Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
Dances with Wolves (1990): Dir. Kevin Coster. Written by: Michael Blake, based upon his novel of the same name. Starring: Costner, Graham Greene, Mary McDonnell, Rodney A. Grant, and Floyd Westerman. Rated PG-13 for violence and brief nudity. Running time: 181 minutes.
In his directorial debut, Kevin Costner broke all the supposed “rules” for a first film: he worked with child actors, he worked with animals (wolves and bison), and he worked in the great outdoors. He defied the odds, and had a hit that won audiences and the Oscar voters alike. It survives as an impressive epic, even if it’s starting to show its age at this point.
After proving instrumental to a Union victory in the Civil War, Lt. John J. Dunbar opts for a post of his choice in the western frontier. Finding the post utterly deserted, he warily strikes up a friendship with the neighboring Sioux tribe. But that relationship encounters adversity when the United States cavalry ride out to reclaim the post.
Costner shows a deft touch with the material; he captures the unforgiving but beautiful western frontier, especially in a magnificent buffalo hunt sequence. We get a sense of Dunbar’s allies as people. They do not simply exist in relation to Dunbar; they have histories, idiosyncrasies, and faults of their own. The two parties struggle to understand the other’s culture and motives, slowly and painfully forging a bond.
Even if the film lacks a coherent plot, it clips along, and Costner shows a great interest in his characters, with Graham Greene and Mary McDonnell leaving indelible impressions. Unfortunately, the flagrant abuse of voiceover narration distracts from Costner’s cinematic displays of Sioux culture. And even with the sympathetic portrayal of the Sioux, that same sensitivity is not bestowed upon the Pawnee tribe or the United States Cavalry, who both reach comical heights of pure evil.
As an immersive adventure, Dances with Wolves satisfies and then some. Even as countless films have ripped it off through the years (Avatar, cough cough), it remains the best of its genre.
Next film: The Silence of the Lambs, 1991