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This is part 3 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.
Synopsis: John Dunbar wants to see the West "before it's gone" and gets an assigment on the edge of nowhere. Arriving at his post, he has to realize no one is there. He settles into a life of solitude that gets disrupted by first contact with the local Sioux tribe. Dunbar tries to get to know them, and after initial hesitation, their medicine man "Kicking Bird" is also curious. Both sides come closer, leading to Dunbar essentially joining the tribe and marrying Kicking Bird's adopted daughter Stands-with-a-fist. The harmony is disturbed violently when the army comes back, incarcerating Dunbar for treason.
Analysis: The movie has a strong and clear central thesis that the journey of our main character mirrors: The American West is a wild and untamed yet beautiful and harmonious space, threatened by the encroachment of the white man. Dunbar first learns to love the prairie, breaks into the isolated life of the prairie tribes and then learns to life like them. Therefore, their sorrows become his. When he decides to join the Sioux in their winter quarters, he formally crosses the threshold, and the arrival of the army threatens him as a surrogate for the Sioux.
This threat is a classic Western story: The noble savage is threatened by the more sophisticated yet tainted white man. This kind of story romanticizes the Native Americans, which is why historians are increasingly pushing against it, but in 1990, we were still coming out the classic Western era where even marginally realistic portrayals of native tribes were practically unheard of.
This is the reason why "Dances with Wolves" hit as hard as it did in 1990, despite a third being subtitled Lakota. It was a fresh take on the genre, and it was incredibly earnest. There's no comparison to the much more playful Westerns of earlier years, or the spaghetti Westerns that didn't even feature Native Americans in the first place.
From today's standpoint, the romanticism is layered very heavily. The movie is almost naive in certain parts, and the titular wolf that Dunbar befriends and "dances" with is one of those elements that I'd say could easily be cut - the idea that Dunbar is in sync with the land and has a connection to it is coming across well enough even without the damn animal.
Costner, however, manages to put in enough nuance to make it work. While the Pawnee are framed consistently as the bad guys, blood thirsty and out for violence, within the Sioux, you find fools and wise men, aggressive guys and trusting ones. Even more importantly, the soldiers are also consisting of good guys serving a bad cause, like the lieutenant replacing Dunbar, while some are just base assholes, like the seargeant. This prevents the movie from becoming a dull morality play.
Another contributing factor to the movie's success are the visuals. The images of the prairie are vast and beautifully shot. The costumes are well done. Costner himself has to carry the heaviest load, being the only human featured over long stretches of the movie, but his presence is up to the task. I'm not such a fan of his voice-overs which are bland and monotone. I would also be remiss to neglect the music. The sweeping score is not epic in the Hans Zimmer way, but epic and beautiful all the same.
In the end, "Dances with Wolves" is a classic Hollywood epic, 40 years late. The movie is friggin' 4 hours long and features an almost 5-minute intermission so you can relieve yourself, even in the Blueray-version. I can easily sum up the plot if a few sentences. For long stretches, not a lot happens. Dunbar rides over ridges. He builds a fence. He and some Native Americans look at each other.
But this is actually a plus in this case, because the sweeping scope of the movie makes it into an experience, something you have to feel rather than just watch. You need to be in the mood. There has been a lot of comments that the plot of James Cameron's "Avatar" is basically the same as "Dances with Wolves", and that's true as far as it goes. But the style of the movie is completely different, and it's no surprise that this was the first and only Western that was a hit with the female half of the audience.
Of course, as a final point, we need to talk about the white savior trope. Costner is decidedly not a Sioux, yet he masters their way of life so much that after half a year he's more Sioux than most of the tribe basically. It's clear why this story is told; no other way to make Costner the leading man otherwise, and a movie only with Lakota in Lakota would be an even tougher sell than as it is. But in a way, it infantilizes the Sioux, and this not unproblematic.
The verdict: Still watchable today, if you can gloss over the romantization of the Native Americans and the heavy-handed metaphors.