It's hard for me to believe that fourteen years have passed since I first saw this movie. I was only ten at the time, and this was the first movie I ever saw that was both an eye-filling and a mind-filling spectacle.
It was also one of only two theater-going experiences that I ever had with my late grandmother, and I always think of her when I watch this movie. It always takes me back to an earlier time in my life no matter how many times I see it.
This is one movie that could only have been made in the post-Vietnam era, when Americans began to question the moral integrity of their country. How else to explain, in the opening sequence depicting the Civil War, the utter cynicism of the soldier who speaks with Costner's Dunbar character? Or Dunbar's later observation that "there was no dark political objective" to the Sioux battling the Pawnee?
The scene in which Dunbar receives his orders from the mentally ill major also seems to speak of Vietnam, the point being I think that while an entire generation of young men was being cut down in the Civil War the West was being managed by those who were not fit for duty in the larger conflict. Maury Chaykin, in that one scene, gives one of the most memorable and haunting performances I've seen in any film.
This movie's depiction of Native Americans is not nearly as politically correct as it may seem to those who watch it only once or only at a superficial level. In the very first scene depicting Indians, in fact, a Pawnee brave shoots one of the white characters full of arrows and then scalps him. The unrepentant villainy of Wes Studi's character, in particular, recalls the moral simplicity of countless earlier Westerns.
Even the most sympathetic Indian character in the movie, Kicking Bird, is not kind to Dunbar merely to be friendly but because he believes he can get useful information out of the white soldier about the other whites who are encroaching on Sioux territory. The interaction between Dunbar and the Sioux is powerfully effective precisely because the Sioux remain true to themselves. They are not cartoonishly hostile like the Indians depicted in old Westerns, but they are not soft or naïve either.
While this movie draws its inspiration from American epics as diverse as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Searchers (1956), its originality lies not only in its respect for Native Americans but also in its intensely personal treatment of the main character. Few other three-hour epics (Lawrence of Arabia and Braveheart come to mind ) have developed their protagonists as fully and dynamically as this movie develops Costner's Dunbar character.
Even after fourteen years, the Dunbar character's arc, going from a suicidal soldier in the opening sequence to an adopted Sioux who in the final scenes puts the needs of his people ahead of his own, is still one of the most remarkable I've seen in any movie. Costner's performance won no awards that I know of, but it provides the movie's indispensably tight focus. He's completely convincing every step of the way, if a bit too clumsy and self-effacing at times, hitting his head in the dark and fainting after a confrontation in a heavy-handed attempt to demystify the West.
Another quality this movie shares with The Searchers is that it associates the physical challenges of the frontier with the testing of the soul. The Dunbar character cleans out the watering hole at the fort because he refuses to lose his humanity like the men before him who abandoned the fort. Later he cannot decide whether he feel more or less at home in the presence of the Sioux, because he is struggling to remain true to himself even as he remains unsure of who he is.
This movie probably disappoints viewers who are looking for sheer entertainment. It's a quiet, thoughtful story, and although there is action in it the focus is on how the action transforms the characters (particularly Dunbar) rather than on the action itself. You won't see any computer-generated comic-book characters in this movie, but you will see real people having real conversations, and you'll see Costner and costar Mary McDonnell engaging in such intimate and convincing love scenes that you'll forget they're acting!
If I could rate the musical score for this movie by itself I'd give it a perfect 10, because it's one of the best I've ever heard, able to stand on its own but fitting the movie like a glove. It is sentimental without being schmaltzy, noble without being pretentious. Best of all, it captures the hesitant emotions of the story, the sense of curiosity overcoming fear and becoming trust.
Only this movie's extreme length works against its total success, particularly in the special edition that runs nearly four hours. The three-hour theatrical version is still long, but it's difficult to say what should have been left out of it.
Some people still resent the fact that Costner won the Best Director Oscar over Scorcese's Goodfellas. There's no question that Scorcese is the better director, but I believe the direction of Dances With Wolves is better than that of Goodfellas. If you disagree with me try this test: imagine that Scorcese did this movie, and Costner directed Goodfellas. It's a question of which directing job is better, not which director is better.
Unlike most epics, this movie ends exactly as it should. The final images, such as the journal floating down the river, the white man and the Native American speaking English to each other, and the brave shouting his farewell from the top of a cliff, are so beautiful and dreamlike that they manage to be both joyful and sad. This is a movie that looks into the very fabric of this country's past, and asks us to do the same.
Rating: 10 (Good job, everybody.)