The 63rd Academy Awards (1991)
One of the my favorite aspects of doing these Oscar retrospectives is looking back and trying to see why a particular film resonated with audiences (or at least the Academy) in its time. Why were people so into Dances with Wolves? And why did the Academy give Kevin Costner’s overbearing western epic the top prize when there was another painfully obvious choice. I’m of course referring to Goodfellas, which I would argue is among the most celebrated and quoted crime films of all time. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if Dances with Wolves would even crack a top thirty of the greatest westerns of all time.
There are a lot of infamous Best Picture whiffs by the Academy. Citizen Kane losing to How Green Was My Valley, E.T. losing to Gandhi, Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love, every other film losing to Green Book. Notice how often the Academy shoos away the blockbuster-y movie i.e. “entertaining” in lieu of a more “classy picture”. Though I will say for as much as Dances with Wolves feels like something you might watch half-asleep in school, the film is actually solid entertainment. This despite its unruly 3-hour runtime. I enjoyed the film and I enjoyed its attempt (although flawed) to portray and honor native people in a positive light.
I was surprised to discover that Dances with Wolves was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. I figured there would be maybe a small drama, or forgettable action/thriller hiding in the ’80s, something to get him warmed up, but no. So how does the guy from Field of Dreams end up directing a western epic that would eventually nab him Best Picture and Best Director?
The story begins with struggling screenwriter Michael Blake, who throughout all of the ’80s only had a single one of his screenplays produced. Said screenplay was 1983’s Stacy’s Knights, a forgettable gambling drama starring who else but… Kevin Costner. Blake and Costner developed a friendship which later led to Costner suggesting that Blake turn his ambitious screenplay “Dances with Wolves” into a novel. The book was published in 1988 with the film rights then being bought by… Kevin Costner. Why didn’t you just buy the script before it was a book, Kev?
The project was turned down numerous times under the belief that the western genre had lost its cultural relevance. Nobody wanted another Heaven’s Gate situation on their hands either. Luckily, Costner and Blake convinced Orion to produce the picture and in July 1989, Costner would start shooting and acting in arguably the most important film of his career.
Set in 1864, John Dunbar (Costner) is a 1st Lieutenant for the Union army, who becomes suicidal after he’s told his injured leg will have to be removed. Unwilling to lose his leg, Dunbar recklessly rides his horse along Confederate lines hoping to get shot. Though not only do the Confederate soldiers repeatedly miss, this distraction gives Union forces a chance to get the jump on their enemy and chase them out.
Dunbar receives a citation for bravery and is given the highest-level of medical attention. Dunbar gets to keep his leg and is given the freedom to choose any spot he wants for his next post. Intrigued by the opportunity to expand west, Dunbar chooses the furthest west outpost (Fort Sedgwick in Colorado) and sets out. But uh oh, a bitter Major purposefully sends Dunbar to an unmanned Fort and fails to mark the transfer before taking his own life. The Civil War, man… Not too fun.
Dunbar arrives at the abandoned fort and decides he’s going to hold down the fort solo in hopes that others will arrive in the future. He keeps a diary and chronicles his routine, the friendly wolf that visits him often, and eventually, his suspicious Sioux neighbors. Both sides are for obvious reasons standoffish, but overtime Dunbar develops a friendship with the tribe holy man, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene).
What I like about Dunbar’s relationship with the Sioux is that neither side speaks English, nor do they ever have any kind of significant language breakthrough. It would have been so easy to have a montage where Dunbar teaches the natives English so the film can just lazily toss out the subtitles in the third act.
Nope. The only “easy” way Dunbar can communicate is through a a tribe member named Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell) who was captured from her white family at a young age, and knows some simple English. Stands with a Fist becomes the translator for both sides and overtime a love interest for Dunbar. I don’t see why the one white guy has to fall in love with the one white girl but whatever, that’s how the book goes I imagine.
As the two sides unify, so do they against their common enemies. For the Sioux, that enemy is a group of Pawnee’s rampaging across the frontier. For Dunbar, that threat is the Union army who believe he’s gone rogue and see no record of his transfer. Both sides end up fighting for each other in impressive battle scenes shot by Dean Semler (The Road Warrior) and scored by legendary James Bond composer John Barry.
Why three-hours-long though? Honestly, I see this as a strength in the first half of the film. I like the slow progress Dunbar makes with the Sioux, his daily observations, and ruminations. Where I don’t care for the length is the third act. The struggle against the Pawnee feels drawn out and I don’t have much interest in Dunbar reuniting with his old army buddies. I don’t see why every historical epic has to end with a big battle. I’ve seen it a thousand times and it rarely stands out.
All in all, Dances with Wolves is an entertaining and thoughtful movie. Is too long? Yes. Does it lean a little heavy into “white savior” territory. Definitely. But I think Costner really does have an appreciation for Native Americans, their culture, and how this country was unjustly torn way from them. I get no sense the film was made just to win awards. It just got lucky. Goodfellas was unlucky. It’s all a case of right place, right time.
And I’ll see you at this place (mildlypleased.com), right time (next Oscar season) for next year’s Oscar Fortnight. Let the dancing commence! Awooo!!!