“I’ve always wanted to see the frontier,” says US army lieutenant and Civil War veteran John Dunbar, “before it’s gone.” Dances with Wolves is a beautiful, moving film about the closing of the American frontier and all that disappeared with it.
Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is granted his wish when he is sent to tiny, ramshackle Fort Sedgwick. Alone in the middle of the prairie, his first visitor is a curious wolf he names Two Socks, who is both a bridge to the untamed nature that Dunbar seeks to explore and a metaphor for Dunbar himself — he’s not a conquering white man, just an inquisitive one. So it’s fitting that the Sioux tribe he befriends bestows him with the name Dances with Wolves after watching him run and play with Two Socks.
Dunbar’s initial encounters with the Sioux show him that they’re very like him — the warrior Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) is all bravado at first, yelling at Dunbar that he’s not afraid of him; the holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) is thoughtful, genuinely interested in communicating with this strange stranger. Indeed, Dances with Wolves is notable for its unstereotypical, realistic depiction of Indians as human beings, people who are sometimes gentle, sometimes savage, and always worthy of respect, just like the rest of us. Dunbar finds another bridge to the new world he is looking for in Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman adopted as a girl by the Sioux after her family was massacred by Pawnee. His leaving behind of his old life is marked twice in a single moment: His realization that he loves Stands With A Fist occurs simultaneously with Two Socks daring to eat from his hand for the first time.
Dunbar embodies all the best qualities that exemplify America: self-reliance, intelligence, a thirst for exploration, respect for nature, and innate friendliness. When Dunbar rides out alone, in full dress uniform and bearing the Stars and Stripes, to formally introduce himself to his Sioux neighbors, it’s an astounding demonstration of the best kind of American audacity. But contrast that with the arrival of more US soldiers at Fort Sedgwick, long abandoned by Dunbar, bringing with them the worst of America: small-minded cruelty. When these troops set out after the “traitorous” Dunbar and his adoptive Sioux friends, the flag they bear represents only violence and revenge.
Dances with Wolves is one of the most visually and emotionally stunning movies I’ve ever seen, a glimmer of another world where less might have been lost if more people had been as open and friendly as John Dunbar. From John Barry’s stirring score — I swear I can hear the prairie grass blowing in the wind in the music — to director/producer Costner’s daring presentation of a huge chunk of the movie in the beautiful Sioux Lakota language (with subtitles), this is a majestic requiem for a world that is gone.
Oscars Best Picture 1990
AFI 100 (1998 list): #75
unforgettable movie moment:
The Sioux and Dunbar, following a buffalo herd, come across abandoned carcasses of buffalo slaughtered only for their pelts and tongues — Dunbar knows this could only have been done by “a people without value and without soul… My heart sank as I knew it could be only white hunters.”
previous AFI 100 film:
74: The Gold Rush
next AFI 100 film:
76: City Lights