Ranking: #83/111

Director: Kevin Costner (USA)

Genre: Western

This is a Western story of great emotional intelligence turned into a wonderful visual and sonic cinematic experience.  It has one of cinema’s most lush and evocative scores, composed by one of the great film composers, John Barry.  In addition, the sweeping cinematography draws on a dense and vivid colour palette.

The magic of cinema happens when the dynamism of a story is embedded in such a powerful soundscape and in such textured imagery.

Dances in Wolves is underpinned by a fascinating narrative with a wealth of characters, several of whom undergo significant development as people as a result of the complex relationships formed between the central character, Lt. John J. Dunbar, and members of a neighbouring Sioux camp. The movie deals sensitively with the cultural differences between them, showing that by increasing your humanity it becomes possible to respect, and even to fully identify with, the other person’s culture, however different from one’s own.

There’s an additional layer of nostalgia, which is part of the film’s atmosphere, for the final, twilight years of the American frontier. Dunbar, who requested to be posted to the frontier before it disappeared, knows this time of great change in the country will mean that the future of the native American Indian tribes will be increasingly threatened by the mass migration of white peoples to the West.

The transformation in Dunbar begins in the beautifully filmed scene when he gallops across the Confederate lines of fire and opens his arms in a gesture of submission to the grand forces of destiny. It is a virtual suicide mission, but he’s determined to do something dramatic to prevent his wounded leg from being amputated. The strategy works because his “suicide run” provides a distraction, enabling the Union Army to mount a successful counterattack, the confederate soldiers failing to shoot him. Dunbar gets a citation for bravery, gets to save his leg and is offered a posting of his choice. He chooses to go to the frontier.

After he arrives at the remote outpost, however, he finds it is deserted. He then sets about creating some order and restocking it. Later, he meets with Lakota Sioux warriors and gradually earns their respect and trust in a growing mutual friendship. Using the dialogue between them in Lakota, with English subtitles, was a brainwave, adding to the sincerity of the movie’s treatment of the race issue. He also tries to make friends with a wolf he calls “Two Socks” (named after the animal’s white forepaws). This rapport with the wolf symbolises the act of reaching out to the “other”, that is, something, or someone, who’s very different from oneself, perhaps even “foreign”.

The love relationship between Dunbar and a white woman, Stands with a Fist, who was brought up by the tribe after her family were massacred by Pawnee warriors, adds a romantic element to the film. At the same time, this provides a credible interpreter who can improve communication between him and the Indians. This is all part of the character development which works so well in the movie and forms part of the overcoming of “culture shock”.

Dunbar’s deepening relationships with the wise and gentle leader Kicking Bird, with the fiery, but trustworthy, warrior Wind in His Hair, and with the youth Smiles a Lot, are all conveyed with a touching genuineness. Eventually, the soldier becomes one of them.

After many twists and turns in the plot, the time comes when he decides he will have to leave them for their own safety, since the army is now looking for him. In a beautiful parting sequence as winter draws in, he is preparing to leave his Sioux friends with Stands with a Fist, when Smiles a Lot returns his lost diary, and then Wind in His Hair shouts to him from a mountain path above, declaring their undying friendship in a primordial gesture of love. It is an unforgettable scene.

Dances with Wolves sometimes falls briefly into stereotyping, especially when the hero was taken prisoner by US army soldiers, but, overall, it provides a very rich cinematic experience, sustaining throughout its visual and emotional intensity. As a work of cinematic art, it’s filled with dynamic sounds and images, has a great screenplay and embeds a fascinating storyline in evocative settings. After the desolate scene of the skinned buffalo carcasses, for example, the buffalo chase is an utterly spectacular sequence.  

Dances with Wolves is a one-off masterpiece and it’s abundantly clear that the director Kevin Costner and his team threw everything into making it, going for broke and winning. It’s a movie for the ages. Here’s what the The Oxford History of World Cinema said about the movie: “The 1980s was the Western’s worst ever decade and production fell away to a trickle…Kevin Costner scored a personal triumph with Dances with Wolves, which self-consciously sought to put the record straight on the Indian Question and which was rewarded by the first Oscar for Best Picture received by a Western since Cimarron in 1930.” (Nowell-Smith, G (ed), The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 293).

Initially a worldwide box-office hit, which received favourable critical reviews and accolades (including winning seven Academy Awards), Dances with Wolves in the years since has become a timeless American classic. In 2007, the movie was chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the US National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Costner’s film documents and portrays, with optimal expressiveness, a time of seismic change in American history.

The movie even has a lyrically written epilogue, which I leave with you: “Thirteen years later—their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone—the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone, and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.”

I say no more.