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When it comes to catching the gold ring, a film can't do much better than Dances With Wolves, which won seven Oscars out of its twelve nominations. Kevin Costner's sprawling western made a story about the destruction of the Native Americans of the Great Plains into a popular, feel-good epic. In 1990 the western had been dormant for twenty years, with a number of noble efforts to resuscitate it gone for naught. The only star still doing well in the genre was Clint Eastwood. Coming off of a snowballing trio of hits (The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams) Costner directed and starred in the handsome three-hour production. Encouraged to enlarge his canvas for home video, he added an hour to the running time. Although the story slows to a crawl, the long cut will please the picture's many fans. Distributed by 20th-Fox, MGM's Blu-ray has no intermission, so keep your remote handy for those bathroom breaks.
The film is somewhat derivative of Samuel Fuller's 1957 Run of the Arrow, a western about a rebel soldier, wounded by the last shot fired in the Civil War, who drifts west and "goes native". He joins an Indian tribe, takes an Indian wife and eventually sides with his new people when the U.S. Cavalry comes to call. It has been noted that James Cameron's Avatar is very similar to Dances With Wolves, among other films. Run of the Arrow's originality and courage outclasses the features that follow, but Dances is also rewarding in its own way.
His foot badly wounded on a Civil War battlefield, Union Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) elects to die on a horse rather than suffer an amputation, but his suicidal charge toward the rebel lines results in a Union rout. His foot saved by a General's surgeon, Dunbar is rewarded with whatever post he wants, and chooses the wild frontier. Way out in the Dakota country he finds nothing but disorganization and madness. The far-flung advanced post he is supposed to join has been abandoned for lack of supply. Dunbar's gentle ways intrigue Sioux medicine man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene). Instead of killing Dunbar, the Sioux cautiously learn more about him. John helps them find the nomadic buffalo herd and falls in love with Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman raised by Kicking Bird from early childhood. Dunbar also defends the women and children from marauding Pawnees and becomes a full-fledged member of the tribe. The Cavalry post is re-opened within the year, and its soldiers consider Dunbar a traitor who has "gone Indian". The official orders of the troop are to "subdue" all tribes they encounter. Can Dunbar save his new people from extermination?
Upon arriving in the western territory, John Dunbar reports to a Major who is as mad as a hatter, and says the film's famous, utterly anachronistic line of dialogue: "I just want to see the frontier ... before it's gone." Clearly, Dunbar is a charter member of both the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. His clairvoyant awareness of the end of the prairie and its Native Americans is matched by his laconic diary entries, that surface as voiceover. We don't expect all dialogue to be strictly era-appropriate but Dunbar is clearly a sensitive man from an enlightened future. He's attuned to nature, he communes with the stars and makes fast friends with a local wolf. He refuses to be intimidated by his first, rough contacts with the Sioux, who think him to have magic because his well-trained horse is so difficult to steal. John Dunbar is as open and honest as any Gary Cooper hero, which is not a bad thing, surely. It's just that he's always posing. Hardly a scene goes by without Dunbar caught staring at the horizon in a noble posture, preferably against a gorgeous sky. He might as well be waiting for baseball players to emerge from a cornfield, or aliens to alight from flying saucers. But, hey, he looks great, doesn't he?
Like Gary Cooper, Costner builds a "cute" act into his screen persona. We know Dunbar is a swell guy because he falls down so much. He's a sure shot and a deadly foe in battle, but around the dugout he's just as likely to knock himself unconscious running into a low-hung door. He falls down to entertain the Sioux kiddies: big laugh. And tumbling onto his back like a clown is sure bait to attract the ravishing Stands With A Fist.
Arthur Penn's "wild Indians" in 1970's Little Big Man resembled hippies born a century too soon, flower children in tune with the Earth and the spirits, living in a loving, eco-friendly Utopia. Writer Michael Blake's Sioux are certainly fiercer, but they're also God's gift to the landscape. Their clothing and camps are clean, their hair always looks terrific, and their women don't seem overworked. Black Shawl (Tantoo Cardinal), Kicking Bird's better half, has social insights her husband lacks, and even talks back to him. Stands With A Fist is so well respected, that when her husband is killed, she's given her "space" to sort out her desires for the future. The nasty Pawnee tribe next door carry out vicious raids that threaten women and children, but the Sioux are not shown doing one unmotivated act of mayhem, not even the fierce, in-your-face warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant). I tell you, the Sioux way of life looks like one big happy camping trip. Stands With A Fist even has all of her teeth -- they haven't been worn down from years of masticating buffalo hides (yum).
Actually, once one puts the rampant P.C. values aside, these Indians are some of the most vibrant we've seen. Costner and producer Jim Wilson hired Native American rodeo performers, who practiced the skill of firing arrows while riding bareback among stampeding buffalo. Even better, the film's long running time allows writer Michael Blake to take Dunbar through the process of learning the Sioux language. While not as thorough as the language lessons in the old TV miniseries Shogun (where my wife, a romance-language linguist, was able to deduce some Japanese 'sentence structure') the learning of the language makes Dunbar's assimilation into the tribe an experience shared with the audience.
Audiences loved Dances With Wolves' beautiful vistas. Although over-used, they never fail to impress. The action scenes are very much like those in older movies, where Our Side mostly wins and important characters are repeatedly saved in the nick of time. Women and children (no squaws or papooses here) are threatened for dramatic effect, but Stands With a Fist and Black Shawl fight back like liberated she-warriors. In other words, an "A" for excitement and a "B" for realism.
What really stands out in Dances With Wolves is the script's anti-Army, "anti-America" stance. Watching Custer's men wipe out an entire Indian village in Little Big Man, I was shocked by what was obviously an allusion to atrocities in Vietnam. And I remember an older couple walking out on the movie in a huff, and demanding their money back. (Filmmakers of the early '70s were definitely getting payback for the repression of the Blacklist years.) Dances With Wolves is practically Apocalypse Now, except that Colonel Kurtz defects to join the Viet Cong. The U.S. Army is shown as insane and their frontier mission is genocidal madness. Indian outrages are always committed by some other tribe, in a sort of "Put The Blame On The Pawnee" game. The soldiers and their agents kill indiscriminately. They're an uncouth, unsanitary, incompetent pack of (gasp!) litterbugs. Charles Rocket plays a token civilized officer, but as far as this show is concerned, the only good Yankee is a dead Yankee. Was the P.C. tide so high at this time that conservatives didn't complain? Kevin Costner and company pulled off a coup here, with a movie that demonizes the U.S. military, and gets away with it. Had their show come out two years later during the First Gulf War, it may have been received quite differently.
Dances With Wolves also represents the height of the P.C. movement that champions the idea that indigenous, primitive cultures are superior to our supposedly decadent developed civilizations. The Native American cultures were indeed a glorious example of man living in direct relationship to nature, honoring the land and worshipping spirits connected to the real world. But there are definite drawbacks to primitive living. The tribe pictured so memorably here remains an idealized fantasy, a disease-free, harmonious commune. Nothing's that simple. Dances With Wolves is pretty pictures, exciting adventure and a pack of feel-good emotions in a perfect commercial package.
MGM's Blu-ray of Dances With Wolves 20th Anniversary Extended Cut shows more studio commitment than most current library releases. Both discs in the set are Blu-rays, with the first containing the four hours of the full extended feature, uninterrupted. The transfer is very handsome, and there's no denying that the beautiful Dakota vistas and John Barry's music score make for a relaxing experience.
Extras from a 2003 DVD special edition are included alongside a few new features in HD. I listened to about half an hour of Kevin Costner and Jim Wilson's commentary track. They have more than enough time (too much) to discuss the making of the picture; a second commentary is said to contain the thoughts of the cinematographer Dean Semler and editor Neil Travis. I should think the transcripts from these tracks would fill a sizeable book. Two new "In-Feature Experiences" are a history quiz and a Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide, that pop up like trivia tracks. Frankly, I'll occasionally check out a really good Trivia track, but the idea of seeing the four hours of Dances With Wolves five times to take in all these extras is just too much.
The second Blu-ray disc has galleries of photos, a trailer and some TV spots. It also contains an original making-of docu and another newer one, plus a history lesson about the expropriation of The West over the second half of the 19th century. There's much to admire in Costner's fidelity to historical props and costumes; by limiting the film's scope and construction expense (no building of entire towns, as in Cimino's Heaven's Gate) the production was able to concentrate on its dozens of beautiful locations, and could wait until the light was perfect to roll cameras. Many of the locations were on privately owned land that can always be subdivided and sold for development in the future. Perhaps part of Kevin Costner's motivation to film his epic of the western landscape was his own desire " to see it ... before it's gone."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dances With Wolves Blu-ray rates:
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