In his directorial debut, Kevin Costner brings a rare degree of grace and feeling to this elegiac tale of a hero’s adventure of discovery among the Sioux Indians on the pristine Dakota plains of the 1860s. Despite its three-hour length, pic stands a good chance of being a word-of-mouth hit and one of the season’s most widely popular pics.
Costner stars as Lt. John Dunbar, a Union officer in the Civil War invited to choose his own post after an act of heroism. Opting for the farthest reaches of the frontier because he “Wants to see it before it disappears,” he transplants himself from a weary and cynical war culture to the windswept clarity of the Dakota plains.
Arriving at the remote outpost assigned him by an insane major (Maury Chaykin), Dunbar finds it deserted and, to the disbelief of his wagon driver (Robert Pastorelli), opts to unload his provisions and stay.
His only company as he passes the days are his horse, a gangling wolf who keeps a nervous distance, and, finally, a Sioux Indian who tries to steal the horse and is frightened off by Dunbar.
Because whites and Indians automatically killed each other upon meeting, each party lived in ignorance of the other. Dunbar’s virtue is that he resists violence, putting himself at risk with the Sioux until they trust him and accept him.
Dunbar keeps a journal, hoping to create “a trail for others to follow.” He discovers a culture so deeply refreshing to his spirit, compared with the detritus he’s left behind, that, by the time the U.S. Army bothers to look for him, he has become a Sioux and his name is Dances With Wolves.
Of course, the Union soldiers completely misunderstand his purposes, giving pic the tragic cast this saga historically deserves.
Script by Michael Blake portrays the Sioux culture with appreciation, establishing within it characters of winning individuality and humor. Design team accents the diverse beauty of the actors (all Native Americans) with striking combinations of paint, feathers and deerskin in costuming.
Unfortunately, the script seems to have run out of understanding by the time the Union soldiers arrive to do a job on the “traitor” Dunbar, and portrayal of this loutish and brutal mob, who refuse so much as to hear him out, is pic’s weakest and most manipulative passage.
Still, it makes effective drama and, if interpreted metaphorically, the scene conveys the spirit of rape and plunder that had vanquished the Sioux culture within a mere 13 years of this story’s unfolding, according to the screen epilogue.
Lensed on location in South Dakota over 17 weeks, pic is infused with the natural grandeur of the plains and sky, captured in all their variance by cinematographer Dean Semler.
Score by John Barry makes a major contribution, varying from the elegiac tone of the main theme to the spirited adventure of classic Westerns, to the heart-racing primal rhythms of the buffalo and scalp dances.
Costner’s directing style is fresh and assured. A sense of surprise and humor accompany Dunbar’s adventures at every turn, twisting the narrative gently this way and that and making the journey a real pleasure.
Perhaps he is a bit precious with himself as star. One wonders how many times he’s going to tip over backward in mock defeat to show us he’s a playful guy, or how much masochism he’ll indulge in when Dunbar is imperiled.
But making up for it are scenes of mystical power and beauty, such as Dunbar’s first earth-shaking nighttime encounter with the buffalo as they hurtle past him through the fog.
Contrasting the gentle Sioux with the savage and aggressive Pawnee who made war on them, pic lends a sense of history to their ultimate vanquishment.
Project, first from Costner and co-producer Jim Wilson’s Tig Prods., reps a teaming of three longtime friends — Costner, Wilson and writer Blake, who first collaborated in 1981 on “Stacy’s Knights,” Costner’s first starring pic.
From its three-hour length, which amazingly does not become tiresome, to its bold use of subtitled Lakota language (the Sioux tongue) for at least a third of the dialogue, it’s clear the filmmakers were proceeding without regard for the rules. Their audacity in doing so, because they knew what they had, is as inspiring as the film itself.
Mary McDonnell (“Matewan”) is impressive as Stands With A Fist, an emotionally traumatized white woman adopted by the Sioux who helps Dunbar communicate with them. Her perf is particularly notable for the technical accomplishment of her tremulous, flat-sounding delivery of English, a language she hasn’t heard since early childhood.
Native American actors Graham Greene (as the holy man Kicking Bird) and Rodney Grant (as the warrior Wind In His Hair) give vivid, transfixing performances, bringing much spirit and skill to Orion’s early entry in the Christmas derby.