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EMPIRE ESSAY: Dances With Wolves Review

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Lt. John Dunbar is dubbed a hero after he accidentally leads Union troops to a victory during the Civil War. He requests a position on the western frontier, but finds it deserted. He soon finds out he is not alone, but meets a wolf he dubs "Two-socks" and a curious Indian tribe. Dunbar quickly makes friends with the tribe, and discovers a white woman who was raised by the Indians. He gradually earns the respect of these native people, and sheds his white-man's ways.

★★★★

An idealistic Union soldier with a romantic dream of the fast-vanishing frontier is rewarded for an act of heroic gallantry in the Civil War with the posting of his request, a remote fort in the Dakotas. There he is befriended by a tribe of the Lakota Sioux and goes native, only to be caught up in the encroachment of the white man, seeing the twilight fall on the great horse culture of the Plains.

Kevin Costner's directorial debut was ambitious, epic and, most worryingly, a western — chunks of it actually in Lakota Sioux with English subtitles — at a time when only Clint Eastwood was daring the unfashionable grand old genre with any success. Industry wags gleefully predicting disaster dubbed it "Kevin's Gate". Costner had the last laugh in a personal, artistic and commercial triumph when it rode away with seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director. It was the first western to win Best Picture since Cimarron (1931).

Dances With Wolves is a captivating adventure and wistful elegy that sprung from a fascination Costner and his buddy, writer Michael Blake, shared with an entire Baby Boomer generation who grew up with the cavalry and Indians in Saturday matinees and on primetime TV but were later affected by the 60s-born movements for Native American rights and the environment. Its South Dakota locations and exciting action sequences were ideally suited to Australian cinematographer Dean Semler's talents, the Mad Max veteran at home with both awesome landscapes and rootin' tootin' action. Together they created a lyrical, warmly evocative prairie odyssey which refuses to stint on rich detail, as in the time and space given to Dunbar's strange journey to the abandoned fort and his introduction to the Indians — by stages his terror, curiosity and notions of formal diplomacy giving way to his complete captivation by his feather-decked neighbours and their way of life.

As director Costner was sufficiently savvy to take lingering elegiac, mystical, sentimental, comic or romantic chapters in Dunbar's story to a series of vivid action climaxes. The film draws you in from the outset on a Tennessee battlefield with wounded Lt. John J. Dunbar, courting death, galloping straight across a line of Confederate riflemen, finishing his wild ride on trusty steed Cisco unscathed. And he does it again, his arms outstretched in a sacrificial attitude, unwittingly inspiring a Union rout of the Southerners and becoming "a living hero". Conventional Indian attacks are largely avoided since the film is specifically a love affair with "The People", portrayed as proud, quick and humorous: "I had never known a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, so dedicated to each other. And the only word that came to mind was harmony."

McDonnell's Stands With A Fist remembers in a flashback the massacre on her family's homestead. The muleteer is slaughtered by a Pawnee hunting party looking for some action. And Dunbar/Dances With Wolves' ordeal when ultimately he is taken prisoner by an Army detachment is ended by an archetypally whooping band of braves in a gruesome flurry of arrows and tomahawks — with the unique distinction that it is the Indians who are the good guys charging to the rescue and the blue coats who are the savage baddies. Otherwise the most memorable action set pieces are in keeping with the majestic pace of the film. The earth-shaking passing of the buffalo that awakens Dunbar to a dreamlike glimpse of the mighty herd leads to the stately buffalo hunt. Beginning with ritual body painting and horse decorating, building to the gallop into the racing herd, the chase with its whoosh of arrows, whump of spears, cracks of Dunbar's rifle and thuds of crashing buffalo, Dunbar's rescue of the boy Smiles A Lot (Nathan Lee Chasing Horse) from a wounded beast's charge and the eating of its heart is an extraordinary eight-minute sequence that is spectacular but also furthers the story by elaborating the significance of what they are doing.

The same is true of the ferocious Pawnee assault on the village. The Lakota war party away and the raiders spotted, Dances With Wolves casts off Dunbar by giving his Army rifles to his friends and leading the frantic defence: "As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was." A year after its release Costner presented the "special edition" version of Dances With Wolves with nearly an hour of additional material. Almost all of this is seamlessly inserted snippets of dialogue here, a bit more snogging there, and still more ravishing scenery. The most important "new" scene is Dunbar's discover that the Lakota have caught, tortured and slain the ignoble white buffalo hunters. But there if no new major action scene and the added length, while handsome and involving for devotees, does drag the pace. Action fans are likely to be happier with the arguably superior, inarguably likeable, original "short" version.

The story of how he goes native, comes by his special name (capering with the wolf he calls Two Socks) and finds himself is as enchanting a western as ever was.