March 3, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #75: Dances With Wolves

Kevin Costner's three hour Western about an American soldier who joins the Sioux Indian tribe.

There was a time, not that long ago, when Avatar was a huge hit.  I’ve never seen Avatar and, quite frankly, have no desire to do so.

Why?  Because I have seen Dances with Wolves.

Let’s face it:  Avatar and Dances with Wolves are, in many ways, the same story:  a white man goes to a distant frontier and ends up deciding he’d rather live with the native population who are less technologically advanced but have a wisdom of their own, all while he finds love with one of them.  Eventually, he and the natives will fight the people he came with.  The big difference is Avatar tells this story with some rather silly-looking aliens with USB cords for hair or something.

Look, I only know the movie by its reputation.

Dances with Wolves, on the other hand, tells the story of Lt. John Dunbar.  Sure, he will later be known as Dances with Wolves, but I’m going to refer to him as Dunbar for most of this write-up for simplicity’s sake.  After some unplanned and unexpected heroics in the Civil War, where what was probably an elaborate suicide attempt to keep from living without a foot turned into a Union victory, Dunbar is given his choice of assignment and he wants nothing more than to go to the frontier and see some buffalo.  Once out there, he asks to be further sent on to the most remote outpost possible, and his commanding officer allows that before the CO blows his brains out.   The symbolism here is obvious:  Dunbar, who wants to see the West, is made of sterner stuff than most of his companions and fellow soldiers.  Being sent to live alone out in the West is not a punishment.  He loves the idea.  Considering the man traveling with him is a guy who loves a good fart joke, Dunbar wants to see as little as possible of other white men as he can.  And once he gets out to the tiny outpost that is Fort Sedgewick, well, he can get it because the provisioner leaves and is killed by Pawnee raiders.

You know, I checked the credits and saw actor Wes Studi played one of the Pawnees.  This movie reminded me a bit of the recent Hostiles in which Studi played an Indian chief who bonds with a white Army officer, and there’s a different hostile tribe involved in the plot, only for Dances with Wolves Studi is one of the hostile Natives instead of one of the friendly ones.

So, Dunbar fixes up the fort, sees to his loyal horse (a gift for his bravery), and even befriends a wolf he names “Two Socks” due to the animal’s distinctive fur pattern around his feet.  He’s in a place he wants to be, and his only concern is the local Indians.

As it is, the local Sioux is also wondering about him.  Shown sitting around a fire, the men of the tribe debating what to do about the lone white man.  He managed to impress one of their number by chasing the guy off when he was checking out Dunbar’s horse while Dunbar was nearby taking a bath (Costner gets some grief for The Postman as some kind of ego-based project, but here we see the only real nudity in the movie is Costner’s bare butt, so be sure to thank director Costner for that sometime).  The two voices that come across as the loudest are the man who Dunbar chased off, the holy man Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), who thinks Dunbar might be the man they can deal with as a friend.  The other, Wind In His Hair, is a brave warrior sort of fellow who wants to remove the white man from the scene.  The conclusion that comes from the chief, Ten Bears, is for both men to talk to the white man and find out what’s what.

And after two days of panicking over an attack that isn’t coming, including two attempts to steal his horse (there isn’t much humor in the movie, but the fact Dunbar’s horse keeps preventing its own theft is a nice touch), Dunbar decides it might be best to actually introduce himself and make nice with the neighbors.

And that’s more or less what happened.  Both sides try to make friends, and both sides ultimately succeed.  It helps that there is a white woman living with the Sioux, Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), who catches Dunbar’s eye.

From there, Dunbar gradually comes to like and eventually join the Sioux.  He helps them on a buffalo hunt after finding some for the first time, wins over the hostile Wind In His Hair, and eventually marries Stands With A Fist, spending more and more time with the Sioux, learning their language, and finding himself more and more comfortable in their presence, shown symbolically by how he gradually becomes comfortable enough to sleep within the village itself.  It helps that Dunbar is open-minded about the Indians unlike other whites he encounters along the way.  He initially sees Wind In His Hair’s hostility as honesty and Kicking Bird as a man he can negotiate with.  In both cases, he’s right.

So, really, I know Dances With Wolves won Best Picture, it shows Dunbar really becomes one with the tribe when he finally signs his journal with his Sioux name and only then will Two Socks allow Dunbar to hand-feed him, the use of the actual Sioux language for much of the movie was a nice touch, but then I asked myself:  is Dunbar a White Savior character?

The White Savior is that character of the enlightened white person who makes it possible for some minorities to get their rights or whatever.  It’s usually some sort of well-meaning but still racist sort of talk, where the advancement of a people is appropriated by the people who belonged to the same race that repressed them in the first place.  It happens a lot in older movies about the Civil Rights movement, like, say, The Help where it’s a white girl asking questions that prompts the black servants to push back a bit.  It takes away from the agency of the minorities in question.  So, is Dunbar that type of character?

I would say no.  He’d rather be a Sioux, but he never really fit in with his own race to begin with.  When the tribe begins to pack up for their winter location, Dunbar goes back for his journal to keep the tribe’s secrets out.  While he was gone, more soldiers came in and took the place over.  These men are as far removed from Dunbar as it is possible to get.  They first kill his horse and later Two Socks.  They arrest him, beat him, and two privates use his journal as toilet paper.  That may not matter since neither can read anyway.  Dunbar, he’s told, will be put on trial for treason, which seems odd since he wasn’t exactly working to subvert the American government.  Desertion, sure, but not treason, and when it comes down to it, it’s not Dunbar who saves the Indians this time.  It’s Wind In His Hair and a few others saving him.

This comes after Dunbar has done a good deal for the tribe, of course.  He gave them rifles to defeat the Pawnee and killed a few buffalo when the time came, including one that nearly ran over a young member of the tribe.  But if Dunbar is a White Savior, he isn’t a very good one.  He and Stands With A Fist leave the tribe to talk to those who would listen, but the ending text tells us that in thirteen years, the last of the Sioux will have surrendered and moved to an reservation.

Watching this today, it’s not a bad movie, but I don’t know if I’d say its one of the all-time best.  There’s a lot of beautiful compositions of the prairie, the symmetry where a final Pawnee is surrounded by a circle of Sioux who all shoot him at once, and even imbuing personality in the animals.  There are buffalo running around in an age where CGI was not a factor.  But overall, it’s a fine movie, but maybe not quite a great one.

NEXT UP:  We’re going to 1925 for Charlie Chaplin what looks like one last time on this list with his personal favorite, The Gold Rush.