Dances With Wolves

Dances With Wolves

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Has the magic of cinema lost its wonder? The older generation, brought up on Saturday matinees in smoke-filled fleapits, have matured into Bogey bores and John Wayne reactionaries. The younger generation, high on CGI hype and techno trash, don't care that modern romance is market researched and artificially inseminated into Julia Roberts.

Considering this, Kevin Costner's achievement with a three-hour subtitled Western about a solitary Union officer going native on the frontier plains is nothing less than miraculous. He broke every rule in Hollywood, ignored statisticians, experts and plot doctors to do what he wanted. The last time an actor was given such freedom was when Marlon Brando processed 60 hours of One Eyed Jacks and couldn't cut it.

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Everything about the film spells disaster. It's too long. It's a Western. It's about Red Indians. It's subtitled. It's organic. And in this sugar-free greenhouse environment, where ethnic roots are fashionable again, soft focus shots of painted actors, riding bareback through dawn mist, are a recipe for nausea.

However, Costner has the courage of his convictions and, in these circumstances, convictions count. Unlike so many young filmmakers, he makes no reference to genre stereotypes. The Western exhausted its cliches and died in parody. Costner works the vein, as if ignorant of its history. He lacks pretension, arrogance and affectation.

John Dunbar is a Union officer, who becomes a hero in an act of suicidal stupidity during the American Civil War. After the peace, he is allowed to choose his next post and decides on the furthest fort in the frontier lands. He is not an ambitious soldier, nor a particularly intelligent one. He is inquisitive, practical and happy on his own.

The fort turns out to be a deserted huddle of broken down shacks in a bare valley, surrounded by rolling hills. He stays there alone for months, with enough stores and ammunition for a small garrison, and no one to talk to but his horse and a skinny wolf that visits every evening at a safe distance.

When the Sioux come, they are not friendly. They treat him with suspicion, even hostility. Dunbar behaves like he does with the wolf, encouraging and gentle, wary and patient. The Sioux don't understand what he's doing there and yet the wiser ones know he must be the first of many and so worth preserving as a source of information.

What happens, through a series of incidents, is that Dunbar becomes accepted by the Indians and slowly integrates into their lives. This is a natural evolution, based on mutual respect. Even his love of Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman captured by the tribe as a child, already a widow and hardly able to remember the language of the pale face, takes time to grow.

The Sioux are not romanticised. Dunbar's need of them is understandable in his isolation and their tolerance of him changes from nervousness to generosity, because of the nature of the man rather than any desire for his superior weaponry. When Dunbar writes in his diary: "Every day ends with a miracle here," his words have true meaning.

What shines through is the integrity of the film. Costner's performance has a modesty that adds credence to Dunbar's actions. "I knew for the first time who I really was," carries absolute conviction.

The magic of cinema has not lost its wonder. Costner found it. And gives it back.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2004
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A Union soldier goes native in the wide open plains of Sioux country.
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Director: Kevin Costner

Writer: Michael Blake

Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Robert Pastorelli, Maury Chaykin

Year: 1990

Runtime: 180 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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