Monday, July 2, 2012

The Oscar Project #63: Dances with Wolves (1990)

I went into Dances with Wolves absolutely expecting to hate it. I’ve never liked Kevin Costner, and nothing about the plot seemed really appealing to me. But then something happened that I never could have anticipated: it was really good! I found myself becoming absorbed in the story, and I couldn’t pull myself away.

Costner, who directed and starred in the film, certainly had some Costner-y moments, but on the whole, he did a fine job as Lt. John Dunbar, who is eventually given the name Dances with Wolves by the Lakota Sioux tribe he joins. After the first few minutes of the film, which are preposterous, he finds his comfort zone, and once he is assigned to his outpost on the frontier, everything starts to flow naturally.

Because of his courage/stupidity during a Civil War battle, Dunbar is given his choice of where he wants to be assigned. He picks an isolated “fort” on the frontier, claiming he wants to see it before it’s gone. While he’s there, he develops a friendship with the local Sioux tribe and a romance with a white tribe member (she had been adopted as a child after her family was killed). When the white men inevitably come to appropriate the land for themselves, Dunbar, known at this point by Dances with Wolves, sides with the Indians.

Basically, if you’ve seen Avatar, then you know what’s going to happen in this movie. I had heard the comparison before, but it was really quite amazing how strong the similarities were. A lone guy is assigned to scout out an area, befriends the natives, falls in love, and fights against his own military[1] in the end. The only difference is that Dances with Wolves is a much, much better movie.

I don't remember him being so happy about this.
Several critics have pointed out that this movie functions in some ways as an apology for a long history of racist portrayals in Westerns. Typically, white men were clear heroes, while the Indians were vicious savages. Here, the roles are completely reversed. The soldiers who come to the frontier at the end of the film are horrible, terrible people, trying to kill and steal from the peaceful Native Americans. Additionally, the Sioux in the film were given the chance to be actual characters, and what's more, real Sioux actors were used in most of the roles. And they even spoke their own language! Such things seem commonplace today, but as recently as 22 years ago, they were still a novelty.

Amazingly, by the time this won Best Picture in 1990, it had been 59 years since a Western had won the award, and it was only the second Western to ever win. If you’ve been with me from the start, you might remember Cimarron, the terrible (and terribly racist) Best Picture from 1931. It’s almost unfathomable how much the world changed in those six decades. I imagine anybody who tried to make Dances with Wolves in 1931 would have been executed as a traitor.

I’m always glad when a film gives me a happy surprise, especially when I expect so totally to dislike the movie. I assumed that Dances with Wolves was going to be a lost movie, a lackluster lead-in to a series of pretty good films. Now there shouldn’t be any letdown for quite a while. But you never know, maybe Braveheart and The English Patient will surprise me too.

[1] To be fair, I think they were a paramilitary force in Avatar.

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