Title: Dances With Wolves
Director / Studio: Kevin Costner
Based On: “Dances With Wolves” by Michael Blake (1988)
Main Cast: Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Rodney A Grant, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Mary McDonnell.
Empire Ranking: 137
Type of Text: Film
Main Characters: Lieutenant John Dunbar, a fighter for the Union Army in the American Civil War (Costner). Sioux Indians: Fighting Bird, the holy man (Greene); Wind In His Hair (Grant), a young warrior; Ten Bears (Westerman), Chief of the clan; Stands With A Fist (McDonnell), adopted daughter of Fighting Bird.
Themes & Imagery:
Synopsis: John Dunbar finds life as a solitary soldier on the “Indian frontier” less appealing than expected – until he is welcomed into a local Native tribe. After a reckless attempt at suicide by running against Confederate soldiers allows his own Union comrades to make use of the distraction and seize the day, the newly-decorated Dunbar is able to request a posting on the frontier. When he reaches the isolated Fort Sedgwick, he finds it abandoned and in a state of disrepair; he is seen by a lone “Indian” (Native American), Kicking Bird, who reports back to their council. This leads Wind In His Hair and his men to ride on Dunbar’s camp to intimidate him, which leads Dunbar in turn to decide to meet with the Indians at their own camp in his full military regalia; he finds and rescues an injured woman, Stands With A Fist, on the way, and although he is not well received by the Indians at first, Chief Ten Bears sends Kicking Bird and Wind In His Hair to Dunbar and communication is gradually developed between them – with the aid of Stands With A Fist, a native English speaker who has lived with the Indians since childhood and is worried she will be taken away from them. Dunbar soon joins the Indians in tracking and hunting a herd of buffalo, which proves a great bonding experience and leads him to become more integrated with the tribe, and to fall in love with Stands With A Fist. For a while, they are happy; but it soon becomes apparent that the white soldiers of the frontier are taking over more and more Indian territory, and Dunbar must leave the tribe to avoid putting them in further danger.
Personal Response: I enjoyed this film a lot more than I thought I would, considering I’m not a huge fan of the conventional “Western”. One of the great positives I undoubtedly the fantastic use of shots of the vast empty prairies, and the sense of epic scale which is given to scenes such as the buffalo hunt. I also appreciated the use of Native American language and detailed culture at the heart of the film, although I confess that I cannot in any way testify as to its accuracy or veracity. Mary McDonnell as Stands With A Fist was a particularly strong performance, and I grew to like Costner as Dunbar too (although something about the voiceovers, whether Coster’s intonation or just his accent, tended to irritate me, even when I found the phrasing and messages of the lines spoken to be powerful). The central theme, as I understood it, of finding and making a family and gaining a sense of belonging in unexpected circumstances, was very moving; and while I didn’t find the ending particularly satisfying, I’m not sure it is meant to be.
Favourite Part: I found the early attempts to communicate generally heartwarming and often amusing, of which the scene in which Stands With A Fist first tries translating between Dunbar and Kicking Bird, starting with names, particularly stands out. Beyond that, I also really enjoyed Dunbar’s solo fire dance.
My Top Five Lines & Passages: