Lt. John Dunbar, exiled to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Indians, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.
Year 1, Day 186
BEFORE: Nominated for twelve Academy Awards and winner of seven of those, including Best Picture and Director, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves makes it way onto the marathon. This film also kicks off a mini and unintended four-day war chain within Oscar month.
AFTER: Dances with Wolves seems like it would be one of my favorite films, and in some ways it is. Kevin Costner doesn’t just make a film that you watch for three hours and then forget about it right after. The film is much more than a popcorn flick but instead brings the time of the Civil War (1863) and the location (Western frontier) to the screen in a way that is believable. But film also felt like it was meandering through the story with some events happening too quickly while others took forever.
Let me begin with the positives. Costner does a fantastic job with the look of the film. The costumes, the sets, the props: everything you see in the film looks like it was from the Civil War era which is just one part of the believability of the film. The second, and most incredible aspect, is the Native American’s speaking in their native tongue. If you weren’t able to give yourself into this world with the visuals alone, the sounds would definitely pull you in. The Westerns I’ve seen have either not had Indians, or if they did they were speaking English. Speaking in Lakota is like using Elvish or Orkish in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: it’s just another element of the film that adds to an overall level of quality. By itself using different languages in a film isn’t all that special, but to use it in a seamless way where it’s a natural part of the story and not something imposed upon the viewer is a sign of high attention to detail.
While I have no problems with the technical quality of the film itself, I really didn’t like the quality of the story. My problems don’t have anything to do with the basic story that is part of the “Sorry About Colonialism” subgenre, but with the pacing of everything. One of the central ideas to the film is that Lt. Dunbar’s (Kevin Costner) views of the Native American people changes as he transforms from Lt. Dunbar, the white man, into Dances with Wolves, a member of the Indian tribe. But the passing of time, shown mostly through Dunbar’s journal writing/narration seems off at times. The Civil War battle in the beginning was a good setup to introduce the character, but then Dunbar goes off to the deserted Fort Sedgwick and things start to fall apart. One moment he’s minding his own business cleaning and fixing the fort and then the next, he’s ambushed by Indians. But instead of the Indians killing him no questions asked, like they did with the wagon driver (Kent Hays), Dunbar is spared. A little later on, Dunbar starts becoming friends with the tribe but instead of a gradual growth in their friendship, all Dunbar needs to do to be accepted as their own kind is tell them of buffalo. Sure, it’s an important thing for the tribe and it would go a long way in securing Dunbar/Dances with Wolves’ place among the Sioux people, but to have it be an instantaneous thing? I don’t buy it.
Overall, things evened out to average. Dances with Wolves isn’t the best film there is but it’s not too bad. I was happy to spend three hours going back in time to the Civil War era and see a beautifully crafted film, but the structure and pacing of the story left much to be desired. There’s still lots of room for improvement with Oscar month films.
RATING: 3 out of 5