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Revisiting 1990: Dances With Wolves

August 18, 2010

Considered For: Top 5

“Turned Injun, didn’t yeh?”

I can’t say I was looking forward to watching Dances With Wolves as its run time was intimidating (3 hours, 45 minutes) and the story didn’t really scream of excitement. Usually when I’m not amped up for a sweeping epic, I’ll start the movie a couple of times, watch about ten minutes, before giving up and sending it back to Netflix. It did take me roughly 48 hours to make it through Dances With Wolves, but I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I was expecting.

Based on a novel, the story thrusts us into an undisclosed time in history and introduces us to Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) suffering from a wound on his leg that most likely will cost him the limb. Next thing you know, Dunbar forces his foot into a boot and starts riding a horse in the middle of an open war zone, basically on a suicide mission. The opposition apparently has the worst shot in the world as Dunbar survives unharmed, rallies his troops, and is eventually seen as a hero. He’s rewarded for his efforts by receiving a post in an isolated fort on the frontier to be manned by himself.

At this fort, Dunbar becomes lonely and finds that his only company is his horse Sysco and a wolf he names Two Socks that frequents the area. Before long, a few Indians show up and after realizing that the white man is not a threat, Dunbar finds himself assimilating in their culture. The majority of the film focuses on Dunbar’s experience with the Sioux tribe, conveniently assisted by a white woman (Mary McDonnell) the tribe had taken in as a child, but ultimately, conflict arises, and Dunbar finds himself at odds with the American Army.

I’m no fan of Kevin Costner as an actor and his perfomance in Dances With Wolves, although Oscar-nominated, is nothing spectacular either. Dunbar is a good character, but Costner doesn’t bring anything extra to the table and I can imagine several more talented actors making this an iconic character. I’m not really sure what to make of Mary McDonnell’s performance either. She has gone on to star in one of my favorite science fiction shows (Battlestar Galactica) and grew into a solid actress. Her work here was Oscar-nominated as well, but she spent the majority of the movie with a seemingly blank look on her face. Perhaps it was because her character, Stands With A Fist, was in mourning for most of the movie, but the effect left me slightly unimpressed. The best acting in this movie is clearly done by the Native Americans and any movie that can take actors I’m not familiar with and turn them into memorable characters gets kudos from me.

spoilers ahead

I wasn’t really moved by Dances With Wolves, like I think I was supposed to be, but I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. It’s kind of weird that an animal (Two Socks) without a speaking role was my favorite character and the saddest parts in the film were when both Sysco and Two Socks got the ax. Sysco’s death made sense in the scheme of the scene, but killing off Two Socks was purely pointless. I refuse to believe a wild animal would stand still while humans are repeatedly shooting at it. The wolf can barely muster up the courage to take a piece of meat out of John Dunbar’s hand, but was willing to stand its ground and be shot to death? Really? The end of the film confused me as well. It concludes with Dunbar leaving the winter camp of the Sioux Indians with his new wife, Stands With A Fist, because he fears the whites are going to come looking for him. Well, if they are going to come looking for you, they’re no less likely to stop by the winter camp simply because you left. Does he think the American Army is going to show up and be like “Hey, is John Dunbar in? No? Okay, thanks… sorry to bother you.” No, there will be bloodshed regardless, so dude might as well stay and take part in the fight. It was a very weak way to complete an otherwise very enjoyable movie.

I wouldn’t rank this movie amongst my all-time greats, and I’m not going to say you have to see it if you’ve somehow missed it these past twenty years, but it’s worth watching and wasn’t nearly the chore I was expecting it to be. It’s a good story, with mediocre acting, and a solid directorial effort from Costner. Better than I was expecting, but definitely not worth it’s Best Picture Oscar.

Grade: B-
Viewings: 1
Replay Value: Most films with running times of 3+ hours are tough to watch repeatedly.
Oscars: Won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Costner), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Nominated for five others, including acting nominations for Costner, McDonnell, and Graham Greene.
Nudity: Mary McDonnell almost gets naked, but unfortunately nudity is limited to Kevin Costner’s ass… several times.

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