Welcome to the fifth installment of this year’s Oscar countdown series. We’re going to try to make an annual tradition of having a series of posts looking back on past Oscar winners in specific categories. To kick this off, this year we are starting with Best Picture winners. Each week between now and the Oscars, one or both of us will look back on a Best Picture winner and discuss some things we like about it, some things we don’t, and whether, now that time has passed, the film has really held up as the best of the year it was released. Our fifth Best Picture winner, randomly selected, is Dances with Wolves.
Dances with Wolves was directed and produced by and stars Kevin Costner as John Dunbar, a Union Army Lieutenant during the Civil War who is sent to Fort Sedgwick in Colorado and strikes up friendships with the people of a nearby Sioux camp.
Dances with Wolves was generally well received by critics, though there are a significant number of very vocal detractors as well, and it won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Score, Best Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Sound (at the time, there was only one sound award). Over the past thirty years, the amount of love Oscar voters heaped upon this film has become a source of ridicule from many film lovers and critics, who believe very strongly that Goodfellas should have won Best Picture instead.
I’m probably going to piss some people off now, but while I enjoy Goodfellas, I don’t have strong feelings about it losing to Dances with Wolves. Don’t get me wrong, Dances with Wolves has problematic aspects, but it’s far from the worst movie to win a ton of Oscars and it was an important baby step in getting Hollywood to at least provide depictions of Native Americans as complex people instead of one-dimensional, blood thirsty villains. It’s a film that both manages to get too much credit for bringing about change, and not enough, depending on who you are talking to. We’ll discuss some of the ways in which I feel the film is successful in its goal of trying to increase understanding, as well as some ways in which it undermines itself, a little later in this review. Overall, the best way to summarize it is a well-meaning film that stumbles in places because it is still trying to appeal to a very mainstream audience.
Dances with Wolves was one of my many film blind spots. After Nate convinced me that I would survive a three hour movie, we hunkered down yesterday afternoon to watch it. Let me just say, the experience did confirm for me that no film should ever be over two and a half hours. It didn’t feel super long in the moment. However, in retrospect, there was definitely some more editing that could have been done.
Thanks for mentioning the editing. Before we continue, I want to disclose that before writing this review, we watched the original theatrical three hour cut of the film. After years of having to sit through the plodding, overstuffed four hour version that was the only cut available on Blu-ray in the U.S. in the early 2010s, I was delighted to find a few weeks ago that the original cut was available on Vudu. I know there are some people who love the four hour cut, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t like it and think it’s wholly unnecessary. It also seemed fitting for this review that we look at the cut that actually won Oscars. I have a hard time believing that the four hour version would have won Best Film Editing. There are some very redundant scenes in it and I’m glad I don’t have to watch it ever again.
One thing that struck me about Dances with Wolves very early on in my most recent viewing is just how bloody it is for a PG-13 film. This is clearly representative of a time when that rating was new and the MPAA was still trying to figure out where the line between PG-13 and R rated content fell. The struggle continues, obviously, but the first 10 seconds post-beginning titles feature more blood than the entire running time of 1917. Of course, it’s bloody in that old-fashioned, pour ketchup on everyone and call it a wound sort of way, but it’s still quite jarring for a film with this particular rating. We also witness a field of dead buffalo, whose hides have been peeled off by settlers who just left the rest of the bloody carcasses to rot in the heat. People. horses, wolves and buffalo are shot, run through with arrows and spears and killed a whole other host of ways. This is not by any means an action movie, but there is violence throughout and if this movie came out now, it would absolutely be R rated.
For those unfamiliar with how significant of a departure this was for Hollywood films at the time, Costner cast Native American actors to play the Sioux characters, something that you would think should have been done from day one of the film industry, but because of racism and white privilege, typically wasn’t. To me the most compelling scenes in the film are when Dunbar and Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) or Wind in His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) are trying to overcome the language barrier and begin learning about each other. It’s also very much one of those films where the supporting characters steal the show, and I wish we didn’t have to transition to a love story between two white characters around the halfway point.
I went into this film with the expectation that I really would not be happy with the portrayal of Native American characters. After reminding myself though that this film was made almost 30 years ago, it really was not as offensive as I thought it might be. Don’t get me wrong, there are issues I am going to get into. But it could have been a lot worse than it actually was. For the time this film was quite groundbreaking. It was one of the first successful mainstream films depicting Native Americans with the sense of humanity that they deserve instead of relying on historical stereotypes. And as Nate said, the fact that so many Native Americans were cast was significant, though overdue. While terms like “Indian” are still used, this film was set in 1863 and that is a term Union soldiers and white settlers would have used. In general, I would say this film does a pretty good job of depicting how Native Americans were viewed by settlers during the time period depicted.
With all of that being said, the fact that the narrative still focused on a white character and love story bothers me. There was a great cast of Native American characters that were fairly well developed. I understand, even if I don’t agree with, the choice of using the white characters as a vehicle to get us to the Native Americans. But I just wish more of the narrative had focused on the Native Americans rather than the white people adopting and co-opting the Native American culture. While the white characters did adapt to Native American culture instead of culturally appropriating it, some moments come dangerously close to the latter.
I’m glad we agree on the love story. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Dunbar discovers that one member of the tribe, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) witnessed her family being murdered by several Pawnee when she was a child. Kicking Bird took her in and raised her as his daughter. Her character is important in terms of helping Dunbar and the Sioux improve communication, but the love story that develops between these two white characters later in the story ends up putting far more interesting characters in the background for the film’s second half. Graham Greene gives an amazing performance and he 100% deserved his nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I could have used a lot more scenes with his character and less of Dunbar/Dances with Wolves and Stands With A Fist flirting.
During the second half of the film I couldn’t help but watch through my year 2020 lenses and wish that this acclaimed western from 30 years ago had been focused more on the Sioux characters and not told through the eyes of a Union soldier. Again, the message the audience is supposed to walk away from this story with is a good one, but I just have issues with some of the routes the story takes to convey that message. Then I became annoyed because even in 2020, we don’t get movies that are comprised solely of Native American characters. Even TV shows and movies like Into the West and Wind River, which are generally much better works than Dances with Wolves, always have to have the white viewpoint included. I would gladly watch a film entirely in subtitles, spoken entirely in Lakota and written and directed by a Native American auteur, but apparently it’s asking too much for Hollywood or even independent distributors to back that, since in the year 2020 we still have Oscar voters refusing to watch a film that has subtitles.
One thing that really bothered me towards the film’s climax was the battle between the Sioux and the Pawnee tribes. The script does a decent job of adding context to this battle and letting us know it was a clash for survival: it was over food stores rather than a fight over territory or ideology. A lot of previous films depicted clashes between tribes as just random events between inherently violent cultures, which is quite offensive and inaccurate. Despite the context added to this stunningly shot sequence, I was bothered by just how much the camera focuses primarily on Dunbar during this fight. It felt like the filmmakers were still trying to give the audience some old fashioned cowboys versus Native Americans action, and allowing the white audiences to still root for a white guy to kill Native Americans, without feeling bad about it because he has some Native American friends. That the focus is on Dunbar for so much of the battle also opens the film up to criticism that it is a white savior narrative. That said, Dunbar later has to be rescued from Union soldiers, who view him as a traitor, and the Sioux save him in a rousing sequence.
The white savior trope also comes into play when Dunbar finds the buffalo for the tribe. The tribe has gone a long time without buffalo because of white settlers, the war, etc. Dunbar is finally the one to lead them to the buffalo. While this may have just been a narrative choice to move the plot along, it felt very much like a white man saving the day. While this is the most obvious example of the white savior complex, there are several other smaller moments that also become problematic. One such scene is when Dunbar brings Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) back to the tribe after she attempts suicide while mourning the loss of her husband. It’s one of several times throughout the film that he rescues Native Americans from situations where the script implies they would have died without his presence.
We see this white savior narrative play out over and over again in American films. And this is just one of the many reasons we need to support more diverse filmmakers. We need to stop producing and supporting films that employ this white savior narrative. Films that immerse us in a new culture, allow us to learn something new, and maybe just make us a little uncomfortable as white people is a good thing. Critics, people who enjoy film, and film makers for that matter, need to become more okay with that discomfort. Discomfort often make us change the channel, fast forward through a scene, or completely skip a film. I challenge you all instead to engage with that discomfort and learn from it.
Your complaints are just a few of the many fair criticisms of Dances with Wolves I’ve encountered from a representation standpoint, and the conclusion I’m left with is that the film was an important part of a gradual change in how Hollywood depicts Native Americans. This change has been happening way too slowly and it is sad that we still have so far to go.
I can see that the film did break certain boundaries, but it has not spurred the kind of change I would have liked to see as a result. Native American stories are still struggling to be told. Native film makers are not getting the support they deserve and they certainly aren’t getting the funding that white film makers are. Wind River told the story of a murdered indigenous woman, but it still had a strong white savior tone to the narrative. Unfortunately, finding a film about Native Americans that does not rely heavily on stereotypes and archetypes is still difficult. In 30 years, it is hard to believe that very little progress has been made after a film that was so groundbreaking.
On a technical level, this film was very well done. The score really stood out to me. It really immersed you in the story and helped to convey the deep emotions these characters felt. The cinematography was also breathtaking. Because this film was set on the frontier, there are many vivid shots of the landscape, sunsets, and the natural beauty of the west.
The fact that Kevin Costner did so much to get this film made is impressive. Starring in, directing, and producing a film is no small feat and his passion behind this project shows throughout. While the story has some issues, there is no denying the fact that it was attempting to do something no one else in Costner’s position was attempting to do.
I agree that technically speaking, Dances with Wolves is a stunning achievement. The cinematography is gorgeous and matched by John Barry’s epic score, which still ranks among my 20 favorite film soundtracks. There are a few grainy looking night shots that don’t hold up well on a 4K TV 30 years later, but overall the mise-en-scene of this one still impresses. Any major flaws with this one reside in the script.
If Dances with Wolves isn’t the most celebrated film of 1990 thirty years later, at least The Godfather, Part III or Ghost didn’t win Best Picture. They were somehow nominated. And hell, the basic story was good enough that James Cameron ripped it off for Avatar nearly two decades later.