If you’re in the mood to see a leisurely paced, three-hour hippie Western about a Union soldier who drops out of the Civil War, joins a tribe of noble and reverent Sioux, and comes to see that the Indians are In Touch With Life in a way that white men aren’t, you could probably do worse than Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Costner is the director, coproducer, and star of this beautiful and soft-headed frontier epic, which looks at Native Americans through New Age-colored glasses.
Stepping behind the camera for the first time, Costner proves a modest craftsman with a knack for expansive, calendar-art imagery. Dances With Wolves has some genuine visual treats: awesomely clear skies dotted with thick, almost tactile clouds; explosive purple sunsets; a scene in which the Indians spot a thundering mass of buffalo from afar (at first, it resembles a swarm of insects) and then, with arrows poised, cruise through the dusty stampede on horseback. This last scene has a fairy-tale grandeur. For a few moments, we seem to be entering the American frontier of our dreams, a setting at once splendid and terrifying, full of forces one can negotiate but never tame.
For all that, Costner isn’t quite a filmmaker. Working from a script by Michael Blake, who adapted his own novel, he comes up with a ploddingly ”mythic” story that never succeeds in portraying the Indians as full- fledged human beings. This is a dramatic shortcoming, to be sure, but it’s also a case of too many good intentions gumming up the works.
Costner’s character, Lt. John Dunbar, is a beatific oddball who is offered his military assignment of choice. He elects to man the most remote outpost possible, and when he gets there he discovers he’s a garrison of one. But that’s all right by him, since he’s looking to bond — with the frontier, the animals, and, finally, the stern Sioux warriors who begin showing up at his cabin. Costner’s smartest decision as a director was to let the Indian actors — many of them native Sioux — speak in their original Lakota and Pawnee tongues, with English subtitles. The languages are full of delicate, musical consonants that draw you directly to the speaker, and it’s easy to understand why Dunbar is enchanted.
For the audience, though, it’s not enough to watch Dunbar learn the Sioux languages, or get christened with one of the Indians’ somberly descriptive names (they start calling him ”Dances With Wolves,” because of his fondness for cavorting happily with his pet wolf), or offer to join his new comrades on the warpath. We’ve got to understand his emotional relationships with these people. And that’s what’s missing from the movie. Aside from the tribe’s wise and soulful religious leader (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), the only character with whom Dunbar forges a convincing friendship is Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who was abducted by the tribe as a young girl and raised as an Indian.
When these two Caucasians fall in love, it has the unfortunate effect of dehumanizing the other Sioux. The Indian actors are wonderful to look at, but couldn’t some of them have played characters who were selfish, angry, egotistical? Couldn’t they have had a few complications? Things seemed a lot more advanced during the late ’70s, when Native American actors like Will Sampson and Chief Dan George played men with quirky depths. Essentially, Dances With Wolves is Robinson Crusoe with a tribeful of Fridays. The Indians come off as photogenic saints, which is almost as patronizing as the ”we smokum peace pipe” clichés Costner is trying to undo.
What’s more, the movie is very, very long. Dances With Wolves isn’t exactly Kevin’s Gate, but you feel every minute of the three hours. That’s because there’s no texture to the storytelling. Costner has made an earnest but hollow epic, a fable about brotherhood that stirs the eye and (occasionally) the mind, but never the soul. C