Judge Clark Douglas skips with squirrels.
Our review of Dances With Wolves: Special Edition, published May 20th, 2003, is also available.
Inside everyone is a frontier waiting to be discovered.
"It seems that every day ends with a miracle here. And whatever God may be, I thank God for this day."
Facts of the Case
After suffering an injury and being awarded for bravery in the Civil War, Union Lt. John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is given an unusual new assignment. Dunbar is ordered to travel to Fort Sedgewick, where he will command the post and help establish a military presence in the middle of the wild American frontier. When Dunbar arrives, he discovers that Fort Sedgewick has been abandoned by the small group of soldiers that had been holding it. Undeterred by this turn of events, Dunbar determines to set up camp and wait for reinforcements.
After a short period of time, Dunbar discovers that he isn't alone in the region. He encounters some members of a nearby Sioux tribe. Both Dunbar and the Sioux are wary of each other initially, but eventually they attempt to communicate with each other. As time passes, Dunbar becomes friends with the Sioux, particularly a medicine man named Kicking Bird (Graham Greene, Die Hard: With a Vengeance). Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica), a white woman who has been with the tribe since childhood, serves as an interpreter. Dunbar quickly begins to develop feelings for her, despite that fact that she's very wary of him. Though Dunbar is making great progress in his efforts to reach across a cultural divide, it's only a matter of time before the U.S. Military tracks him down and attempts to interfere with his endeavor.
Revisiting Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves 20 years after its release is an intriguing experience. In the time since the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, we've seen Costner try and fail to duplicate the film's success with a series of increasingly clunky epics (Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, The Postman) and seen high-profile blockbusters (often derisively) compared to the film (The Last Samurai was referred to as, "Dances with Wolves in Japan" while Avatar was, "Dances with Wolves in space"). A film which was once regarded as a touching tale of individuals from different backgrounds attempting to connect has now developed a reputation as an all-too-familiar sort of racial fantasy. Despite all of this baggage, I feel most of Dances with Wolves still holds up rather well. The story offers far more nuance than Avatar and is presented with less hyperbolic emotion than the lesser parts of The Last Samurai.
Costner's John Dunbar is not some white saint riding in to save the Sioux single-handedly, but simply a good man who comes to understand some important truths. By alienating himself from his own culture and eventually working to understand a culture which is entirely foreign to him, he begins to fully comprehend the atrocious nature of what the American government is doing to Native Americans during the mid-19th Century. There's a great deal of gentle beauty to be found in the lengthy midsection of the film, as Dunbar makes small steps towards integrating himself into the Sioux tribe. Particularly in this 234-minute director's cut, the overwhelming amount of time Costner spends focusing on the minute details of the relationship between Dunbar and the Sioux goes a long way towards selling the relationship as it inches forward.
Likewise, the Sioux are not patronizingly presented as some tribe of pure, faultless holy people. Their is savagery within their culture just as there is within any other (a moment added to the director's cut features Dunbar sadly contemplating the Sioux celebration of a particularly brutal, pointless murder), but there is a sense of dignity and respect for nature that Dunbar finds enchanting and unfamiliar. By the film's conclusion, he is not 100% comfortable with every aspect of Sioux life, but he has seen both sides of the fence and has come to the conclusion that theirs is the one with greater honor.
Dances with Wolves was Costner's first outing behind the camera, but he demonstrates the skill and assurance of an old pro. During the first hour in particular, there is a surreal elegance that is as reminiscent of Terrence Malick as it is of folks like John Ford and Henry Hathaway. There's also an element of David Lean in the way Costner frequently pulls back and simply observes the sprawling, awe-inspiring landscapes that serves as the film's backdrop. He works together with cinematographer Dean Semler to create many moments of entirely visual storytelling. Their staging of the buffalo hunt in particular is more awe-inspiring than any CGI spectacle could ever hope to be. Though the director's cut of Dances with Wolves runs nearly four hours, the film has less dialogue than many two-hour films.
The performances mostly veer towards the natural and understated, with Costner, Greene and McDonnell pulling the biggest share of the load. Costner struggles a bit with his narration (his flat readings lack the power the words really need), but outside of that area he proves very capable. I particularly love Greene's eyes in the film, as he spends so much of his screen time silently swerving between curiosity, amusement and sadness. The film's only over-the-top performance comes from a memorably loony Maury Chaykin (My Cousin Vinny) as the mentally deranged Major who sends Dunbar on his mission.
The 1080p/2.35:1 transfer is a little disappointing, as this is a visually stunning film which I was hoping would really dazzle in hi-def. Unfortunately, large portions of the movie look very soft, so detail is much less impressive than I had hoped. There are fleeting moments when things look pretty sharp, but for the most part this is a film which often looks like it's been smeared with a thin layer of vaseline. The audio is better, as the 7.1 mix is a rather rich one for a film that's twenty years old. John Barry's sweeping, memorable score (arguably the greatest effort of the master composer's career; a musical work so grand that it was endorsed by Pope John Paul II) is generously spotlighted when it appears, but the music sound just a tiny bit wobbly at times. The music disappointingly sounds just a little older than it actually is. The action scenes in the film pack a huge punch, and the buffalo hunt is thrillingly immersive. Despite the assorted disappointments, this is a huge upgrade from the DVD in both departments.
Speaking of the DVD, most of the extras are ported over from the previous 2-disc special edition. You get two commentary tracks (one with Costner & Producer Jim Wilson, another with cinematographer Dean Semper & editor Neil Travis), an 81-minute multi-part documentary entitled "The Creation of an Epic," a 21-minute making-of featurette from the time of the film's release, a hisotical featurette called "A Day in the Life on the Western Frontier," a 10-minute photo montage, a 4-minute music video featuring an awful remix of John Barry's theme, a poster gallery and some trailers. The new items are two dry but informative in-feature viewing options: "Military Rank and Social Hierachy Guide" (which offers info on the importance and standing of the characters in the film) and "Real History or Movie Make Believe?" (which separates the fact and the fiction in the film).
Yes, Dances with Wolves is largely a fantasy. It is very unlikely that a relationship like the one depicted in the film ever actually took place. Even so, the film presents this "what if?" story with such intense attention to detail that I can accept that this is how things might have happened. More importantly, the story is told without any alterations to larger historical detail. There is a painful awareness that no matter what happens and no matter how many steps forward are taken, the Sioux are doomed to a horrible future. Though a number of films before (and particularly since) have attempted to make amends for the stereotypical westerns of yesteryear by humanizing Native Americans, Dances with Wolves has the rare distinction of being a film which does so with great attentiveness and without smug, self-congratulatory pompousness. It remains a great piece of American cinema.
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