“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”
This film has been featured in an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show!
Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.
The plot follows John Dunbar, an officer in the Union army during the American Civil War. When a suicide attempt accidentally makes him a war hero, he’s given his choice of post, and he chooses a quiet post deep in the Western frontier. He arrives to find the post deserted, but he fulfills his duty anyway, making patrols and learning what he can about the surrounding area. He comes in contact with a local Sioux tribe and begins learning about their culture and society, and is surprised to discover that it’s nothing like he’s been told by white Americans. Dunbar grows to respect the native tribe, and they grow to respect him, which makes it much more difficult when both have to grapple with the fact that the expansion of white Americans is harmful to the Sioux way of life. Dunbar finds himself pulled in two very different directions, and as conflict becomes inevitable, he must pick a side.
I had never really known who John Dunbar was. Perhaps because the name itself had no meaning. But as I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.
The positive depiction of Native Americans in this film is great, but honestly, positive portrayals were not new. The 1911 film An Indian Love Story gave a very positive portrayal of Native Americans, and many portrayals through the 20s and 30s were actually very positive as well, showing the natives as victims of white expansion. The decades after that gave rise to the John Wayne-style Western, where Native Americans were savage, soulless plot devices that existed just to make life hard for the brave American settlers, and that became the popular notion of Native Americans for years. (Seriously, I’ve talked to people who believe that Native Americans were all savages that deserved to be conquered.) The 60s and 70s revamped the classic Western formula and went back to some positive portrayals of Native Americans. But through all of that, even with positive portrayals of indigenous peoples, they were not allowed to be real people.
Good or bad, Native Americans in film were really only allowed to do two things: fight with ancient weapons, and sit down all stoic-like while the white characters carried the plot. Dances with Wolves shows us Native American characters who expressed the whole gamut of human emotion. We see a character become overwhelmed with the anger he feels and do foolish things; we see a character break down and get sad when he hears one of his dear friends is leaving; we see some young characters do foolish things and worry that their parents will find out. We also see characters with flaws, characters who made mistakes, and are still allowed to be heroes and redeem themselves. This film allowed Native Americans to be human, and that was a huge step forward. I wish I could say that this started a movement, but sadly, most Native American portrayals even after this film fell right back into the same stereotypes and cliches that have plagued the industry since its inception.
Though this film is well-respected and won a lot of awards, the industry’s view of the film wasn’t always great. The Western used to be the classic American genre, and was one of the most popular types of film until it started dying down in the 70s. Then, in 1980, one film ruined the Western for the entire industry: Heaven’s Gate. This epic Western went way over budget, spending a fortune, and the resulting film was heavily criticized by both critics and audiences. It went down as one of the biggest flops in film history, and it basically killed the genre. So when screenwriter Michael Blake had his idea for Dances with Wolves in the early 80s, nobody wanted to touch another epic Western. Kevin Costner discovered the treatment in 1986 and loved the idea, but couldn’t find anyone to produce it. He ended up putting up the money himself, but then found that no director wanted any part of it. So he decided to direct it himself. When the production went over-budget, many in the film industry started calling this project “Kevin’s Gate,” predicting another magnificent flop. (Costner had to pay for production overages out of his own pocket.) The film’s estimated budget was about 22 million (which is actually half that of Heaven’s Gate); the worldwide gross of this film was over 424 million—over 19 times its budget. So this film isn’t just an underdog story, but it’s more or less responsible for saving the entire Western genre. Many of the Westerns we see being made today owe a debt of gratitude to this film.
The film itself is a great drama, even if it feels a bit forced at times. Aside from Dunbar himself, white characters seemed simple and extremely selfish. Historically, that’s not very far off from reality, but it would have been nice to see some depth with the “villains” of the story. (Somewhat ironically, the white people in this film are given the same treatment as Native Americans in most other films, which sheds some light on how most other films make us native folk feel.) Narration occurs as Dunbar records his thoughts in his journal, and it gives some depth to the growing relationships and changing characters. There’s some subtle humor in places that adds moments of levity, but nothing so over-the-top that it detracts from the story. The drama can feel heavy-handed at times, and because of that, there were times I didn’t want to like it—but I did like it. This is definitely a film where explanations or clips of the film will seem cliche, although the film as a whole works extraordinarily well.
With the troubled history of Native American portrayals in film, this is a film I think every film buff needs to see, and probably one every American needs to see as well. Dances with Wolves is a drama first and a Western second, so it doesn’t neatly fit into the Western genre mold, but it offers a lot of additional insight and clarity for fans of the genre. As I said, I’m a member of the Tlingit tribe (an Alaskan tribe), so this film hit pretty close to home for me in its honest and respectful portrayal of Native Americans. But I think the story and dramatic elements work even for viewers with no real knowledge of America’s native people. If you haven’t seen this film yet, I’d urge you to do that.
View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!
Director: Kevin Costner
Genres: adventure, drama, epic, historical, western