Dances with Wolves-1990
Starring-Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell
Scott’s Review #1,091
Reviewed December 14, 2020
A western epic of grand proportions, Dances with Wolves (1990) is a quiet, yet bombastic story of one man’s yearning to understand and appreciate a different culture. The liberal leaning story is of dire importance in American history, which is my main love of it. This project matters and it has sincerity and truth. The content and the gorgeous, sweeping cinematography make this a must-see on the big screen for full appreciation. Sort of like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), western style.
The lovely musical score is well-paced and simply gorgeous, only enhancing the experience and appreciation of the film.
The directorial debut of a then inexperienced and up-and-coming star, Kevin Costner, the success catapulted him into the big leagues, garnering tremendous respect among the Hollywood community. He also produced the film and used his own money when budget ran over. The accolades were justified, leading him to become an A-list star. He never achieved anything comparable to Dances with Wolves again.
The time is 1863, the United States embroiled in the Civil War. Union soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), depressed and suicidal, is injured in battle and receives a hero’s praise. He requests to be transferred to the western frontier, where he lives in solitude. He slowly befriends the local Sioux tribe and eventually becomes an honorary member, falling in love with a white woman, Stands with a Fist, (Mary McDonnell), who was raised by the tribe. They name him Dances with Wolves. Chaos erupts when the Union Army arrives to snatch the land at any cost.
Never the greatest actor in the world, but certainly competent, this is the role of a lifetime for Costner. That Dances with Wolves is Costner’s project is crucial. He had a vision and saw that vision to fulfillment. To my knowledge, the studio didn’t interfere and strive for control, but gave Costner the freedom to do whatever he wanted. It shows in the final product.
The romance between Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist is tender, alive, and without standard obstacles. No silly misunderstandings or drama. Theirs doesn’t need any trimmings. The chemistry between Costner and McDonnell is strong. At over three hours in length, the film has time to carefully pace these brilliant moments.
The film is clearly a political vehicle to teach the audience of the ravages and unfairness that Native Americans suffered at the hands of the White Man, and that is huge. Too often the issue is skimmed over or diminished in school textbooks so it’s nice to see the truth given its due. Dances with Wolves serves as an educational tool and no happy ending is provided. How great would it be if the film were shown in high schools and colleges around the United States?
I love how the film, a western, avoids the stereotypes always included in that genre. There are no good guys wearing white or bad guys wearing black, no shoot ’em ups at local saloons, and no cowboys to save the day. Dances with Wolves provides a character study with pivotal thoughts and motivations from the three central characters. Graham Greene must be mentioned as an integral part of the supporting cast. His authenticity is illuminating.
Over the years Dances with Wolves (1990) doesn’t hold up as well as other films- Silence of the Lambs (1990) and Goodfellas (1991) are legendary contemporaries that everyone remembers better. Dances may suffer from an “of its time” label, justifiably so, but the film is a masterpiece. Recommended is to dust this one off and give it a whirl, if even for old time’s sake.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture (won), Best Director-Kevin Costner (won), Best Actor-Kevin Costner, Best Supporting Actor-Graham Greene, Best Supporting Actress-Mary McDonnell, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound (won), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (won), Best Film Editing (won)