Dances with Wolves (1990)

(On TV, August 2016) In an age of CGI-fuelled extravagant spectacles, you’d think that a special-effect-free western Dances with Wolves would be underwhelming … but it’s not. A sweeping western epic, this is a movie that still feels great today largely because it so grounded. You can compare the film’s standout buffalo hunting sequence to the SFX-heavy stampede in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (as sacrilegious it may be to even mention both movies in the same paragraph) and there’s no comparison: the best special effect remains reality. It helps that the film itself is solidly put together: Dances with Wolves remains director/star Kevin Costner’s most notable achievement, and still one of his best roles to date. (Contrarily to his other career-best The Bodyguard, his stoic persona hadn’t fully solidified by then, and he seems more adept in the various facets of his role.) There are also notable roles for Graham Greene, and the lovely Mary McConnell. While Dances with Wolves’ pacing can be maddening throughout its three hours, it does help create the sense of scale that the story requires: As shown by the film’s title, it’s very much a character-driven piece set against the immensity of the frontier, as a white man comes to adopt the native way of life. As such, I think that it has weathered the past quarter-century better than other similar pieces. From my limited white-guy privilege, interrogating the story through a white-saviour perspective doesn’t lead to a full-blown condemnation, since the protagonist doesn’t do all that much to save “the others” (arguably, he only creates trouble for them along the way), and “the others” are portrayed with some nuance. While I’m not a natural audience for westerns (nor assimilation narratives, and especially not three-hour films), Dances With Wolves flows better than I expected, and remains just as respectable today as it was back in 1990. It’s still an impressive achievement, even without computer-generated hordes of buffalos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *