wonder.
It’s why the narration works extraordinarily well.
There are glaring faults with the film. But I couldn’t tell where they were coming from. Was it the screenplay? Was it the sometimes clunky editing? Although this is a “meandering” type of film as opposed to a “plot-driven” one, I prefer films that are tighter with its presentation. Sometimes DWW demonstrated that. The first and last act are solid in that regard. The middle section, with it’s exploration of the budding romance between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist, is a mess. Mind you, I watched the four hour version. While I appreciate a more in-depth exploration of this universe, many of the added scenes are unnecessary. That might’ve added to the clunkiness felt in the editing and screenplay. The three hour version might be preferable (although it’s been years since I’ve watched that).
(Also, if Dances With Wolves were to be made today, it would probably work best as a mini-series. Still, the fact that Costner condensed everything into one film for equal effect is a testament to what he did here.)
Make no mistake, Dances With Wolves is an achievement in filmmaking. The cinematography is…well, I’ll just say this….NO MOVIE has been better filmed. Not by Freddie Young. Not by Vittorio Storaro. Not even by Roger Deakins. Dean Semler hit this one out of the park. That’s just a fact. The soundtrack might also be the greatest. As you know, I’m a massive James Bond fan where John Barry made his name. But he was never better here. That opening music still gives me chills. Say what you want about the film, it’s undeniably an engrossing experience.
Martin Scorsese might have a better catalogue, but with Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner created something special.