Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Director: Kevin Costner                                 Writer: Michael Blake
Film Score: John Barry                                 Cinematography: Dean Semler
Starring: Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Mary McDonnell and Rodney A. Grant

Opinion is mixed about the merits of director’s cuts in film. For many they seem only to be an indulgence, adding back scenes that didn’t really belong in the film in the first place, and where the initial decision by directors and editors to cut them out seems justified. But there are films, like Dances with Wolves, where the director’s cut is a completely different film, full, rich, and which the theatrical version by comparison seems a truncated travesty of the film as originally intended. Opinions are just as mixed about Kevin Costner, though I’m firmly in his camp. I don’t necessarily love him as an actor but he has done a tremendous job as a director, and while his choice of projects can be questionable at times the quality of his hits far outweighs his misses. This film, an Academy Award winner for best picture as well as six other statuettes, would seem to need to need no other justification for its status as a classic film.

The film begins with Costner, an army lieutenant in the Civil War, being operated on by field surgeons. They are about to saw his leg off, but when they go for a coffee break he puts his boot back on and leaves. In a suicidal state, he rides between the armies on horseback expecting to be shot, but his heroism instead earns him his choice of assignments. Wanting to go as far from the fighting as possible he has himself transferred to a distant outpost on the frontier in the Dakota territories. He discovers on arrival that the post is little more than a couple of rough buildings on the prairie that have been completely abandoned. He sets about fixing up the fort but meanwhile is being watched by Indians from the local Sioux tribe. A gradual interplay between Costner and the Indians ensues, at first somewhat antagonistic, but eventually their mutual curiosity overwhelms their natural suspicions and they begin to make inroads into serious communications.

On one of his trips to the Indian village, he meets a native woman cutting herself. It turns out to be Mary McDonnell, a white woman who has lost her Indian husband. McDonnell has been with the tribe most of her life, but she still remembers a little English and is commandeered by the medicine man, Graham Greene, to communicate with Costner eventually leading to their romance. One of the great performances in the film is by Rodney A. Grant who, ironically, almost didn’t get the part because he had so much difficulty with the Lakota language. He is the embodiment of the fierce Native American warrior and, after a very rocky beginning, becomes fast friends with the white man. There’s also a nice cameo performance by Wes Studi, one of the most recognizable Native American actors in film. In general, all of the Native American actors were excellent in the film and their passion for the project shows in their performances.

Costner was friends with Michael Blake, who wrote the novel the film was based on. The central theme is Costner’s discovery of a way of life that makes more sense to him that what he had been living as a white man. And there is a line late in the film that mirrors his attempt at suicide in the beginning, when the chief says that the man named John Dunbar doesn’t exist any more, only a Sioux warrior named Dances with Wolves. The director’s cut, at something over three hours, devotes much more time to the natives and their relationships to each other, balancing out the bulk of the film that is from Costner’s perspective in the theatrical release. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director for Costner, as well as best screenplay for Blake and the film score by John Barry. Dances with Wolves is simply a masterpiece on a number of levels and deserves to be one of the greatest American films of all time.

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