"Better than 'Goodfellas.'" That's the thing I always remember every time I think about 'Dances with Wolves,' the 1990 Best Picture and Best Director winner over Martin Scorsese's gangland opus. At the time of both of their release, I was only about 14 years old, but thanks in no small part to some of my considerably more astute classmates, even then Kevin Costner's win seemed inappropriate or unworthy. Mind you, the film obviously had many, many fans, and its epic sweep was always undeniably impressive, but given the fact that Scorsese was beat out of an Oscar ten years earlier by another first-time filmmaker, Robert Redford, for 'Ordinary People,' by 1990 it seemed like the guy who already made 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' and 'The Last Temptation of Christ' was long overdue for some recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
On Tuesday, Fox Home Entertainment released the Extended Edition of 'Dances with Wolves' on Blu-ray. With Oscar nominations looming on the horizon, it seemed like a good time to go back and see if the film continues to live on as a testament to Kevin Costner's forward-thinking vision (much less commercial heyday, much less the Sioux nation's perseverance and endurance as an embodiment of nobility). As such, 'Dances with Wolves' is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: 'Dances with Wolves,' Kevin Costner's directorial debut, was released on November 21, 1990, and it was an immediate commercial success, earning more than $424 million against its $22 million budget. The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing, and Score, as well as Best Picture and Director at the Golden Globes.
The film's success was credited with revitalizing the Western genre in Hollywood, although (or perhaps because) the film is considered a "revisionist Western" due to its more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans and its examination of the responsibility of white settlers and the American government in displacing and ultimately decimating indigenous cultures in the early United States. (It has since become a standard-bearer as well for the storytelling device of sending a white character into a foreign or alien culture to investigate, only to become seduced by or sympathetic with it; the most recent example of its conventions being put to use in a different context is James Cameron's 'Avatar.')
The film currently enjoys a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. More recently, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
What Still Works: Although its $22 million budget makes this accomplishment all the more impressive, 'Dances with Wolves' is a gorgeous movie at any price. Dean Semler's cinematography not only captures sequences that would seem otherwise impossible today without the extensive use of CGI (in particular a breathtaking scene where Costner's Dunbar joins the Sioux to hunt a herd of a thousand or so buffalo), but gives the film a luxurious sheen that enhances the emphasis and affection for nature. Using a lot of natural, seemingly untouched locations upon which to shoot the film, Costner and co. create an authentic (or at least movie-authentic) frontier landscape that puts the audience in the place and time where the story occurs.
For the most part the supporting cast is consistently good, especially the Native American actors, who give their characters a dimensionality that the script doesn't always suggest. As Kicking Bird, Graham Greene demonstrates both a curiosity and a gravitas that elevates his character beyond the notes of "adorable savage" that the character might have been; meanwhile, the remainder of his and Costner's co-stars in the Sioux village add grace notes that similarly expand their characters beyond mere caricatures – although, thankfully, those caricatures are born more from storytelling tropes than ethnic stereotypes.
And beyond that, especially at that late date in America's cinematic history, it is a sizable achievement to tell a story about the plight and nobility of Native Americans, even if it is filtered through the viewpoint of a white man. Few Westerns before 'Dances with Wolves' offered as substantive or specific a look at Native American culture, and the film manages to celebrate those values while telling a story that promotes general conservation of nature and respect for indigenous cultures.
What Doesn't Work: The actual story of the film is pretty flimsy, or at best a carefully-engineered piece of Hollywood screenwriting writ large (if seldom subtle) on an admittedly-gorgeous canvas. In particular, the story itself often seems to directly interfere with character development; for example, Dunbar is suicidal in the film's opening scene, and it's the reason he asks to be transferred to the frontier. But once he gets to the frontier, he more or less immediately imposes upon himself a masturbatory self-discipline which speaks of a methodical commitment to his duties rather than, say, total disillusionment in military procedure, much less a lack of interest in continuing living.
The choice seems born of a need to visually juxtapose that procedure with the fluid and harmonious efforts of the Native Americans to commune with nature and their environment, but it has little if anything to do with the character's initial crisis. It is subsequently reflected in his slow (if only because of the film's inexhaustible running time) relinquishing of the shackles of modern society, such as when he stops using a saddle, stops cleaning and arranging his military uniform, etc.
The bigger problem, however, is Costner. He was never a particularly gifted actor, but his transformation in the film, again, is only made nuanced by the time it takes across the entire span of the film, although there are several sequences which rush through moments where he connects meaningfully and/or makes breakthroughs with the Sioux. But infinitely worse than his on screen performance is the voiceover narration that supposedly clarifies and further explores Dunbar's transformation throughout the film. The irony with the narration is that the character almost relentlessly expresses an eagerness to transform himself – to immerse himself in Sioux culture and change into the character we know he will become – and yet there is an almost complete lack of passion, not to mention inflection, in virtually all of Costner's line readings. In one scene, he described in minute detail the feeling of experiencing rapturous love and affection for Stands with a Fist, and it could not sound more dispassionate or rehearsed.
Additionally, that voiceover is entirely unnecessary, since Dunbar is only ever describing something that already happened, explaining something that was already explained, or reflecting on things that any marginally-intelligent audience member should or would be able to figure out for himself. And it definitely doesn't help that Costner's flat American accent almost begs for every one of his lines to end with the phrase, "like, totally."
Finally, this film conjures a really interesting (if perhaps objectively unanswerable) question about the depiction/celebration of otherwise-marginalized ethnic groups: when does that portrayal become patronizing, even (or maybe especially) if it's meant to be celebratory or affectionate? It's indisputable that Costner wants the film to serve as a living tribute to the Native American cultures that were decimated in order to settle the American frontier, and he depicts all of the Native American characters as noble, complex figures who evolve to accept him as he does them. But because their characters are themselves essentially character types – the intractable warrior who develops respect for his former adversary, the irrepressible adolescent who grows to look up to a person he might have scorned – and it's unclear, except in intent, whether the portrayal of Native Americans is truly as multidimensional as it seems. (And the answer may in fact be that intent is everything – and I'm neither assessing nor making judgments about the end result – but the collective, noble "adorableness" of the Indians in the film seems to be at least vaguely problematic, albeit more in retrospect than probably at the time of the film's initial release.)
What's The Verdict: 'Dances with Wolves' may be a technically well-crafted and serviceable White Messiah story, but as a whole it is significantly flawed, and especially in its Extended iteration, painfully overlong. It seems like the movie could be substantially improved by paring it down to its essential elements, and most of all, removing the numbing voiceover; because as it is now, it feels like Malick for Dummies. That said, I understand why the film won Best Picture – it was a zeitgeist film that reminded mainstream audiences of a marginalized group they could feel good to relate to and champion, and it looked and sounded pretty. But for the record, 'Goodfellas' is a much better movie.